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 - i-Lived - ***
Directed by Franck Khalfoun, Starring: Jeremiah Watkins. Horror, US, 2015, 92mins, Cert 15.
Available as download to own from 27th June, on-demand 4th July and on DVD 11th July by Second Sight. The i-Lived app is also available from iTunes and Google.
In 2012, director Franck Khalfoun turned Frodo Baggins into a MANIAC. Three years on he now turns a fictional phone app into a Faustian pact-maker for an unwitting online reviewer too witless to read the small print - and too clueless to have ever watched DRACULA A.D. 1972.
Meet YouTube vlogger Josh: behind with the rent, recently dumped by (cheating) ex-girlfriend and a squanderer of his true potential (whatever that might be) according to his father. It’s a cut-throat online world and the lucrative hits are increasingly harder to come by. Then Josh comes across a life-changing app which claims to help the downloader achieve whatever life goals they might have. All you have to do is follow the apps’ instructions. What could possibly go wrong...?
Josh’s downwardly spiralling experiences with the app reflect my feelings about the film itself. At first the light-hearted instructions to perform for example random acts of kindness seem fun and I was engaging with the hokey premise. I thought Josh (Jeremiah Watkins) came across as an annoying younger composite of Owen Wilson and Tom Green and his moronic YouTube reviews instantly grated (sorry Josh, but I could totally see why your girlfriend dumped you dude). But I was willing to overlook this obvious flaw, hell, I even suspended disbelief as Josh naively tried to fulfil an instruction by offering sweets to random children in a playground.
But then director Khalfoun attempts to shift the tone into darker material, and I rapidly wished for an uninstall option on the film. Perhaps Netflix could ditch the later (unconvincing) nastiness and rework it into a vehicle for Adam Sandler to lend his non-existent charisma to?
The revelatory moment where Josh finally works out the identity of his mysterious benefactor who has been granting his wishes of online success, sexual gratification and the seemingly miraculous recovery of terminally-ill mum is so laughably naff even M. Night Shyamalan would feel ashamed to use it.
Apparently there is an actual app available to download which supposedly enhances the viewing experience of watching i-Lived. Well, unless it completely re-writes the second half of the film and recasts its lead, i-doubt it.