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 Gary DousT
Back in 2016 Craig Anderson’s RED CHRISTMAS played on the main screen at FrightFest. Yet while one story was told, another has laid dormant until now. Gary Doust’s HORROR MOVIE: A LOW BUDGET NIGHTMARE sheds light on the adversity Anderson confronted to fulfil his ambition to make a horror film. It is one that in all likelihood resonate throughout the FrightFest audience, one not solely comprised of spectators, but filmmakers that have fulfilled amidst those hoping to share in a similar ambition to Anderson’s.
In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, Doust reflected on his personal motivations that saw him return to the making of documentary sub-genre. He also discussed the decision to craft a character piece, the expectations of the audience, and capturing a truthful depiction of the hardships of the industry and filmmaking experience.
The film shows filmmaking as going to war?·
Yeah, pretty much, and some people going to war are America and others are the North Vietnamese. So it's tough when you go into making a film the way Craig did - fairly naive and then the reality hitting you. In the end there are certain things you can't avoid that you have to do properly, and it was a big learning curve for him.
What was the genesis of the project and your motivation to follow Craig on his journey?
I'd actually made another making of back in 2002, following an even more disastrous journey for a film called THE VENUS FACTORY. The documentary did really well and unfortunately the film didn't. So cut to the start of 2015 and Craig who is a friend, who I'd worked with on a show made for Australian TV called Next Up Hollywood, a series following actors trying to get roles during pilot season in LA. We became friends on that show and he was telling me how he was sick of doing all this television stuff. He was in a lot of comedy roles and he wanted to make his film, and he was going to make it no matter what. My first reaction was: This sounds interesting, but I’ve already done a making of. As Craig started to tell me some of the stories about how he was going to make it, and back then it was things like his mum was going to do the catering, but she's a really bad cook, and things like that really piqued my interest, and so I just started shooting. One of the first things I filmed was the location recce, where you might remember Craig had this location, but he didn't want to pay the owner money to actually rent it to do a proper location scout. So we went on this slightly illegal scout and what you see is pretty much the experience. There were just too many things going on for me not to keep filming on this, and so yeah, that's how it started, and ultimately with my first film, access was a little difficult. There were times during the filming where they kicked the documentary guy off set because they didn't want them filming things, whereas in this instance, I knew I had full access. Craig was totally on board with what I wanted to do, and for better or worse, he was going to let me film what happened. So from that aspect it was definitely a much more appealing journey this time, and I knew however it turned out, Craig is a very charismatic guy, and I would end up with some good footage, and a great journey.
While a film about the making of RED CHRISTMAS, it feels that your intention was to develop the participants as characters, rather than craft a purely observational documentary. This approach allows you to capture human experiences behind the making of a film, and as you say, the good and the bad.
All of my films are character driven observational films, and certainly with Craig I knew that his was an underdog story. I guess I wanted the audience to just engage with him, because I knew once that had happened, then I had them for the rest of the story. And no matter what happened with Craig, they would be interested and care enough to want to find out how things went, and hopefully cheer him on quietly, or root for him to succeed. Whether you like them or hate them, I think you really need to feel something for the people that you are watching on screen, so that as an audience you are prepared to sit there and invest your time in watching the story unfold. I could have gone another way, or some people may have expected me on the surface to have gone another way, to show some funny moments and some blood splattering on set. But that was never my intention. It was really to focus on Craig's journey and also Gerard's journey. I didn't set out for Jared to be such a main character in the film, but I just found him fascinating to hang out with. He had some very funny moments, but also some very touching moments about wanting to be an actor, but also dealing with his disability, which felt important. And not to mention Dee Wallace, who also has her own little journey in the film, which is very genuine. I think she landed on the production thinking: What the hell have I got myself into? But by the end she was doing the washing up and mucking around with the rest of the crew, swatting flies and things like that. In the end I think she did fall in love with the passion of the rest of the crew, and I was really happy when she made that statement about how she proved to herself that she could still do this. That was something she was questioning after being sidelined I guess for doing lesser older women's roles, and to then come back and carry a film like this. It was great to have that reaction towards the end of the shooting, knowing that she has revalidated her skills as an actress.·
Speaking with documentarian filmmakers, the process is a time consuming one of working through a mass of rushes. In shaping this documentary, what were the specific challenges and were you forced to leave anything on the cutting room floor that you regret having to omit?
