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.
“Holidays are hell”.
A slickly produced portmanteau of eight short tales each set on or around a holiday or significant calendar date.
The anthology film has seen a revival in recent years with the likes of TALES OF HALLOWEEN, SOUTHBOUND and the V/H/S series picking up the baton from Michael Dougherty’s superb TRICK R TREAT (2007) - which in turn took up the tradition from CREEPSHOW. Tracing back further still, we had the Amicus delights of FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974) and DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) for example, and stretching right back: Ealing Studios classic DEAD OF NIGHT (1945).
HOLIDAYS isn’t in the same league as most of the above, for one it lacks any sort of wraparound like Mervyn John’s delightfully dreadful recurring nightmare nor can it boast an iconic host like Peter Cushing’s tarot reading ‘Doctor Schreck’, or antiques dealer “Naughty, shouldn’t of done that”. But with eight tales crammed into its modest 93min pre-credits running time, if the current story doesn’t grab you take you can take comfort in the fact only have to wait around 11mins for the next one to unfurl. Having said that there are some treats as well as soft-centred mediocre misses in this Pick n’ Mix collection.
The opening tale set around Valentine’s Day is a fairly pedestrian CARRIE referencing take on high school bullying where put upon Maxine (Madeleine Coghlan) ‘maxi-pad’ is literally pushed too far and her crush on the swimming coach has heart-felt but fatal repercussions.
Director Gary Shore (DRACULA UNTOLD – but we won’t hold that against him) delivers a tongue in cheek Ken Russell LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM-like segment for St. Patrick’s Day. Shore gets great visual mileage out of taking the allegory of Patrick driving ‘snakes’ out of Ireland literally. Ruth Bradley (GRABBERS) is a primary school teacher desperate to have a child. When her ‘deepest wish’ seems to have comes true, her initial joy is somewhat tempered by her gynaecologist delivering the news by asking: “Have you ever seen the Hollywood movie ‘Rosemary’s Baby”? “If you replace ‘Baby’ with reptile...that’s what you have”.
If you’ve ever wondered what you’d get if you fused the image of the Easter Bunny with that of the post-crucifixion Christ, look no further than Nicholas (THE PACT) McCarthy’s disturbingly memorable mash-up.
Mother’s Day is served somewhat unsatisfactorily by an underwhelming story of a young woman who constantly finds herself pregnant, despite her insistence that her boyfriend wears 2, sometimes 3 condoms! Prescribing an unorthodox approach, her doctor suggests a desert commune of earth mothers.
Next up is a memorably flawed segment for Father’s Day, involving an ominous planetary alignment, and a perplexed daughter receiving a tape recording from her long-thought dead father. Unfortunately, despite daddy’s message promising: “this will all make sense at the end”, it doesn’t.
Kevin Smith gets what you’d consider the plum gig with Halloween, but instead directs a lazy uninspired revenge tale of 3 web-cam girls who turn the tables on their nasty pimp employer in graphic fashion.
Seth Green stars in the Christmas tale which seems set to riff on JINGLE ALL THE WAY but rapildy steers off into darker waters when a dad seemingly misses out on acquiring the must-have Xmas toy for his son (a VR headset names UVU, which ominously promises to ‘shows you YOU’) Loved the sign inside the closed toy-shop’s door: ‘Children left unattended will be sold to the circus’.
The final calendar date sees in the New Year with a bloodbath when an online dating search leads to a serial killer biting off more than they can chew as Auld Lang Syne rings out from Times Square on the TV.
HOLIDAYS is a reasonably diverting assemblance of folklore riffs and twisted seasonal clichés, but I’d stop short of saying it’s truly worth decking the halls with boughs of holly for.