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.
GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW – GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY– ****
Original stories by M.R. James, adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion. 64pp. RRP £9.99
Out now from Self Made Hero. www.selfmadehero.com
The works of M.R. James are renowned throughout horror and crime fiction having influenced such writers as Ruth Rendell and Neil Gaiman. Known as ‘the master of the English ghost story’, his love of medieval studies feed in to his work, much of which is now being adapted into graphic novels by husband and wife team Leah Moore and John Reppion.
Volume one is GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY which takes four of James short stories and adapts them accordingly.
Still retaining much of the original prose, the stories come to life via the artwork creating an entertaining, if admittedly slight collection.
The books are being released to coincide with the 80th anniversary of James’ death and the brilliance of adapting such old work in this format is that it brings it to a new audience that might otherwise have missed out on such stories while demonstrating the influence on horror writing in the decades since.
The first story is Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book, the tale of an English tourist in France who comes across a mysterious book that contains power beyond the page. The influence on more modern horror works such as THE EVIL DEAD and GOOSEBUMPS is quite clear and to that end it is important to remember quite how original such a notion was when James originally conceived of it.
Lost Hearts pits a young orphan staying with his older, alchemist cousin. When the boy becomes plagued by nightly terrors that may or may not be in his own mind, he seeks answers that could well be closer to home.
The Mezzotint revolves around the study of a mysterious and potentially haunted painting. The fact that the main characters are never in any immediate danger but simply studying and learning from the mysterious artwork does remove some of the dread, but the mystery surrounding it provides enough intrigue to assay such a minor misgiving.
The final story The Ash-tree demonstrates James’ love of the medieval most prominently with a tale of witchcraft affecting the blood-line of Sir Richard Castrington when he inherits a country seat.
Each of these stories has its own sense of magic and horror with thematic and structural undertones running throughout while maintaining their own unique identity. The lonely, dark settings, succinct volume of characters and mysteries that come alive when the sun goes down mean they’re perfectly designed to be read on a cold winter’s night or as an ideal Halloween or Christmas ghost story (as was once a tradition at the time of their initial inception, hence why Charles Dickens had Scrooge visited by ghosts on Christmas in in A CHRISTMAS CAROL).
If there is a drawback, it’s that the short stories are just that – short – and while it is a compliment to the work of all involved that you strive for more, the fact that the whole book can be consumed in one sitting leaves the whole experience feeling a little on the slight side.
Yet while quantity may be a tad sparse, quality most certainly is not and the fact that there is much more of M.R. James’ work to be adapted into the graphic book format is, on this evidence, a very good thing.