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.
Book REVIEW - defender ****
Written by G.X. Todd, Out Now. Published by Headline in Hardback. £12.99. Also Published in an eBook version.
At the beginning of December, a loud bang on the hall floor announced the arrival of the post. Among the traditional Christmas cards from people that I only ever hear from once a year, lay a hardback copy of DEFENDER. The sleeve announced the novel was the first from G. X. Todd, a 34-year-old librarian from the West Midlands with an HGV licence - she drives a mobile library. A quick check of the accompanying PR bumf, let me know that was also the first of four books in a new post-apocalyptic story. I have to admit, how many ways can the world end did cross my mind at the time?
DEFENDER is set at some undetermined time in the future when the populace has been driven mad by voices in their heads. We've had earthquakes, long freezes, plagues of zombies and millions of ant-like creatures in THE HATCHING, but G.X. Todd has come up with something new. Voices, yes voices in people's heads driving them on to commit mass suicides while egging others on to do all types of nasty things.
Pilgrim has kept himself to himself and out of trouble. It's his survival mechanism. Afflicted by the virus/condition the voice in his head seems to be a little different. You could almost say they are friends. He has named it Voice, and they chat away amicably, often though in quite sarcastic tones.
Out on the road one day he comes across a young girl, Lacey selling lemonade. Raised in seclusion by her grandmother, Lacey has been on her own after her guardian recently died. She is looking to reconnect with her sister, and her niece who she believes may still be alive in Vicksburg. Long story short they strike a bargain and Pilgrim, now nicknamed Boy Scout, agrees to get her there.
Getting to the point after my initial scepticism, did I enjoy the book? Yes, I did. This well-written book builds a refreshingly different post-apocalyptic world with clear and concise writing. Segments of the book are written from the different perspectives of Pilgrim and Lacey when often they don't know what is going on with the other. When you read books you need to care about what's going on and the people in the story. There was a part of the story that I almost put the book down because I had become so invested, quite frankly I feared for the character and didn't want to know what horrible thing was about to befall them. As the book's hero, Pilgrim is a little bit rough around the edges. To survive in a world populated by your typical apocalyptic end of the world's scum, that dosn't come as a surprise. He battles away trying to do the right thing, never giving up. I for one responded to him, and I look forward to part two and the continuing adventures.