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 – DOWNHILL – **
Directed by Patricio Valladares. Starring Bryce Draper, Natalie Burn. Horror Chile/US, 80 minutes, cert. 15
Released on DVD in the UK by Solo Media + Matchbox Films on the 10th October 2016.
DOWNHILL opens with a Satanic like ritual scene before cutting immediately to three friends on BMX bikes about to race down the side of a mountain. It’s a strange start admittedly, but it does set the tone, or tones to be precise, of Patricio Valladares often uneven but occasionally effective horror film.
Two of the friends we later learn are Joe (Bryce Draper) and girlfriend Stephanie (Natalie Burn) and Joe is something of a star in the biking world. After the opening bike ride ends in tragedy, he retires from the sport only to take it up again for an exhibition event in the mountains of Chile. While out training prior to the event, Joe and Stephanie stumble across a badly injured man who appears to be suffering from a flesh eating virus. Their attempts to rescue him bring them across a group of hunters, desperate to not only ensure their secret does not escape but eager to capture Stephanie for their own mysterious gain…
The type of horror film DOWNHILL is is never overly apparent. Quite often we see the characters point of view via go-pro or handheld cameras but the ‘found footage’ notion a sporadic technique that Valladares uses sparingly. The opening set-up occasionally cuts to darker images which are seemingly a sign of where we’re going, but when Joe and Stephanie find themselves being hunted the film becomes in part body horror and slasher stalker with the aforementioned ritualistic overtones. In spite of this though, DOWNHILL does feel familiar with many of the story beats being instantly recognisable (no phone signal, mysterious cabin, the initial introduction of the villains, one of the protagonists becoming possibly infected with the virus).
Quite the antagonists end game is we never fully discover and this is to the films credit. Throughout, we’re almost entirely going through the journey with Joe and Stephanie and thusly the virus, the hunters and their ritualistic practices remain something of an intriguing mystery. Valladares doesn’t waste time with unnecessary exposition, instead infusing the film with some occasionally effective scares and the necessary amount of blood and violence.
Yet overall, in spite of some good moments DOWNHILL doesn’t manage to have enough fresh ideas in its structure to remain memorable.