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 – HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2 – ***
Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky. Starring Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selina Gomez, Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Mel Brooks, Dana Carvey, Molly Shannon. Animated/Comedy, USA, 85 mins, cert U.
Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray on 15th February 2016 by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Horror comedies can be difficult enough to get right but when you have to make it family friendly as well then the jokes are pretty limited. 2012’s HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA was a fun trip into the world of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolf Man that little ones could enjoy but with enough references for adults to get, which is what a good family film should do, so now we have the inevitable sequel, but is there still enough bite to make it appealing?
Having gotten over the fact his daughter Mavis (Selina Gomez) has fallen in love with human Jonathan (Andy Samberg), Dracula (Adam Sandler) is now about to be a grandfather as Mavis and Jonathan have gotten married and are expecting. But when baby Dennis arrives he doesn’t have fangs and appears to be human, so when Mavis and Jonathan go to California to visit Jonathan’s parents Dennis is left with Drac who, along with his monster friends at the hotel, tries to train Dennis to be more of a monster. However, Drac’s ancient father Vlad (Mel Brooks) pays a visit to the hotel for Dennis’ birthday and is shocked to find his great-grandson is not a pure vampire and that there is a human in the family. Cue a bit of explaining…
As with a lot of sequels to successful animated movies, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2 is certainly stretching the limited humour that the first film managed to get away with and it doesn’t quite tickle the funny bone in the same way and the laughs aren’t quite as hard when they come. That said, there are a few chuckles to be had but chuckling is as hard as it gets as Drac takes Dennis to a camp to train him to be a monster only to learn the camp has gotten all health and safety conscious and Mavis sets about trying all 48 flavours of slushy drinks in the ‘normal’ world of California (although the biggest laugh comes from Drac tweaking the Invisible Man’s nipples in anger).
Needless to say the animation is superb with a glorious amount of ghoulish detail and the voice cast all do a wonderful job but the story itself is a little too meandering and unfocussed, with Vlad not appearing until an hour in, which is when the film gets a little substance but it comes a bit too late. Overall, though, despite being a slightly less engaging film than the first one, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2 is an enjoyable one that younger children will still laugh at and adults will have some fun with, although it’ll likely be forgotten about soon after the final credits roll.