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 TRAVIS STEVENS
The 13th-16th editions of FrightFest saw independent film producer Travis Stevens’ CHEAP THRILLS, STARRY EYES and WE ARE STILL HERE selected to play the main screen. After a hiatus in 2016, Stevens accompanied 68 KILL, written and directed by Trent Haaga to the 17th edition of the festival.
68 KILL revolves around hapless nice guy Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler), who pumps sewage for a living and is completely infatuated with his out-of-control girlfriend, Liza (Anna Lynne McCord). Realising she wants a better life outside of their trailer park, Liza informs the besotted Chip of her plan to prosperity: steal the $68,000 currently residing in her sugar daddy’s safe and take off together for greener pastures outside of Louisiana. But when their robbery attempt goes wrong, she shows her true, off-kilter colours to her beloved, complicating both their relationship and Chip’s own upstanding sense of morality.
Ahead of the European Premiere, Stevens spoke with FrightFest about the films journey to the screen, beauty in the lack of a response to art, film ownership and transformation through cinema.
Consequence of Friendship
Trent and I had become friends on CHEAP THRILLS, which he was the original writer on, and who I had worked together in different capacities with over the years. He just said: “Hey, here's the next movie I want to make. I want to direct it and here's the book it is based on. Read it and tell me what you think.” I read it immediately and said: “Lets do it!”
Every decision, or not necessarily every one, should come down to whether you want to work with this person. Your collaborative process is going to result in a victory for everyone involved creatively and financially, and so the process of making it should be fun. I was very fortunate to have that relationship with Trent, and for him to have the trust to send it to me.
He optioned the novel himself. He reads a ton and he had gotten in touch with the novelist saying: “Hey, I want to make a movie out of this. I don't know how; I might just make it for $100,000 or $10,000 on my own, but I'd like to make it.” The author was: “Yeah right, no problem.” Trent started working on the script and dialling it in, then other people started seeing the potential in it, the money starts coming in and then you are shooting it.·
The Beauty of Expression
The majority of the work you do now on an independent film is free work, or at least it is in the States because there is no Arts Council subsidisation for developing scripts. So you are doing it all speculatively: I'm going to get this to a place where other people are going to see the same potential I do. So you work hard, put in a lot of free effort, and if the material doesn’t quite get there and for whatever reason your access to financing isn’t broad enough, or maybe the material is too far ahead of its time, then yeah, you can be out. But the beauty is if you are really using this as an opportunity to convey an emotional connection to the material, no matter what, even if you don't end up getting it financed, you will have created a piece of art. Even if it just sits on your desk for the next twenty years, you've done your work as an artist. You will have gotten more experience and maybe the next one will be easier.·
The Miracle of Exhibition
It feels like a miracle every time you sit in a theatre with people who want to see your film. The importance of festivals like FrightFest and other ones around the world is that they have done a great job of building an audience for these types of films. If you are a fan of genre, then to be in a palace with a really rabid crowd that are believers is so good! I feel very fortunate.
The Cinematic Orchestra
That was the question I tried to come up with an answer to in my senior thesis, and what it is, is a joint ownership. Sure there are people who will make something purely for themselves, and whether or not anyone gets their intention they don't care. With cinema, every single second that something is happening on screen is trying to elicit a response. And yes, there's a person that is conducting that experience, but the audience are players in that as well.
Transformed Through Cinema
As a producer, and at the lower budget level, the volume of production we are doing is so great that it’s hard to notice a specific transformation after each movie. But I do know if you are choosing material that has something to say, if you maybe have some personal connection that's the reason you chose that piece of material, then at the end of the process of making it, you will probably have a different perspective. I certainly know that who I was six years ago before I really started producing, to who I am now has changed drastically. In some ways it is for the better, in other ways for the worse. It takes a lot out of you to make a movie, and you can feel that mental strain. Your families and relationships take a big hit, and at the end of the process you hope it was worth it.
68 KILL is available on DVD and Digital Download from 27 November 2017.