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 – ENCLOSURE - ****
Directed by Patrick Rea. Starring Fiona Dourif, Kevin Ryan, Jake Busey. USA, Horror, 89 mins, cert 15.
Released on Video On Demand in the UK by The Movie Partnership on the 8th May, 2016.
Don't Go In The Woods... A youngish couple, two years married, head off to the forest for an anniversary camping trip. Paramedic Charles (Kevin Ryan) is about to hit the road for his dream rock music tour, Dana (Fiona Dourif) has a secret she's not yet sure how to break to him (although her behaviour makes it so glaringly obvious it's remarkable that he hasn't twigged). Still, barring the discovery of an abandoned, ruined tent, everything's going nicely enough until the night is interrupted by a bunch of yeehawing rednecks on quad bikes, shrieking and firing guns. When these idiots are brutally attacked by some ferocious unseen creature (possibly a bear?), Charles drags sole survivor Sean (Jake Busey) into their tent... But what's really out there, and what, or who, does it want?
Divided neatly into three acts, with the middle section entirely tent-based and centred around the shifting power play between the three main characters, ENCLOSURE (whose American, and better, title ARBOR DEMON appears on the screen at the end, though that does slightly give the game away) has a simple set up with just three speaking roles and a handful of bit parts, and one principal location. The dramatic situation is absorbing and well performed enough that it doesn't really matter that the horror elements are left on one side for a while.
Strangely enough, ENCLOSURE is exactly the kind of horror movie set-up that you'd expect to see in a found footage format. Dana is never without her (still) camera, low-definition wobblicam helps to disguise any weaknesses in the monster design because you never get a clear enough look at them, and it's now a longstanding movie trope that people on camping expeditions in the woods obsessively document everything anyway. But that's mercifully not the road they went down: it's decently if perhaps unmemorably scored, and nicely photographed with occasional old-fashioned lens flare. Director Patrick Rea (whose first film NAILBITER I now really need to see) keeps the monsters mostly offscreen until the final scenes, but by the time they arrive you're drawn into the film's drama enough that you're already sold on the creatures, which look pretty impressive anyway.
This was one of my Discovery Screen choices from last year's FrightFest and it ended up as one of my favourites of the weekend. I knew nothing about it beyond what was in the programme and chose it mostly on the basis of I'm Feeling Lucky. Sometimes that doesn't necessarily work out, but it did here: coming in at a brisk hour and a half, this is generally a solid little horror movie: maybe nothing wild and spectacular (it would get its 15 certificate for strong language anyway) but always interesting, visually cinematic despite the limited locales, and well worth a look.