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 – devil’s advocates the shining *****
Written by Laura Mee. 112pp. RRP £9.99.
Out now from Auteur Publishing.
You simply cannot ignore THE SHINING. Whether you proclaim it to be a masterpiece or are left cold by its seemingly unusual horror tropes, whether you think it’s superior or inferior to the source novel, whether you admire or dis-like both, whether you think it’s about Kubrick admitting he shot footage of the Apollo moon landings or an examination of alcoholism and the American dream going sour, it’s a film that has a legacy which has and will run and run. Nearly forty years after the fact it is ingrained in popular culture – referenced in TOY STORY, parodied in THE SIMPSONS, having a YouTube parody trailer that has over 1.3 million hits – and is equally debated. In an ‘Ultimate Movie Poll’ a few years back, Empire magazine said that star Jack Nicholson’s best role was that of Jack Torrance in the film. Critic Mark Kermode however believes it is Shelley DuVall who gives the superior performance, and he is less convinced by Nicholson. From the legendary tales of its production to its initial reception and eventually its place as an iconic horror (like it or loathe it), it’s a film that has prompts debate and interpretation like no other. You simply cannot ignore it.
To piece together the films history and many interpretations and yet not simply tread old ground is no easy feat – yet that is precisely what Laura Mee has done in her ‘Devil’s Advocates’ book which shares the same name as the film and is out now from Auteur publishing.
A quick glance through the 112 page book shows just how meticulously researched the book is – the bibliography takes up no fewer than nine of those said page and cites well over 100 articles and books.
What has been put together using those pieces and Mee’s own obvious knowledge is fascinating, eye-opening, thought-provoking and engrossing. As with all good film writing it’s equally analytical and balanced.
Mee starts out by looking at Kubrick and how it was a seemingly off fit for the director of DOCTOR STRANGELOVE, BARRY LYNDON and 2001 would be delving into horror and tackling a Stephen King novel. Yet she points out with great skill that Kubrick’s style was suited to the genre, and that his own distinctive authorship traits are perhaps was sets THE SHINING apart from other horror films. There is also Kubrick’s examination of sexuality (see LOLITA) and humour (see DOCTOR STRANGELOVE) that fit within.
Chapter two examines one of the most talked about elements of the production – the journey from page to screen. Mee again comes at this with brilliant even-handedness. She questions the falling out between King and Kubrick and subsequently slightly doubts the urban myth that King ‘hated’ the film. He’s no fan of it – that much is clear – yet he praised elements of it in a 1983 interview with Playboy and initial reports had him speaking favourably (not necessarily reliable press releases, but often overlooked). And Mee is far too skilled a writer to go along with the easy tagline that the film is ‘a bad adaptation but a good film’ instead opting to analyse the many similarities and differences between the two. For all intents and purposes books and films are different mediums and an intricate, side-by-side look and how and why they differ is the perfect and fairest way to contrast and compare. Even the much maligned 1997 T.V. mini-series is utilised as a brilliant tool to bridge the gap between book and film.
Delving into the themes in chapter 3, Mee takes Rodney Ascher’s documentary ROOM 237 as a starting point. Part of the beauty of that documentary (and film in general) is that it can mean different things to different people, although as Mee points out, interpretation is not evidence. She is not keen to dismiss these wide-ranging theories though, again picking the film apart with great skill and the necessary further reading to really get a grip of its many meanings.
The final chapter sees the book step outside of the film itself and analyse its initial release and reception. It goes beyond the ‘it was a flop on release’ line that we see utilised for many classics, instead citing its box office success and initial critical plaudits alongside the many critics who were left cold by it at the time. Here we see perhaps why, before Mee examines how it established its place in the horror lexicon, ultimately getting to a place where forty years later, academics are still publishing books about it. This element of THE SHINING’s history is as fascinating as any part of it. How and why a film can grow in such a way over time is somewhat alien now were success is judged over a weekend and more films and T.V. shows are produced than ever before. Yet THE SHINING now resonates and modern horror classics such as IT FOLLOWS and THE BABADOOK (plus many more) cited as evidence of its long lasting influence.
Only in the conclusion does Mee really put across any personal opinion, but again as with all good film writing, it is a position she has earned through page after page of research and analysis that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. A fascinating book about a fascinating film it will entice you to step right back in to the Overlook’s haunted hallways once more to see what else you might find and look beyond.