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 – DEAD AWAKE **
Directed by Phillip Guzman. Starring Jocelin Donahue, Jesse Bradford, Lori Petty, James Eckhouse, Billy Blair, Brea Grant. USA 2017 99 mins Certificate: 15
Released on Digital / DVD May 15th 2017 by Solo Media / Matchbox Films
The unnerving subject of sleep paralysis – and, notably, the many reported fatalities that reported as a result of the phenomenon – lends itself naturally to horror movies, and was a major driving force behind Wes Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Just recently, Rodney Ascher turned the condition into a marvellously creepy drama-documentary, THE NIGHTMARE, which visualised, in a heightened horror movie style, the shared experiences of sufferers around the world.
DEAD AWAKE, scripted by FINAL DESTINATION creator Jeffrey Reddick (who also appears in a small role), suffers from inevitable comparisons to both. HOUSE OF THE DEVIL’s Jocelin Donahue plays 28 year old Beth, whose fragile mental state is the result of recurring, terrifying nocturnal experiences and has driven her to move back to her parental home. Her twin sister Kate (Donahue again) is supportive, but sleep clinic expert Lori Petty (virtually unrecognisable with unflattering spectacles) is unsympathetic and cynical. When Beth dies mysteriously during one such episode, Kate sets out to find out more about the condition.
DEAD AWAKE posits sleep paralysis as a physical threat stalking a group of friends a la Freddy Krueger. In this case, Reddick takes the common “Old Hag” – visualised as a generic supernatural femme in the J-horror mould – as the antagonist creeping into victims’ bedrooms and choking them in their most vulnerable state. The ELM STREET parallels are obvious and frequent, down to specific scenes, interactions and even framing choices: set pieces unfold in bathrooms, at the sleep clinic and a funeral, while the line “Don’t fall asleep” is uttered in a presumably deliberate homage.
Sadly, Riddick’s screenplay is afflicted with creaky, join-the-dots plotting. One character spouting exposition in an overly ominous fashion – or one scene in which characters uncinematically search the internet for information – leads to another. The performances are earnest, and the film commendably avoids clichéd false scares and gore, but there’s also a peculiar absence of menace, scares and conviction. Donahue, an excellent young actress, has little to work with: her character is as one note and reactive as the others.
Failing to exploit the nightmarish visual potential of such a subject – though it’s hard to ponder how the film could have matched or surpassed its cinematic predecessors – this plodding, overlong movie self-destructs in its final reel before sloping out with a cheap-shot final “shock”. In an otherwise joyless affair, the most enjoyable reveal turns out to be the movie’s fictional sleep disorder association, which boasts the acronym “ASDA”.