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.
IN CONVERSATION WITH Mickey Keating
“PSYCHOPATHS in particular is the one that I feel deserves the biggest first time viewing possible, and so I am very thrilled to be playing it at such an incredible venue as FrightFest” says director Mickey Keating. “Hopefully people will get a kick out of it.” No stranger to the festival, POD played the Discovery Screen in 2015, but this year PSYCHOPATHS brings the curtain down on the opening night. Featuring Ashley Bell and Larry Fessenden, two familiar genre acquaintances, the film is set over the course of one blood soaked night, as the paths of multiple serial killers cross. But who will survive to see the morning?
“DARLING was obviously inspired by Polanski films, DIABOLIQUE and THE HAUNTING, but it was also inspired by two Robert Altman movies: THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK and IMAGES.” It was here that the seed for the genesis of PSYCHOPATHS would be planted, that would link the two films by way of an underlying inspiration. “When a filmmaker somehow resonates with me, I become obsessed with them, and so I watched the whole Altman filmography. I became passionate about his ensemble pieces and what he said about doing a multi storyline is that when you get bored, you can cut away to a different character. So hopefully the film can be engaging even if it is three hours long. Now PSYCHOPATHS is not three hours long, but that idea stuck with me - you create this world with all these different, larger than life characters, and you are able to bounce back and forth through the story.” Keating’s career however does not follow a nice and tidy progression at this point, rather it takes a creative detour. “I always hand write every script and when we were starting to edit DARLING I was writing scenes and figures that I thought I’d love to see in the film (PSYCHOPATHS). But then we went and made my movie, CARNAGE PARK.” While an interruption, it was one he perceives as a necessary part of the process. “That gave me the opportunity to let that idea sit for a bit” he explains. “CARNAGE PARK is very specific – it’s a game of cat and mouse. You know these two characters are going to come to a head and it's just about the energetic action of how you get there. Then when we started editing CARNAGE PARK, the idea for PSYCHOPATHS· just showed up in my brain and the plot came to me from beginning to end, and I wrote it while we were editing. So I needed to go back and forth between something as surreal as DARLING and something that was point A to point B, which was CARNAGE PARK, to something that is bigger and more elaborate, which is PSYCHOPATHS.”
The interconnected nature of these three films meets with Keating’s agreement when described or likened as forming individual bricks in a wall as he constructs his filmography. It is an analogy that brings up the reference of another influential filmmaker - Rainer Werner Fassbinder. “He had this great quote that I love. ‘I think all of my films are part of a house. Some are the basement, some are the master bedroom, but at the end of the day they all form the same house.’ I thought that was interesting and it makes a lot of sense because what's exciting for me, and what I always try to do is to make something that is a challenge – to make something that I’ve never done before.” He adds: “If I was doing the same movie again, it wouldn’t be a service to me and it wouldn't be a service to anyone watching the film, because at that point it would just be too familiar. With any luck you can hopefully see my fingerprints on each individual sculpture, but ideally they are all supposed to be exercises from the ones before it, which I think is the value, otherwise it just becomes old news.”
The ensemble cast of serial killers in his latest film calls attention to the pleasure that is collectively derived from the violence and the dark characters that orchestrate it. PSYCHOPATHS leads to speculation of a question without a definitive answer, its filmmaker readily acknowledging his own wavering understanding. “It’s funny because the psychology of the fascination with horror films intrigues me a lot” says Keating. “From a young age I was fascinated by what’s behind the curtain of the house with the beautiful picket fence. I think we all wear masks in our day to day lives; we never really show people who we are actually are, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. But I am very profoundly fascinated by people that can smile at you, yet still have a simmering urge to kill.” It is a fascination that the filmmaker connects back to an icon of vigilantism. “I'm not sure why I am so fixated on that subject matter in the cinema because in real life I am not necessarily as drawn to it. But it probably goes back to when I saw TAXI DRIVER when I was ten or eleven. I was just so troubled, intrigued and terrified by the notion of Travis Bickle as a person, that from thereon, it has kept weaving its way into my films.” More significantly is the trajectory this adolescent encounter set him on, but one that is perhaps a stark yet sub-conscious choice. “For me, first and foremost it is people doing bad things that I'm drawn to, as opposed to ghosts or the devil, or anything like that. In the same way that I am fascinated by how we can also laugh in the face of terrifying things onscreen, that’s what I just keep pursuing for some reason.” With a seeming awareness that he’s stuck on the path that runs through ‘The Dark Heart of Cinema’ he humorously teases: “One day I'll make a comedy… maybe.”
PSYCHOPATHS screens Thursday 24 August 2017 at 11pm on the Horror Channel screen, and 11:40pm on the Arrow Video screen at Cineworld Leicester Square.