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
IN CONVErSATION - JASON ZADA IN CONVERSATION WITH FRIGHTFEST
Recalling the memory of the origins of his fascination with film is one that returns Jason Zada to his childhood. “When I was a kid my uncle was an actor and I went onto one of his sets. He was doing a TV show or something at the time, and seeing all the lights and the cameras I started asking him: “What does that person do?” And I just fell in love with this idea of making these fantasy things with lights and cameras.” Away from the set the young Zada would spend far too much time in the cinema. “I would sit there and watch movie after movie” he remembers. “It was one of those things that at least crawled under my skin when I was a kid that I just said: ‘This is something I want to do.’ And then fortunately or unfortunately everything in life shapes you to be who you are.” After having taken another career path that led him to explore other mediums, his directorial feature debut THE FOREST represents a fulfilment of a youthful ambition.
In conversation with FrightFest, Zada remembered the seminal moment he discovered the horror genre and his introduction to the contradictory pleasure of fear. He also discussed the enduring magic of movies despite having now pulled back the curtain, the nature of genre and working with a spatial character.
Can you recall the moment you first discovered the horror genre?
Yes! I grew up in Southern California and one of our neighbours who was a movie producer got us a copy of THE EXORCIST. I would say that I was definitely under the age of ten when I first saw it, and my daughter is now ten, and I can't imagine her watching this movie at her age. So I saw it when I was way too young and my parents didn't know. We had a babysitter over and while she was watching it, I watched it from behind the couch. It was just that moment or feeling of being so frightened that I then couldn't sleep in my own room for two months. It was a horrible feeling because I never ever wanted to see it again, yet at the same time I wanted to watch it again. The feeling of being scared was one of those fascinations that then evolved into me as a teenager ripping out the centrefolds of Fangoria Magazine, and putting them up on my wall. My mom would walk in and say: "Why the fuck do you have a dead bloody person on your wall? Should I be concerned?" So as a true horror fan I think you fall in love with the concept of being scared and for me it has never gone away. And that's why THE FOREST is not a horror movie, nor is it strictly a psychological thriller, rather it has a little bit of all of those. Although I find it interesting that the first film I decided to make was not a pure horror movie.
How have your experiences as a filmmaker influenced your experience as a spectator?
For me at least the magic of movies is that I can pause my brain for an hour and a half to two hours, and just be in that moment. I think the wonderful thing about theatres is that we have so many distractions in our lives nowadays that when you go into the darkness of the theatre, you can just allow yourself to become lost for that period of time. From my perspective that is the magic and even after making a film I don't think that has really changed, because I can still walk into a theatre and experience that same magic. I will say that after making a film, you definitely have much more of an appreciation for what it takes to make one.
The merging of two or more genres within horror has frequently created a complimentary blend that has served to define the film. Looking back on your experience of making THE FOREST, how would you contextualise the intricate challenges that come with merging genres?
It's one of those things that was simultaneously done consciously and sub-consciously. Speaking of films that span genres, THE SHINING is one of my favourite films of all time, and it is hard to call that a horror movie. It is a drama, a psychological thriller as well as a horror movie, and BLACK SWAN is another interesting example of a film that is psychological, and yet has a lot of horror elements. I personally like films that you can't quite put your finger on and while you are watching them will feel different emotions, because when filmmaking is done right it can generate some form of an emotional response. Although when you start to combine genres there are going to be kids who say: "Well this isn't a horror movie; it doesn't have blood, it doesn't have guts and it doesn't have this X type of scare that I like." So they might be disappointed, but it was interesting to make a film where you couldn't quite figure out exactly where everything was going, every step of the way. You had to kind of think a little bit and then certain things that you thought were one way would twist and turn. Any form of a psychological thriller can do that, but I think to satisfy genre fans at the same time then you have to have some of those good scares and creepy, unsettling atmospheric moments throughout the whole film that will make it satisfying.
Is it genre that shapes the filmmaker or the filmmaker that shapes genre?
I would add that it's actually story that drives it and the perspective that you are telling that story through. I would just say that my type of genre is probably different than other types of genre for other filmmakers. While I like gratuitous gore in some of the genre movies I watch, sometimes not seeing any blood is fine by me. We all have different tastes and I am always driven to story and character as a number one point. The types of things we find scary as filmmakers differs and stylistically what I respond better to is a bit more of the psychological side of things, as well as atmosphere and tone.
Picking up on your point about atmosphere, the spatial setting can become a character in itself. What are your thoughts on the place of the forest in horror as well as more broadly in storytelling, and were you able to draw on its innate ability to create suspense and a true sense of terror?
My producers and I had some very interesting conversations about whether or not the forest is scary. Is it a scary place or is it your mind that makes it scary? And as such if you are telling a story where every event is seen through their eyes, then those things that shouldn't be scary are scary. At the end of the day without us going the cheesy route of making trees look like people and with a layer of fog throughout the whole thing, what was exciting for me was that the forest was a character in the film. I think there is an unsettling silence in the forest sometimes and an unsettling feeling that you are this small person in this very large place. You don't know what's watching you, what's around you and what's beneath you. At least for me that's what became a very interesting factor of how to you make the forest scary, without going the very traditional routes of making it visually the most dark and scary place. There are parts of it that are, but there are parts that are shot in pure daylight, and you still have to maintain that eeriness throughout the entire film. And that part of it was fine because we told the story through Sarah's perspective, and then as the forest starts to control her more and more, we as an audience feel what she's feeling. But the true terror lies in this unsettling feeling of being in a place where you are not in control.
Speaking of lack of control, your feature directorial debut must must have offered moments of uncertainty. How do you both look back on the experience as well as ahead to the future?
One of the things you realise by making a first film is whatever you thought you knew going into it turns out you will have made a lot of good, bad and mediocre decisions. You learn a lot through the process, but the one thing that changes any filmmaker that goes through the process of making a first film or even a tenth film, is that every single thing is a chance to explore characters. It is a chance to work with actors to bring characters to life in a way that you can't do in other formats. Television and film are the two places where you can really spend time with a character, but making a film is challenging because you have to give to the audience; you have to understand the character and their motivations. And just the process of getting to bring a character or multiple characters to life for the hour and a half that you then spend watching the film is one of those things that just changed me. You live the characters in a film day in and day out for a year, and as a filmmaker you definitely want to spend more time with characters. But for me it is a bit more of an addiction. Not only do I definitely want to do more films, but because I don't come from the TV world I want to do more TV, where you can spend more time developing characters.