Yeah, absolutely! I don't know if you've seen any of my stuff, but there's a little bit of a quirky comic undertone to a lot of the footage. A lot of times the characters in my documentaries are funny, but they don't necessarily know they're being funny. There was a lot of that stuff and I think Craig is aware of it. He and I have worked together before, and he understands what's funny, and he knows how to not play it out, but to be natural about it and let the comedy unfold. There were definitely some moments, but I spent almost a year on and off in pre-production before the shoot, and so I covered a lot of that ground. Once we started assembling the film together, with all the scenes that I thought were good, we realised we had this issue where we just had to get to the shoot. So there are a lot of little moments that are really funny, but if I threw them all in, it would have sunk the film. It would have just been in its holding pattern, where things were funny but not necessarily moving the story along. So that was a tough decision, but it was the right one as a filmmaker to chuck those things overboard.
The film shows the dark underbelly of the filmmaking journey, and specifically through Craig’s encounter with SAG (Screen Actors Guild), the politics of the industry. It is a business institutionalised and politicised that can trip up young and inexperienced filmmakers, and Craig’s journey is one that speaks to the need of the filmmaker to self-educate.
VENUS FACTORY is probably a bigger statement on that in terms of two guys who just thought it was easy, and off they went. They started off with a hundred thousand dollars and ended up spending over a million, including taking out a home loan. They pretended it was a loan for their home and then used it for their film. But I think there is a huge perception of that because Robert Rodriguez keeps telling everybody you can make a film for seven grand, and sure you can if you can do everything, and you don't pay anyone, you don't take out insurance - if you don't do all those things. But yeah, the SAG stuff, I guess that's the big link and Craig wanted to have a star in his film, but naively thought you just negotiated a fee and then off you went. I guess that almost sunk him and if Dee had not been able to be in the film, I think he would have lost his leverage in terms of launching the film, and the interest it had with the festivals because of Dee. Clearly, he purposefully decided to just take it on because maybe in the back of his mind he thought: If I know too much about this, I'll never do it. But it's incredibly dangerous and had there been an accident on the film, it could have been really bad for Craig. So he took a lot of risks and he’s lucky in many ways that he got away with it. But there's definitely this perception that you can just go out and do it, and sure you can, but there's a risk, and I don't think people are aware how badly things can go wrong if you don't prepare to do things properly.·
What does it mean to have an opportunity to present to the FrightFest crowd the story behind the making of RED CHRISTMAS, to show them how the film came to be?
Well I hope that as you say, it opens the audiences eyes to exactly what goes on, just how low budget some of those films are, and how they get made because it’s difficult, and most filmmakers are trying to make their films look as slick as possible. I guess if they are successful you would never know the crew were living in the accommodation they did, and Craig was sleeping on the floor of a warehouse. These sorts of things you would never know. So I hope it opens their eyes to that. I guess one thing that makes me nervous is that some people may expect the money aspects of making a horror film to be there, and as you pointed out, this is really a character story, following an underdog trying to succeed against great odds. I do hope that I've done a good enough job that even if they are expecting a behind the scenes of a splatter film, that they become engaged enough to invest in the story and get behind Craig on the journey. It's a good opportunity for that because a lot of that audience will have already seen RED CHRISTMAS, and they'll obviously know that Dee Wallace ends up being in the film. So some of the drama may not work as well as if you hadn't already seen the film. But I think the two films can work together and I am hoping that Craig and I will get to do a double feature soon. It’s interesting that RED CHRISTMAS had its life as a film and now here's another aspect to it that is out there for people to see. And hopefully it might even breathe more life into the film, where people would be interested to see it if they haven't already.·
HORROR MOVIE: A LOW BUDGET NIGHTMARE received its European premiere at Horror Channel FrightFest Halloween 2017 on Saturday 28 Oct.