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.
In conversation - CHRIS SMITH
Ahead of the UK premiere of his latest film DETOUR at Horror Channel FrightFest Glasgow, Chris Smith tells us the importance of FrightFest, his love of ‘film Noir’ and his hatred of reality TV…
FrightFest has premiered all your genre movies CREEP, SEVERANCE, TRIANGLE, BLACK DEATH, except GET SANTA obviously. Is this positioning an important part of the rollout process for you?
Firstly let me apologise for being away for so long and thank you for having me back. I wrote ‘Get Santa’ because I'd just had a son and was feeling like I wanted to do something that he could watch in the next 15 years. I expected the film to take a year to come together but it ended up taking four years. My son was by that time old enough to come to the premiere with a few of his class mates.
Back to the question, Frightfest is extremely important, not just to me personally, because it's always an honour, but it's important to the birth of the film. The Frightfest audiences are the first people to see it, the first to comment on it and it's nice that they're such committed fans. Putting a film out there, freeing it from the confines of the edit suite is exciting, but also scary. Frightfest, because of the audiences passion and knowledge of genre, make the process what it should be, fun.
What was the main inspiration for the DETOUR script? Many have commented on its multi-narrative SLIDING DOORS-style vibe. Complicated to write the two sides of one story?
‘Sliding Doors’ and ‘Run Lola Run’ both came out the same year. I must admit I was never inclined to watch ‘Sliding Doors’, but I know that, like ‘Run Lola Run’, it deals with the concept of different destinies being forged by blind change. Though actually neither of these films were an inspiration for ‘Detour’, which came about by chance.
It was early 2007 and I had just finished writing ‘Triangle’ and was in LA trying to finance it. I'd liked the film ‘Disturbia’, which had been a big hit and so for about three months Hollywood was trying to make Hitchcockian thrillers. An exec came to me and said she'd like to cook up a modern version of ‘Stranger's on a Train’. I think my brain was so wrapped up structurally from writing ‘Triangle’, that instead of two characters deciding to murder each other's wives, I cooked up one character, seemingly facing two destinies, based on one moral choice: To kill or not to kill?
Was it complicated to write? Certainly not in comparison to ‘Triangle’ but it offered different challenges. I was really keen for the characters to shine through more than I'd achieved in Triangle, and this is tricky because you're asking the audience to question the narrative, rather than simply immersing them in a classical structure, and then you're also hoping they feel empathy for the characters. That is the main challenge for any film that makes you aware of the film making process.
DETOUR is full of film noir references, from the HARPER poster on the wall to the clip from the 1945 B movie classic DETOUR by Edgar G. Ulmer. What is it about the film noir idiom you like?
I've always loved Film Noir. I think it is, or rather was, the cornerstone of indie cinema. These are films often made often on the cheap and yet always brimming with colourful characters, taut story lines, and scenarios where a happy ending feels impossible, instead of inevitable.
The film that has always had the biggest effect on me is Fritz Langs' ‘The Woman In The Window’. My film ‘Detour’ is arguably more influenced by that, than the Ulmer movie that we reference in the film and borrow the title from. That said, both films contain a character who crosses a line and finds that the forces that drove him there, and the company he now keeps, will never let him free again.
A great cast of new and up-and-coming stars – Tye Sheridan, Bel Powley, Emory Cohen. You certainly know how to pick them, Eddie Redmayne in BLACK DEATH for example. Is it a knack?
Liam Hemsworth got his first role in ‘Triangle’ also. Is it a knack? I don't know. To me if you can't see that those actors are talented you're in the wrong job. When I got the audition tape from Liam Hemsworth I literally walked it around the office with my jaw dropped showing people. It was so glaringly obvious this boy was a movie star. It was the same with Eddie and all three of the leads in ‘Detour’.
Tye Sheridan's performances in ‘Joe and Mud’ were electric. Emory Cohen lit up every scene he did in ‘The Place Beyond The Pine’s’. With Bel Powley it was a little different because I met her having seen nothing. The rumour mill was reporting that she was fantastic in the film ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ but none of us had seen it The casting director loved Bel and the financier was happy to cast her on what he had heard, so I met her blind. We got on immediately; I thought she was so cool, funny and smart that I basically cast her on the spot.
Great chemistry between the three leads - was it there from the beginning, or did it evolve gradually?
It was there from the beginning I think but the little choices we made in prep helped it along. We scheduled well so that we did all of the scenes in the house first; just me and Tye and Stephen Moyer. That gave us a real foundation so that when Emory and Bel joined the film, at the end of the first week, we were already working like a well-oiled machine. This gave me more time to concentrate on them, but their instincts were so good that there was very little in the way of notes.
Great solid anchors by Stephen Moyer and John Lynch too, whose maturity contrasts with the young cast on purpose?
Absolutely. They're the grown-ups but they still have their own problems and in some way are more immature than the younger characters. I think they're both great in the film.
DETOUR was shot in South Africa. How was filming there?
It was shot mainly in South Africa but we also spent a week shooting in LA and Las Vegas. I love South Africa, it's a wonderful country, with great crews and so it was a no brainer to shoot it there to help with the budget. It also looks just like California.
You’ve said the lighting owes a lot to Edward Hopper’s paintings? Can you elaborate?
Me and my designer joke that all feature films are either Edward Hopper or Carravagio. Film-makers use either artist as their inspiration, either consciously or unconsciously. With Hopper the emphasis is on framing and production design. With Carravagio the emphasis is on using practical lighting and contrast. This film is a Hopper.
It’s a film you want to watch again the moment its finished to see if you can catch all the clues and mis-directs you didn’t see the first time? Do you consciously like to manipulate your audience?
I'm a huge fan of Kiarostami. I'm drawn to film-makers that make you question the film-making process. Lars Von Trier is another I greatly admire. Everything about film-making is fake and the film-makers' job is to make you forget this, but there's pleasure in being reminded too because it makes you engage in an entirely different way.
I can't watch reality TV. It's ridiculous. The one thing it's not is reality. You see survival programs where someone is walking across the Sahara desert. Is he going to make or die of thirst? Give me a break! Behind the camera there's 20 camels packed full of water for him, the camera crew, the sound man, the medic, the fixer, the camel shepherd and the camels. There's probably a helicopter standing by.
I like stories where we acknowledge this deceit and try to make a feature. If you still feel tension when you are simultaneously acknowledging the artifice of the process, then I think you're doing something good.
And finally, what’s next for you?
I'm working on a horror movie about a serial killer called The Judas Goat and a thriller called ‘The Undertaker’. Hoping to shoot either of them by the end of the year.
DETOUR is showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Sat 25 Feb, 4.30pm as part of Horror Channel FrightFest Glasgow 2017.