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 PETER STRAY
“I am a part of that (FrightFest) crowd” says CANARIES writer and director Peter Stray, screening as part of this year’s FIRST BLOOD strand. “So I’m very excited to show it” he adds, before expressing a word of caution: “It’s worth noting that this is a comedic horror, and so it’s not as all out gore as some things on the bill. I’d put the gore level on par with maybe the first ALIEN – there’s more suspense than spilling innards!”
It’s time travelling aliens at a New Year’s Eve bash in the Welsh valleys, and on the third day of the annual ‘Journey into the Dark Heart of Cinema, the clock will conveniently tick midnight during the World Premiere. The film however could be described as an answer to a question. “It started with what the ‘canaries’ themselves could be as movie monsters” explains Stray. “I love vampires and zombies, but I wanted to create something a little different. So it’s still very much in that vein with humanoid beings, but hopefully we’re putting a bit of a twist on it to have new, visually striking and original movie monsters.” Working with established language of genre cinema, the filmmaker attempted an approach that would acknowledge these genre roots, while simultaneously offering a unique take. “The influences were widespread, from John Carpenter and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, to THE X-FILES and CABIN IN THE WOODS. Movie geeks (like me) will also spot real JAWS locations on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in an opening sequence.” To find the twist in the tale, he merged geography with those aforementioned influences, while seemingly underpinning the film with questions. “I wanted to focus the story on the first wave of an alien invasion that didn’t take place in New York, or even small town America, but thrusts a bunch of drunken Welsh people unwillingly into the spotlight as the unlikely heroes who must fight to stay alive. So in some ways it’s the answer to the question: ‘What was going on in a Welsh valley during INDEPENDENCE DAY?’ Or ‘What if THE X-FILES took place in Lower Cwmtwrch?’”
Looking back on his creative journey, Stray acknowledges the value of the short film not only in his own career, but as an opportunity that should be embraced by aspiring filmmakers. “It took me a while to be good at writing shorts, as I used to want to cram features into ten minutes” he remembers. “Then I developed web series’ such as SECLUDIO, which was basically a feature in episodic chapters, and so I was able to learn to break down a longer story into shorter beats. Shorts are a fantastic way for people to develop their voices as writers and directors.” Beyond the short film as a tool for a filmmakers development, for any director undertaking their first narrative feature he offered: “Think through how much you can realistically shoot in how many days. Christopher Nolan’s commentary on INSOMNIA shuffles the film in the order it was shot - whatever you make of the film, watch it, because it’s a mini film school.” Pulp crime writer Raymond Chandler wrote in his letters of the need for a writer to embrace self-education, while learning from their fellow writers. “I agree with him wholeheartedly” enthuses Stray. “I’m lucky to know Doug Liman (BOURNE IDENTITY, EDGE OF TOMORROW) and on his first movie SWINGERS he budgeted two extra days at the end of the shoot for any reshoots. I did that too, and then if things were pushed back, we knew we had those extra days.” He acknowledges how instrumental the support of producer Craig Russell and executive producer Dominique Dauwe was in realising the film, while he also pays thanks to the support of fellow filmmakers Marc Price and Dominic Brunt. “Marc was so positive. He was around to make the tea, hold the lights and offer advice if asked - he inspired me. A young director was making a short a few months later and I did what Marc did - made tea, told dirty jokes and edited rushes, all because a film set is the most exciting place to be. I was inspired by Marc to do that. I've also since been on Marc's set as an actor - I'm a trained thesp as well - which is great fun. I love being part of a collective, where people can wear different hats at different times. It keeps things enjoyable and flexible, and takes away the ego. I've not even met Dominic, but we have friends in common, and he's been super supportive just on email. Again, this is a great example to other filmmakers to help each other out, as opposed to being negative and overly competitive. Without sounding too ‘kum bah ya’, if we're all generous with each other, then everyone wins - films are better made and sets are more fun places to be!”
The World Premiere perhaps signals in the words of Sir Winston Churchill “the end of the beginning”, and comparing his expectations to the realities of the experience, he says: “In many cases due to terrific actors and crew the reality exceeded the expectation!” And the lessons learned are summarised with a single recollection. “There was one difficult sequence that involved a lot of blocking and camera angles, which had to change due to a location. It meant some tense re-thinking on the fly and if that happens again, I’ll spend even more time to think through every possible angle, literally.” While CANNARIES has been an experience where expectations were exceeded and lesson learned, Stray’s closing statement is a rallying cry against the complacency of thought towards the festival circuit. “Big screen showings at festivals are in some ways the most exciting. It's not just people popping in to a cinema out of curiosity, or because it's raining, or for any number of reasons, but out of genuine excitement and a love of film and/or love of that genre. If you look up festival in the dictionary it says: ‘A day or period of celebration.’ And that’s what it’s about – celebrating film and that big screen experience.”
CANARIES screens Saturday 26 August 2017 at 11:10pm at The Prince Charles Cinema, Splice Media Discovery 1.