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 - THE GREEN ROOM - ****
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Starring Anton Yelchin, Patrick Stewart, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Macon Blair. Thriller, USA, 95 mins, Cert 18.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Picturehouse on the 13th May, 2016.
Perhaps it's not quite the nerve-shredding masterpiece that it's been proclaimed as, but this is still a perfectly good, solidly enjoyable and agreeably violent thriller. To be honest, I wasn't that enthusiastic about either of director Jeremy Saulnier's previous films: MURDER PARTY was amusing enough though it didn't really work, but I liked the old-fashioned feel of BLUE RUIN and GREEN ROOM is better still.
Much of the action of GREEN ROOM takes place in the titular hospitality suite at a woodland Oregon bar and music venue that's patronised mostly by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. That's where punk foursome The Ain't Rights have a last minute gig (following an ill-advised performance at a roadside diner, of all places) arranged as a favour by an interviewer. But after their performance lead Pat (Anton Yelchin) goes back into the Green Room to collect a cellphone - and sees a dead body on the floor. Barricading themselves in the room, along with the deceased's friend Amber (Imogen Poots) and one of the club's bouncers, they need to figure a way out of the club while owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart) and his coterie of red-laced goons figure out a way of eliminating the witnesses...
Much has been made of the fact that a low-budget exploitation movie has managed to secure the services of no less than Sir Patrick Stewart for bad guy duty. In the event his villainy is not of the cackling, murderous pantomime sociopath, more of the weary businessman called into the office on his day off to sort out the mess his employees have made. Which of course makes him all the more unsettling. He's not enthused about killing the unfortunate band members, they're just an inconvenience that needs to be dealt with as efficiently as possible, and the fact that he's a drug-dealing neo-Nazi is almost beside the point (there's still a jolt when he casually drops the N-word into conversation). Meanwhile the "good guys" are a likeable enough team that your loyalties are never blurred (as happens in far too many horror and exploitation movies).
At its heart it's a grungy, bloody siege thriller in which you're never entirely sure who, if anyone, is going to make it to the end. It has some nice stabs of humour: the Ain't Rights kicking their set off with a cover version of The Dead Kennedys' Nazi Punks **** Off in front of a roomful of far-right nutters, or one of the minions taking a moment out from being menacing to compliment the band on one of their songs. It also has the smack of authenticity in its musical moments, which is to be expected given that Saulnier did actually play in a hardcore punk band at one time. And it earns its 18 certificate (how nice to see that again on a national cinema release) with some delightfully look-away moments of grisly violence. Well worth checking out.