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
DVD REVIEW – GRAVE WALKERS – **
USA 2015 Directed by Ari Kirschenbaum. Starring Charlene Amoia, Vladimir Kulich, Vincent M Ward, Raven Whisnant, J Richey Nash, Tony Todd. 92 mins Certificate: 15
Out on Digital now. Out on DVD October 3rd from Solo Media / Matchbox Films
Also known less generically as LIVE EVIL (which sounds like - and probably is - a straight-to-ASDA found footage movie), this is a self-consciously quirky comic horror unfolding via slightly pretentious chapter titles (“Evil Descending A Staircase”, “Chasing Pete’s Dragon”, etc.) and directed with some semblance of style.
On Halloween night, Deputy Sheriff Charlene Amoia has a call out at a remote house where a party has apparently descended into chaos and lurking ominously upstairs is a silent, naked brunette with glowing eyes. The girl is taken into custody at the station, where the modest gathering of staff and fellow prisoners immediately envision her as a malevolent figure from their past. She appears to represent an ancient evil force capable of manipulating mankind’s weaknesses and ultimately initiating a wave of violence while the skeleton local staff waits for the assistance of the state police. People start dying and rise from the dead as green-hued zombies.
Mostly set within the confines of the station, Ari Kirschenbaum’s film has a quite striking army of skull-faced machine gun wielding zombies, and a distinctive, playful music score by Shawn Lee, but it’s also heavy handed and laboriously paced. Much of the intended humour and character banter falls awkwardly flat, not helped by a couple of mannered performances - though veteran actor Vladimir Kulich (once an imposing regular villain on TV’s ANGEL) is a charismatic presence as a whiskey sodden Sheriff. As is so often the case, the ever-prolific Tony Todd, appearing about an hour in, is wasted as a heroic priest.
GRAVE WALKERS, which opens in sleek HD monochrome before shifting to full colour at the midway point, deserves points for striving to set itself apart visually and tonally from the glut of zombie movies, though its more artful touches tend to be undermined by cartoony CG and gratuitous slo-mo that saps the pace still further. It’s not without interest, and occasionally amusing (“You killed Gary! He was close to retirement!”), but its significant assets deserved a far better script.