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.
BLU-RAY REVIEW – DARK WATER – *****
Directed by Hideo Nakata. Starring Hutomi Kuroki, Rio Kanno, Mirei Oguchi, Fumiyo Kohinata. Japan 2002 101 mins Certificate: 15
Out now from Arrow Video.
At the turn of the Millennium, the J-horror cycle had reached such heights that, in the four years between RINGU and DARK WATER, director Hideo Nakata had already helmed one of the two official sequels to RINGU and its Hollywood remake had already hit cinemas. Reuniting with much of the same crew as RINGU (including its cinematographer, composer and editor), Nakata again adapted a novel by Koji Suzuki and reinforced his skill for subtle, slow-burning modern cinematic ghost stories. By 2005, that skill would be employed within the less conducive made-by-committee Hollywood system when Nakata was imported to direct the American sequel THE RING TWO.
As with RINGU, DARK WATER revolves around broken family units and a malevolent spirit with a tragic backstory and a symbolic association with water. The film opens with the sound of dripping water and one of many torrential rain showers in a bleakly portrayed contemporary Japan. This is the backdrop against which we witness the minutiae of a bitter custody battle: an absentee father is demanding custody of five year old Ikuko (Rio Kanno), and is happy to drag up his ex-wife Yoshimi’s (Hutomi Kuroki) past history of psychological issues as ammunition. Custody hearings punctuate the narrative as Ikuko and mum move into an old, seriously neglected concrete apartment building where water leaks from the elevator, the wallpaper peels, mould proliferates and a dark patch on their ceiling seems to grow, almost taking on a life of its own. Ikuko begins talking to what appears to be an imaginary friend, though the fleeting glimpse of a girl with indistinct features in a yellow raincoat point to something more sinister, particularly when we learn of a missing child case from Ikuko’s school two years earlier.
The oppressively grey hues of the run-down apartment building provide an all too credible setting for DARK WATER’s ghostly presence. At the film’s core is an authentic early 21st century story of neglectful authorities: unhealthy living conditions are blamed on the building’s age and get logged by the necessary person, but no action ever seems to be taken. Ikuko’s erratic behaviour as she befriends the deceased Mitsuko is conveniently blamed on her family situation. Kuroki earns our empathy in a moving performance as a woman coping with everyday modern challenges (employment, housing, bringing up a child) while receiving empty reassurances (“the mother has the advantage…”) in a system constantly finding ways to catch her out. The naturalistic performances in a film largely unfolding as a two-hander are essential: there’s an unforced intimacy between mother and daughter, and anyone who has ever lived in a miserable, mouldy home at a time of financial and / or emotional instability will find a genuine kinship to these characters.
As with RINGU, Nakata exerts remarkable control over the film’s supernatural aspects. A sense of creeping dread is established in the first reel via a fleeting frisson involving mother-daughter hand-holding and an ominous figure in a lift glimpsed on CCTV (J-horror would consistently find menace within buildings and elevators such as this). The sparse use of colour throughout is subtly, yet jarringly, violated by the recurring bright red of the dead girl’s school satchel and the yellow of her raincoat (offering visual echoes of the red-clad dead girl in Nicholas Roeg’s seminal DON’T LOOK NOW). The ceiling stain in Yoshimi’s apartment becomes ever more imposing, while the film’s very few concessions to the more shock-oriented tendencies of its contemporaries extends to familiar, later-parodied iconography of J-Horror: black hair protruding from a tap, two decomposing hands emerging from an overflowing bath-tub. Nakata, however, mostly avoids overt horror or explicit manifestations of the supernatural: he’s not interested in the noisy jump scares that would become the bread and butter of THE GRUDGE movies (both in their original Japanese incarnation and their American equivalents), and his judicious, sparse use of music and sound design reflects the understated approach.
The climactic sequence is DARK WATER’s equivalent to RINGU’s still-astonishing television-based set piece: among the most alarming of the entire J-horror cycle, it pivots around a jolting child switcheroo and a rotten kid croaking “Mama!”, though it crucially never loses sight of the film’s emotional core. True to form, the ten-years-later epilogue offers a quietly eerie sign-off within a low key but poignant scene of self-sacrifice and loss. It took three years for Hollywood to remake DARK WATER, in the process losing most of its brilliantly delivered chills and emotional resonance, but it’s no surprise that over a decade of in-your-face, boo-scare-dominated American ghost movies have only enhanced the depth and haunting power of Nakata’s masterful original.
Arrow’s Blu-ray release ports over various extras from earlier releases and offers a significant new range of interviews with key personnel. The humble, quietly spoken Nakata offers a notably engaging overview of his career, his Western influences and the major Japanese ghost story of the 1950’s that most inspired his supernatural work. He talks of the genuine risks involved in making RINGU, the key differences between that film and the original novel, and concern at the time about DARK WATER not being frightening enough. Crucially, he also acknowledges how a dramatic practical FX scene in DARK WATER would, inevitably, be accomplished via CGI these days and probably would not have nearly as much impact. Novelist Suzuki and Nakata’s regular cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi also contribute fresh on-camera interviews.