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 – I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER – ****
Directed by Billy O’Brien. Starring Max Records, Laura Fraser, Christopher Lloyd, Karl Geary, Raymond Brandstorm. USA / Ireland 2016 97 mins Certificate: 15
Released on DVD and Blu-Ray from Bulldog Film Distribution on 20th February 2017.
Over a decade ago, writer-director Billy O’Brien made his feature debut with an Irish-American co-production named ISOLATION (2005). Still underrated, this was a genuinely discomforting combination of creature feature and infection movie that transcended obvious comparisons to John Carpenter’s THE THING by capturing a gritty, ominous ambience all of its own while playing on contemporary panics over Bird Flu and Mad Cow Disease. His latest (with the overlooked SCINTILLA made in between) is another US-Ireland funded genre picture, this time with O’Brien and Christopher Hyde adapting Dan Wells’ young adult novel “I Am Not A Serial Killer”.
Distinctively shot in 16mm in wintry Minnesota by ISOLATION’s cinematographer Robbie Ryan (whose career path since 2005 has led to high-profile gigs with Andrea Arnold and Ken Loach), this evocative slow-burn has a striking, complex central performance by Max Records. Picked on at school as a “freak” and chided by his Principal for a propensity to write about Dahmer and the BTK killer, Records is an alienated 16 year old whose reputation is not aided by the assistance he provides at his family’s funeral home. His own mum has become increasingly concerned about his fascination with serial killers and his behaviour at work, but Records is determined not to fulfil what appears to be his psychopathic destiny. In between therapy sessions, Records witnesses a gruesome local murder – the latest in a chain of killings linked to events 40 years ago – and becomes obsessed with the perpetrator.
A novel, beguiling spin on the clichéd origins-of-a-serial-killer genre framework and the well-populated American teen-outcast horror cycle, this unfolds at a deliberate pace through Halloween, Christmas and beyond, with O’Brien opting for an understated approach to potentially trivialised or sensationalised subject matter. As with ISOLATION, O’Brien doesn’t flinch from gruesome physical detail, with a matter of fact depiction of the everyday routines at the funeral home and quite jarring violence. The script’s darkly humorous streak never feels strained and dovetails comfortably with the pithy characterisations. Records is particularly impressive as a credibly detached young man whose rite of passage pivots around his own need for self-control: “I have rules to keep me normal and keep others safe”.
The movie flirts with familiar commentary on the modern media’s obsession with violent crime (note the enthusiastic reporting on the unfolding murder spree from the local TV news) but works best as a disarming, downbeat character study. Records’ scenes with Christopher Lloyd, uncharacteristically subtle as a pensioner-neighbour fond of quoting Blake’s “Burning Bright, are particularly haunting. Lloyd has seldom been so sinister – or, indeed, human – on screen and it’s a welcome reminder of his worth as a versatile character actor. The narrative’s left-field turn in the final 10 minutes gives the movie a visceral finale (with allegiance to O’Brien’s earlier work) and has added to a lazy tendency for reviewers to compare it to DONNIE DARKO. Your appreciation of this climactic diversion may affect your overall fondness of the movie, but either way, it (arguably) does not detract from the strength of what has gone before.