In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
DVD REVIEW – CRUEL SUMMER – ****
Directed by Philip Escott, Craig Newman. Starring Danny Miller, Reece Douglas, Richard Pawulski, Natalie Martins. UK 2016 80 mins Certificate: 15
Released on DVD and On Demand February 6th 2017 by Solo Media / Matchbox Films
Co-directors Philip Escott and Craig Newman make a devastating feature debut with CRUEL SUMMER, which sounds like it could be (but isn’t) a nostalgic reminder of why those of a certain age still harbour an enduring crush on at least one member of Bananarama. These two gentlemen have already carved a niche for themselves in the world of genre fandom by producing insightful documentaries for 88 Films releases, including full length appreciations of Fulci and Joe D’Amato just round the corner. Their first bonafide “movie” is bookended by title cards emphasising that we’re in disconcerting “true crime” territory: the inspiration was an exceptionally brutal 2005 case, in which three teenage friends killed a similarly young camper at a Sheffield beauty spot with a large agricultural scythe.
Except for an understated coda, CRUEL SUMMER unfolds over the course of a few hours on a beautiful summer Saturday. The Cardiff-shot picture has a potent, intimidating turn from TV soap graduate Danny Miller as a high school student who falls for spurious rumours that an autistic fellow pupil (Richard Pawulski) was among those who had slept with his ex. His increasingly determined mission to find Pawulski and “sort him out” is spurred on by further malicious hearsay that the alienated boy is a paedophile and, by extension, responsible for an earlier child rape / murder in the area. Pawulski is on an overnight, solo lakeside camping trip in pursuit of his Bronze Duke of Edinburgh award, and Miller – teamed with the easily led Reece Douglas and the spiteful, gossipy Natalie Martins – is on his trail.
On the surface, CRUEL SUMMER would appear to be joining the crowded ranks of the “hoodie horror” cycle of the early 2000’s: tough, downbeat films like EDEN LAKE and CHERRY TREE LANE that arose from characteristically exploitative tabloid panic-pieces about the unprecedented prevalence of juvenile crime. In Miller’s performance and characterisation, it certainly has an unrepentant, uncontrolled figure of fear whose remorseless actions paint him as the kind of irredeemable teen-terrorist that sells Daily Mails. Like the earlier films, it builds inexorably to a harrowing final act in which innocent people suffer acts of humiliation and extreme violence.
The movie, however, isn’t simply leaping aboard already passé bandwagon. It’s artfully made and devoid of obvious shock tactics or genre clichés. Thoughtful framing, the delicate deployment of slo-mo and languid camerawork, soundtrack selections and location are all cleverly utilised to enhance the sense of mounting dread we feel from the earliest encounters with Miller’s character. The performances are almost painfully authentic: hot-headed Miller, simply looking for an excuse to lash out and unleash his pent-up rage, is the dominant presence. Douglas underplays effectively as the passive, increasingly uncomfortable good kid who is coerced into joining the improvised rampage, while the smiling, shit-stirring thrill-seeker Martins sheds her apathy when things get dangerous. We watch with escalating intensity as their journey escalates from juvenile petty crimes to violence.
The film isn’t interested in wallowing in exploitative sadism or graphic grue: it takes time to establish Pawulski’s sympathetic character in an patronising way (the actor is outstanding) and shows discretion in its portrayal of his victimisation. Although the usual dramatic license has been taken, this closely echoes the core elements of the horrifying real crime, and the filmmakers genuinely seem to respect the need to avoid exploiting the incident for conventional cinematic gratification. They also presumably understand that post-HOSTEL American and British horror has already numbed us with myriad depictions of explicit torture and torment.
The closing stages inevitably recall the hopelessness of EDEN LAKE, though the extended terrorisation in an idyllic, woodland setting feels more indebted to the endlessly influential LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Like the Craven film, the key decision to dwell on two sidekick-characters, mortified by their own involvement in a despicable act, only enhances the impact of the violence.
It’s a movie that disturbs and haunts, but its priority is not to milk the tabloid cow and fulfil all our dormant fears of the three sniggering, Strongbow-quaffing adolescents hanging around outside One-Stop. It’s more about offering a timely reminder of how ignorance and casual (but dangerous) rumour-mongering can, has and always will escalate into cruelty and tragedy.