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
book Review - DEVIL’S ADVOCATES - DEAD OF NIGHT by Jez Conolly and David Owain Bates ***
Published by Auteur, February 2016, Paperback RRP £9.99
Most horror fans, myself included, consider DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) to be a true horror classic, not due solely to its enduring influence but also to its undiminished power to terrify. Therefore it is fitting that it should be added to the roster covered by Devil’s Advocates - pocket-sized companions similar to the BFI Film Classics series, but devoted to classic horror films. This is the first single book devoted to its analysis and appreciation, and sets out to provide a ‘road map’ through the film, exploring the individual stories in detail, with particular attention to the themes they touch on.
The authors have worked on volumes in the World Film Locations series published by Intellect, and Conolly has written a previous Devil’s Advocate on John Carpenter’s THE THING.
The book is exhaustingly well-researched, with a lengthy and useful bibliography and additional footnotes, and certainly provides a wealth of information, especially where the authors have spotted similarities and connections to other films or literature, or attempt to place it in its proper context for the time when it was made. The exploration of post-war male identity crisis is fascinating, and, surprisingly, one of the most interesting sections is that focusing on the least popular segment, ‘Golfing Story’. However, possibly due to the age of the film, and therefore the inability to obtain fresh comment from the participants, detail about the actual production is sadly lacking. There is mention of the idea, at one stage in the planning, that all the source stories would have been selected from those by M.R. James, and this is the kind of thing which it would have been interesting to find out more about – who had that idea, what stories would have been used, why did they change their mind? It would also have been interesting to include reflection of how audiences and reviewers responded when it was originally screened in cinemas, as it comes across, even if unintentionally, almost as though it was only discovered and appreciated since the advent of late night TV screenings and then DVD releases.
The book is illustrated with well-chosen stills from the film, but in addition, a real treat of rarely seen pre-production set design illustrations by the film’s production designer, Michael Relph.
The authors hope, as stated in their introduction, that reading this will inspire a first viewing or a rewatch, and while I certainly wouldn’t give a copy to a friend who hadn’t seen the film for fear of spoiling its terrifying surprises, it added some interesting context to my appreciation and understanding. The recurrent lists of other, sometimes tenuously linked films, can prove a dry read, so I feel that its main value would be as a useful reference volume rather than one to read for pleasure.