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 - FIR ***
By Sharon Gosling. Published by Redeye. Paperback 345 Pages, RRP £7.99. Out Now.
One of the nice things about reviewing books is you never know what's going to arrive next. On the one hand, there have been some great can't put down reads, but on the other, some real slogs to get through. As a fan of the Scandi Noir that turns up on the telly these days, my interest was piqued when Sharon Gosling's Scandinavian set book FIR, arrived. Before I delve into any new book, I try not to read the PR bumf that comes with them, so it's always a wee bit of a leap in the dark.
So we come to FIR. The Stromberg family are picking up sticks and moving from Stockholm to a remote tree plantation Storakogem, in the far north of Sweden. The Stromberg family are Mum Dad and daughter, well I think it's daughter. He or she is never named, but that's the feeling that I got. The reason for the move is left unsaid and after a long drive, they arrive at their new home to find the house packed with children. The children are on a field trip along with their teacher Tomas all being looked after by Dorothea, the live-in dour housekeeper.
Things don't get off to the best of starts. Dad, Martin has a bit of a falling out with Tomas over his plans for the forest. Conservationist Tomas fears that Martin has plans to decimate a patch of old growth. After a catastrophic accident, Tomas and the children go, leaving the Stromberg's alone, and as the winter weather worsens, isolated from the outside world.
Forests and woods are great places for setting creepy stories. All types of mythologies and legends can lurk within and this forest is no exception. I remember a woods set episode of the long-running 1980's TV series Tales of the Unexpected being particularly frightening. Then more recently, there was the bonkers mad Kettering Incident set in the Tasmanian rainforests.
Written in the first person style, the boy/girl lead character often stops and addresses the reader directly when making a choice of direction to go, and in one case acknowledging that the choice being made may not be wise. FIR, written in an open and accessible style, slowly builds the atmosphere of foreboding. About three-quarters of the way through it goes off in an unexpected direction that ratchets the tension up quite a few notches.
If I have a criticism of the book, it is the ending which in the modern style of things is ambiguous. While I don't mind these endings, it would be nice now and again to get an ending that doesn't leave things open for sequels etc.
All in all a good read which can be knocked off quickly and enjoyably.