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.
DVD REVIEW – HOLIDAYS – ***
Directed by Anthony Scott Burns, Kevin Kolsch, Nicholas McCarthy, Adam Egypt Mortimer, Ellen Reid, Gary Shore, Kevin Smith, Sarah Adina Smith, Scott Stewart, Dennis Widmyer. Starring Harley Quinn Smith, Lorenza Izzo, Mark Steger, Seth Green, Michael Gross, Jennifer Lafleur.
Released in the UK on DVD by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment on 10th October 2016.
So we’ve had horror movies that have covered pretty much all of the major holidays – Christmas, St. Valentine’s Day, etc. – but we haven’t had one that covers them all in one go… until now. HOLIDAYS is an anthology movie with eight sections focusing on the major mainstream holidays, and like recent anthologies TALES OF HALLOWEEN, THE ABC’S OF DEATH AND V/H/S each segment is written and directed by different filmmakers, which gives each piece a different flavour.
Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s VALENTINE’S DAY is up first and sees a high school student infatuated with her swimming coach going the extra mile to give him her heart in a film that gives more than a passing nod to De Palma’s CARRIE. ST. PATRICK’S DAY follows with an uncanny tale about an Irish schoolteacher with a pregnancy that doesn’t quite go as planned, while EASTER sees a young girl staying awake when the Easter Bunny calls and getting more than she bargained for. The double whammy of MOTHER’S DAY and FATHER’S DAY sees the former tell a tale about a women’s fertility group that lives in the desert when one of their number delivers a bit of a shock when she goes into labour, while the latter sees a young woman receive a note from her long lost father who wants to meet up but could it be for sinister reasons? Kevin Smith’s HALLOWEEN changes the tone slightly with a story about a pimp forcing his girls to work on Halloween, only to get his comeuppance in a really vile – but somehow fitting – way, and Scott Stewart’s CHRISTMAS sees Seth Green (FAMILY GUY) not quite getting in the festive spirit when he takes a gift for his son from the hands of a dying man. Things finish off with Adam Egypt Mortimer’s NEW YEARS EVE, and that is not a date you would like to keep when you see what your average serial killer has to put up with.
What makes HOLIDAYS stand out a little more than the likes of THE ABC’S OF DEATH and V/H/S movies is that the difference in quality between the best segments and the worst ones isn’t that great, making the whole thing feel a little more consistent overall. Of all of the segments EASTER is probably the creepiest and most effective but it is also very short and ends a little bit too abruptly, and is the sort of story that could have a bigger mythology behind it if it were ever to be given the feature-length treatment. The least interesting one by far is FATHER’S DAY, which does have a fairly spooky premise once you let it sink in for a bit but viewing it feels like a chore as you basically watch a young woman walking while her dad provides a voiceover. The climax of it does work but you have to sit through a lot of uninteresting weirdness to get there and, like EASTER, it cuts off all too quickly.
Of the other sections, they all sit around the average to good mark with nothing exceptional going on at either end of the quality spectrum. Kevin Smith’s HALLOWEEN short is underwhelming and lighter in tone, mainly because it doesn’t really connect with Halloween in any way except for the most tenuous of connections and would probably have suited THE ABC’S OF DEATH style of anthology rather than something themed, but it isn’t as much of a blot on the director’s CV as some of his recent features, while Gary Shore’s ST. PATRICK’S DAY is certainly the most bizarre of the lot. With the feel of a 1970s folk horror tale, ST. PATRICK’S DAY has a clear narrative about a woman giving birth to something that isn’t human but Shore fills his film up with an odd mixture of quirky acting and surreal imagery that doesn’t quite pay off as satisfyingly as it could have. The same could be said for VALENTINE’S DAY as it doesn’t quite clarify who is doing what and for what reason, making it a little muddled as the filmmakers throw in some ‘80s-esque lighting effects and a synth score to throw you off your guard a bit more.
So overall, like all anthologies, HOLIDAYS is a bit of a mixed bag but not as drastic as most, making it something you could put on anytime if the thought of watching TRICK ‘R TREAT at any time other than Halloween is too much to comprehend. None of the segments really outstay their welcome and the overall film does have a nice energy about it that makes it fly by fairly quickly but in terms of standout moments there isn’t anything too wild to mention and certainly no real centrepiece. It is quite simply a good but not great horror anthology.