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 – DVD REVIEW – DARLING – **
Directed by Mickey Keating. Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Young, Brian Morvant, Larry Fessenden. Horror/Thriller, USA, 78 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD by Soda Pictures on 24th October 2016.
Darling (Lauren Ashley Carter –THE PIT) has just become the new caretaker of a huge town house in New York. The house’s owner, simply known as Madame (Sean Young – THE PIT/BLADE RUNNER) hands Darling the keys whilst explaining that she is trying to boost the old house’s reputation after the suicide of the previous caretaker and rumours of hauntings. Darling is fine with this and once Madame leaves the house she begins to explore the property, coming across a door that is locked which she does not have the key for, and from this point on Darling descends into madness as the influence of the house and the voices in her head begin to take over.
Drawing inspiration from Hitchcock, Polanski, Lynch and Argento, DARLING isn’t a movie that you put on for fun or for a quick horror fix. Instead, you should be sat in a darkened room with no disturbances so you can let the sensory overload begin as you are forced to endure the madness that is enveloping the titular character. That all sounds well and good in theory but there is something about DARLING that just doesn’t make it the all-encompassing experience that writer/director Mickey Keating is obviously going for.
It is worth noting that Lauren Ashley Carter is phenomenal in this role, one that is totally unforgiving and could have gone so horribly wrong in different hands but she handles it brilliantly. She does appear in nearly every scene so your eyes are always going to be drawn to her but thanks to what could be a career-defining performance and some sharp editing she is as memorable a character as Linda Blair’s Reagan in THE EXORCIST or Mia Farrow as Rosemary in ROSEMARY’S BABY.
But the exploration of insanity gets lost in translation as the filmmaking techniques used on the screen don’t make up for the messy and incomplete narrative that would been more satisfying had there been a bit more to take away from it than some striking visuals (New York hasn’t looked this cold and uninviting in a movie for years) and a character with issues that we never really get to the base of, the gaps having to be filled in by our own imaginations. Many a surreal and nightmarish movie has been successfully made with similar techniques and Mickey Keating obviously has a vision for how that nightmare will look but no amount of mood-enhancing monochrome and quick cuts compensate for not really going anywhere and merely throwing out flashing images designed to jolt the audience every few minutes.
Whilst the stylistic flurries may look the part it is when Keating eases back on the flash cuts and screaming voices and makes whole scenes that carry the story – like when Darling invites a man back to the house - that the film is most engaging in a slow-burning and creepy THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL way, and had the whole film given you something to latch onto like those interactions do then DARLING would be a higher recommendation but as it is it feels more like style over substance, despite being a possible calling card for its main actress.