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.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
DVD REVIEW - DARK SIGNAL - ****
Directed by Edward Evers-Swindell. Starring Joanna Ignaczewska, Gareth David-Lloyd, Siwan Morris, Cinzia Monreale. Horror, UK, 95 mins, cert 18.
Released on DVD in the UK by Kaleidoscope on the 30th May, 2016.
Let no one say you don't get your money's worth with this homegrown little number. DARK SIGNAL, a Welsh-shot film (though English language) whose biggest name attraction is probably that of executive producer Neil Marshall, isn't content merely with its opening sequence of a typical movie serial killer: there are angry ghosts, a mad old man in a remote house, some bone-snapping torture, an apparent kidnap plot that turns into something else, a medium, a permanently sarcastic DJ with a dark secret and a sound engineer trying to capture spirits in a sound recording. Refreshingly, despite the presence of too much material for just one film, it's quite good fun and boasts some very effective and well-realised moments of proper horror.
There's a homicidal masked maniac on the loose, dubbed The Wedlock Killer whose signature move is removing the wedding ring fingers from his victims (whether they're married or not, apparently) with bolt-cutters. Meanwhile the local radio station is about to switch over from analogue to digital and they've booked a medium (Cinzia Monreale, who under the name Sarah Keller got her throat ripped out by her guide dog in Lucio Fulci's THE BEYOND) to give their final broadcast some oomph, and so engineer/producer Ben (Gareth David-Lloyd, probably still best known for Torchwood) can record an actual ghost on audio tape. Meanwhile Ben's friend Kate (Joanna Ignaczewska) has been inveigled by her sleazy boyfriend into a vague scheme to hold a top footballer to ransom - except he's really up to something else entirely in an old farmhouse where one of the Wedlock Killer's victims used to live...
Things do all come together with a twist involving the radio station equipment that's either audacious and clever or cheap and cheating, depending on your response to it (given that they flagged it twice in the dialogue I was annoyed with myself for still not spotting it before the reveal). It's certainly massively better than director Edward Evers-Swindell's previous film, the terrible zero-budget post-apocalypse INFESTATION (not to be confused with the giant bug movie from FrightFest 2009): it's got genuine chills and some agreeably, if implausibly survived, crunchy violence towards the end, as the killer and the Final Girl go at each other, and the scenes between Ben and his smart-mouthed radio presenter Laurie () are pretty funny, making it a nice mix of humour and horror. And it's always nice to see James Cosmo cropping up in anything.
Sure, it's a bit messy with enough material for three films - the spooky radio show, the serial killer, the single mother stuck in the woods - and to some extent it's pulling in all three different directions at once, but I was still pleasantly surprised by how effective and enjoyable it ended up. Well worth a look.