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 SIMON RUMLEY
“The funny thing with FrightFest is that I always go in quite nervous” explains writer-director Simon Rumley, who presented FASHIONISTA at this year's festival, taking a break from post -production on gangster drama ONCE UPON A TIME IN LONDON. “I always feel apologetic, and pretty much from THE LIVING AND THE DEAD in 2006 to FRANK GARRETT’S LAST WORD, most of my films have stood on the cusp of genre, and I don’t think this is any exception.”
In spite of this the filmmaker acknowledges the warm response towards his films. “The audiences have always been incredibly generous and very supportive. They are very intelligent and I feel that I’ve always had a very good reception, which is of course nice.” Describing his cinema as being on the cusp of genre, he says that they compel a very different type of reaction compared to other genre films. “My films are not the types of films where people cheer because a head has been severed or blood is squirting everywhere. At the end of most of my films there is a deathly silence, and I doubt it will be any different with FASHIONISTA. I'm always a bit unsure how they went down, but the questions are usually very good and there’s a good understanding.”
Set in the vintage clothing world, April (Amanda Fuller) and Eric (Ethan Embry) find their marriage fractured when she begins to suspect her husband of having an affair. Her suspicions confirmed, April seeks sexual validation with the very mysterious and kinky Randall (Eric Balfour). The genesis of FASHIONISTA differed to his previous films. “Usually I have an idea and it pretty much springs from that. I’ll work on that idea until I cant work on it anymore, but this is slightly different because there were lots of different little ideas that informed the larger whole” explains Rumley. “I wanted to do a film about consumerism and the emptiness of it. So it was an anti-consumerist film. I wrote and showed that to people and everyone said: ‘It’s okay’, but nobody really liked it. Nobody hated it, but I’m used to my scripts getting very passionate responses, whether people say it’s either the craziest thing or the best thing they’ve ever read. But for everyone to go: ‘It’s okay’, I was a bit underwhelmed by the response.” Undeterred, he would use the response to propel himself towards a compromise that led to a moment of self-flection. “I do listen to what other people say and so I decided to knock that script on the head. But I knew one of the financiers I had worked with had some money. I knew I wanted to do a film and that there was a certain budget for it, and I knew that I wanted to shoot it in Austin, where I’d had a great experience shooting RED, WHITE AND BLUE. So I started with those conceits in mind, and still wanting the consumerism film, I thought stylistically, what would be more in touch with my stylisation as a director? I thought about addiction to consumerism, of how the spending and buying of stuff is in its own way a fix, a drug. And I always liked addiction movies, whether it be CHRISTIANE. F or REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, those being the two obvious ones. So I started putting those conceits together and I thought maybe I’ll do an addiction film without drugs, where the consumption is the drug.” The return to Austin, Texas would see the return of a familiar face, but it would be combined with a specific connection to the city itself. “In Austin there are a lot of vintage clothes shops, and I thought taking the fabric of the city would be a good place to start. It’s not easy getting either good actors or actresses, or known actors or actresses on lower budgets, and so I thought why not make my life easy, and try to get Amanda Fuller, one of the stars of RED, WHITE AND BLUE on board. We had been friends since and I asked if she would be interested if I wrote a film for her, and she said: ‘Yeah, of course I would.’ So all of those things coming together was the genesis.” Yet Rumley does not omit the the importance of Nicolas Roeg as an influential figure over the film. “I had just done a film that Nicolas Roeg had executive produced, called CROWHURST, which is coming out later in the year through Studio Canal. I went around to his house a few times where we saw the film and chatted. He’s my favourite director and I’ve always been fascinated by how he structures his films. I’ve always thought to myself that I’d love to do a film or at least try to do a film like Nicolas Roeg in terms of structure. So having worked with him and having this opportunity, I felt the time was right.”
Looking back on the experience of FASHIONISTA, he sees it as a film that failed to satisfy his curiosity. “The structure of the film is unique and I still don’t quite know how Roeg shot his films, how he structured them in the shoot when compared with the script and the edit” explains Rumley. “I wrote the script in a non-linear fashion, so the finished film would be very similar to the script. It’s about 90% or 95% the same. I wrote that out of chronology, and so that in itself was a new experience for me - one that brought new challenges, but gave me new solutions as well, which in itself was both interesting and exciting.” Craftsmanship aside, the requirements of personality traits do not escape his reflection on both the past and the future. “Apart from that we had a lot of locations, costume changes and even on my bigger budget films, the budget is somehow always tight. You have to be super efficient to make sure people you are working with are super efficient, and so it’s a constant exercise in self-discipline and focus. And the more films one does, the more confident one becomes. But again, there are always different things to overcome, and so it’s not always easy to say, sometimes you can say: ‘Well, on this film I learned that and on that film I learned this.’ Usually it is hard to say exactly what one learned, but with this one, the writing process was different than usual, and structuring it was the most interesting thing I learned.”
FASHIONISTA screened Friday 25 August 2017 at 1:30pm at The Prince Charles Cinema, Splice Media Discovery 2 as part of the Horror Channel FrightFest 2017.