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 – DEATHGASM - ****
Directed by Jason Lei Howden. Starring Milo Cawthorne, James Blake, Kimberley Crossman, Sam Berkley. New Zealand, Horror/Comedy, 83 mins, cert 15.
Released on DVD in the UK by Studiocanal on the 29th February, 2016.
Confession: I don't get death metal. I don't really like it, I don't ever listen to it, I just don't understand it. That's not to denigrate death metal or those who do like it: it's like marzipan or Richard Curtis romcoms in that there are those who like these things and those who don't, it's all subjective and no-one is wrong. That I can't tell the difference between death metal, heavy metal, sludge metal, black·metal, speed·metal·and Viking metal is entirely a reflection on me and my tastes, and not the music itself or those who love it.
So I'd pretty much expected a film called·DEATHGASM, in which a bunch of spotty outcasts and high school rejects get together to thrash out the Devil's music at maximum volume, to be an intolerable nihilistic shriek of despair and angsty whining in between indecipherable bellowing to a thudding percussion line. What a pleasant surprise, then, to find it's actually a sweet, funny and light horror comedy which occupies that same nerdy horror comedy niche as·DANCE OF THE DEAD, where the strange kids that nobody likes end up saving the town from the forces of evil (admittedly after they've caused the demonic infestation in the first place by inadvertently performing a Satanic invocation from a piece of sheet music).
Bullied Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) teams up with cool metalhead Zakk (James Blake) to form a rock band. Breaking into a house one day they end up with a Latin incarnation and chords which, when played, will summon a demon. Can their self-dubbed Brotherhood Of Steel win through amidst the gorepocalypse? Or will their mutual desire for the same girl get in the way?
It also has that absurdly unrealistic teen wish-fulfilment subplot in which the whiny adolescent weirdo hooks up with an unfeasibly glamorous "normal" girl who would in real life be completely unattainable to anyone but the quarterback and the class president (see also the TRANSFORMERS movies in which Shia LaBoeuf of all people gets to cop off with walking sex dreams Megan Fox and·Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley). In this case the tentative relationship is rather sweet and allows for childish friction between the Brotherhood Of Steel.
It’s interesting to note that in the UK the film is going out with a measly 15 certificate (though admittedly it’s a “top end” 15) whereas in America the mighty WalMart have had a hilarious fit of the vapours and renamed it HEAVY METAL APOCALYPSE, which isn’t anywhere near as good a title. DEATHGASM does get silly from time to time, notably in the enthusiastic gore scenes (thankfully practical rather than CGI) when it goes for gags like death by sex aid, but most of the time it's surprisingly light and engaging and I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. Still not bothered about the Various Artists soundtrack (including the likes of Nunslaughter and Axeslasher) though...