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.
DVD REVIEW – Don't Hang Up ***
Directed by Damien Macé & Alexis Wajsbrot. Starring Gregg Sulkin, Garrett Clayton, Bella Dayne, Bella Dayne, Robert Goodman, Edward Killingback. Horror/Thriller, UK, 82 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD by Solo Media & Matchbox Films on 12th June 2017.
In many ways DON’T HANG UP is the perfect representation of mainstream horror movies in the social media era in that it is full of obnoxious and irritating teenagers using the internet in nefarious ways to mark them out as the ‘cool kids’ amongst their peers but all the while missing the point that all actions have consequences and just because something is online doesn’t mean it isn’t real. It’s an obvious plot thread but DON’T HANG UP does it a lot better than many other similar low-budget movies filmed on smartphones or handheld cameras by somebody who has to capture everything or it didn’t happen – has ‘millennial horror’ been coined as an adjective yet? – and despite the fact that the final reveal is telegraphed a mile off, the initial idea is a fairly solid one. Unfortunately, to get to that part of the film you have to sit through a montage of juvenile pranks that our main characters play on unsuspecting people, mainly through placing prank telephone calls and filming themselves revelling in their victim’s anguish, and that is the part of the film that will make or break the viewing experience for most.
This is because all of the characters involved in these prank calls are absolute cretins, the kind of idiots that reality television makes superstars of, and despite the fact that the plot dictates that these characters should be depicted as immature and annoying, horror movies also dictate that our ‘heroes’ should be characters we can get behind and DON’T HANG UP, despite doing a lot of things quite well, ultimately has unlikeable characters in a situation of their own doing so why should we care what happens to them?
The two lead characters of Sam (Gregg Sulkin) and Brady (Garrett Clayton) have a believable bromance and the actors sell it well as you really believe these guys could be lifelong friends but this is also probably because both actors are pretty bad when they’re not interacting with each other, and when other characters are brought into the equation both actors seem to struggle to make what they are saying convincing. Perhaps that was a deliberate decision in the direction to make Sam and Brady seem more insincere and disconnected from the real world but that doesn’t help when you already don’t really care about them.
But away from the two main characters there are a few neat touches that give DON’T HANG UP slightly higher production values than other low-rent millennial horror movies, most noticeably some swift camera work that doesn’t really do anything for the story but does look pretty good. Once all of the introductory stuff is out of the way and we get into the main plot of Sam and Brady being stalked by somebody they have prank called then first-time directors Damien Macé and Alexis Wajsbrot do manage to crank up a bit of tension but once the stalker has established that he knows who they are and what they are doing at any given moment then the movie doesn’t really seem to know how to shift forwards with the same momentum to get to the climax which, if you’ve only been paying even the slightest bit of attention, you will have figured out long before the final act and comes as no real surprise.
Overall, DON’T HANG UP is a bit of an odd one to score because by having dreadful characters doing despicable things and getting their comeuppance without realising the consequences of what they are doing then it pretty much sums up the perception of teenage attitudes to social media and could even be viewed as a commentary on the differences between what happens online and what happens in real life, but it also shows up the flaw that, beyond the idea of somebody watching you via your own technology, there isn’t really that much you can do with the material that hasn’t been done before and by committing the sin of having unlikeable characters that you want bad things to happen to then the film doesn’t really have a satisfactory payoff after a relatively strong setup. Nevertheless, on the scale of good-to-bad social media horror films then DON’T HANG UP just about manages to be above average for a rental watch but not one that is going to benefit from repeat viewings.