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.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
FILM REVIEW - FRIEND REQUEST - ****
Directed by Simon Verhoeven. Starring Alycia Debnam Carey, Liesl Ahlers, William Moseley, Brit Morgan. Germany/South Africa, Horror, 92 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Warners on the 20th April, 2016.
This is the film UNFRIENDED should have been: a smart teen horror movie that neatly merges the old-fashioned supernatural bogeyman figure out for revenge (from everything to old 80s teen slashers to the modern J-horror of the ONE MISSED CALL ilk) with the modern fears about social media and the dangers lurking in the dark corners of the internet. Sure, it's also a lot of fairly silly hokum involving witches, mirrors and demonic wasps, but there's something in there about loneliness, isolation and bullying, which struck chords with me (I've suffered all those at some point, though to nothing like the worst extent).
Laura (Alycia Debnam Carey) has everything: popularity both real and virtual, an attentive boyfriend, a fantastic shared apartment and a generally terrific life. Withdrawn, shy Marina (Liesl Ahlers) is the complete opposite: no friends, no family. Though they've never actually spoken, the good-hearted Laura accepts Marina's Friend Request on a site that's not named as Facebook but is presumably just different enough to satisfy the lawyers (you can spot the differences if you compare freeze frames of the online trailer with a real Facebook window next to it), becoming her one Friend as opposed to Laura's own 840. But when Marina proves too needy and clingy, Laura's thoughtless deletion spurs the spurned girl to a terrifying occult revenge, picking off Laura's real friends one by one to teach Laura the true meaning of loneliness...
Okay, so FRIEND REQUEST (which was originally called Unfriend but changed, probably to avoid confusion with UNFRIENDED) sometimes feels too reliant on dream sequences and Boo! jump scares. Some of the dialogue is definitely on the clunky side ("Unfriend that dead bitch!" was probably my favourite line). Maybe the final payoff, which isn't entirely necessary anyway, doesn't really add up in terms of suggesting the cycle is starting all over again. It's also a handy contrivance that one of the heroine's closest friends is a tech wizz. And you could argue that Marina's online artwork and animations are so terrific (and enjoyably ghoulish) that you start to wonder why she isn't studying such things full time and meeting genuinely kindred spirits, rather than hovering silently at the back of a class about internet addiction full of people with whom she has nothing in common. (It's also odd that so many people studying Internet Addiction Disorder are physically incapable of putting any of their shiny toys down for five minutes. I bet they're an absolute pain in a cinema.)
I enjoyed FRIEND REQUEST far more than I was expecting: the characters are all likeable (nothing worse than a teenkill movie where you just want everyone to get killed as soon as possible!), Marina makes for an intriguing monster, and it's slickly enough done to pass 92 minutes perfectly well. A German/South African co-production, shot in Cape Town (but pretending to be California), it's maybe not up there with recent surprises like IT FOLLOWS, but it's well worth seeing. Like.