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 Andre Ovredal.
"I’ve probably now watched the ending fifty times in the theatre” André Øvredal tells FrightFest. “It’s so much fun every time because people are reacting to these things that we created. I can hear the whole movie theatre going whoo at something and you can’t get a better experience as a filmmaker than that.”
When the body of an unidentified woman is found in mysterious circumstances, veteran coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and son Austin (Emile Hirsch) are asked by the local sheriff to work through the night to shed light on the mystery. For his sophomore feature following TROLL HUNTER, Øvredal’s THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE combines an investigative Quincyesque narrative with supernatural horror, but retains the focus of the hunt or the pursuit that threads together these two films.
In conversation with FrightFest, Øvredal reflected on the nature of genre cinema, and his affection for the thriller. He also discussed Alfred Hitchcock’s enduring influence, the emotional, instinctual and technical aspects of the filmmaking process, while paying tribute to screenwriters and observing a subjective and objective change of response from TROLL HUNTER to JANE DOE.
The Autopsy of JANE DOE is released on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD on 26th June 2017
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Well it depends how far that decision goes back because there are various stages. I lived in a very forestry area far from a movie theatre, and so when we bought a VHS player back in 1980, that was a revolution. We only had a few movies, but I watched movies again and again. I remember watching GOLDFINGER a million times – it was a pretty good starting point [laughs] - and various other ones, especially the Bond movies. So I learned a lot from the Bond films, and then I started shooting things myself, first with a Super 8 camera, which I didn’t do much with, and then when I was fifteen I bought a video camera and shot a lot of short action films. They were these completely horrific things, but I started to realise that I loved doing it, and then I began looking into film school. So it was a gradual thing, rather than an epiphany.·
Is it genre that shapes the filmmaker or the filmmaker that shapes genre?
I think every movie should be a thriller. If it's a drama, a comedy or if it's a horror, it should at its base be a thriller, becaus thriller just means suspense. A comedy could be suspenseful - just look at PINK PANTHER or even SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, where there is always this feeling of suspense of how ridiculous it is going to get.
I love the idea of that collision between our regular lives and something otherworldly, and that’s what I did to extremes in TROLL HUNTER, and to a lesser extreme in JANE DOE, but in a way that was alsovery grounded. So we toned down for example the conflict between father and son, making it very mellow and then we built the tension. But I feel that is a genre element, and if it then becomes supernatural, it becomes a horror movie, and if it becomes comedic, then it’s obviously a comedy. I enjoy genre movies myself and it takes a lot for a pure drama movie to amaze me, because even if you look at ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST, which is a perfect drama movie, it’s still built upon suspense as I see it.
Storytelling is all about anticipation?
Anticipation is the key thing and that’s Hitchcock 101.·
How do you and your generation look upon Alfred Hitchcock and his place in cinema as the Master of Suspense?
He clarified how cinema language was supposed to work and across a whole career he finessed it. He made the language of how to create suspense, where he was simplifying it and being more pure. So without Hitchcock we wouldn’t be as far as we are when it comes to creating suspense.
How has the transition from spectator to filmmaker impacted your perception of the creation of suspense in the cinema.?
It is very mechanical and it becomes ridiculously technical, and the wonderful thing about filmmaking is this balance between the emotional and the technical. You have to use all these technical tools and understanding as to how long you can stay in a moment, how you should focus that moment, when should you cut to a close up, and when you should be behind or in front of the character. All of that is Hitchcockian language. He’s the master of where to put the camera and telling the story with just the camera, but where you can watch endless long sequences without a word, and with Hitchcock you understand everything. There is so much to learn in that and this was definitely the language I was inspired by going into JANE DOE.·
The investigative narrative arc is integral to horror and is a key narrative thread in JANE DOE, which begins as a purely investigative story before the supernatural gradually bleeds into the drama?
It is a two fold thing in a way because you have to set the audience up for when the big twist comes – when the lights go out and you enter into the horror movie – because the twist will always be a hard transition. It was built into the script and so all of the honours go to the screenwriters and producers who developed this amazing construction. It took years to do and that’s carefully going through the script again and again, asking why doesn’t this work, how does that pay off there and why are we building that subplot there? It is a massive undertaking even on a small movie like this, and especially on a movie like this because you are down to bare bones filmmaking - two actors, camera angles and activity. And that is something I loved about the script. It’s like an action movie where all the dialogue is almost incidental.·So it’s about setting up the realistic tone about this father and son that are working together, and just being very practical about the everyday before slowly dripping in the supernatural. But you have to set up the supernatural, and you obviously do that in the beginning when Jane is found and you sense something is off with her. You then drop in certain things and they become bigger and bigger elements of why you begin to feel creeped out, and these should give you chills.
As a filmmaker there is a limit to your control over the film, and once presented to the audience, it is out of your hands?
Exactly, and I am fully aware of that. The only thing I have to trust are my own instincts and especially when it comes to the way characters are portrayed, and how you film the actors, because again it is such a balance of technical choices. You can stand there and look at an actor in a close-up and it’s like this shot is great here, but it’s amazing there - why? It’s all an instinctual thing and hopefully that instinct will follow through the entire movie, and filter into it.
I feel that I am a blueprint of a normal moviegoer because I love normal, broad movies that the audience loves. When it comes to horror, my favourite movies are all the classics - they are not these special movies that no one knows about, and the same with action or comedy. So I therefore have a very broad taste and I think I can hit a general note. I can try to make different movies, but hit them broadly so that it becomes this weird balance. TROLL HUNTER· is an awkward weird monster come comedy-horror, whatever the hell it is, and then JANE DOE was a different film - I hadn’t seen this horror movie before. It wasn’t trying to be somebody else’s success and so I just loved the originality of the world, and there was an intriguing balance there for me.·
A filmmaker once told me that the writing is like composing the score, while directing is standing on the podium conducting the orchestra. Would you agree?
Yeah, that is a good analogy. I am mostly in awe of writers because they are the ones that are there with the blank page and just have to come up with stuff. As a filmmaker you are relying on so many talented people and you are so lucky, because as a director you could sometimes do nothing, and the movie would still get made. It’s weird! You have a cameraman and you have actors that know their stuff, and all you are doing is guiding a little, and suddenly the movie happens anyway. But if you stop typing on that typewriter, then there is nothing - the movie doesn’t exist. You have to create and construct just like you would a piece of architecture, because to me a movie is a piece of architecture, with artistic and very technical levels, and these layers of communication from the base to the final details.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
After finishing JANE DOE I felt like a filmmaker for the first time. TROLL HUNTER was such an accident [laughs]. It was so uncontrolled in the way that I was just fumbling my way forward, and of course fortunately making some good choices, clearly, and so there is something going on underneath that works. But here I controlled the entire movie, from planning for months every single camera angle with the DOP, to knowing where every sound would go. For the first time I felt like I was in control. So there is definitely a formative thing there, but at the same time you are kind of the same person as well. The perception has changed and people are taking me more seriously now. I get more offers for new movies from Norway and the rest of the world that I didn’t get after TROLL HUNTER, even though everybody was very curious. I had tons of stuff sent my way that time as well, but people can now read me as a professional filmmaker, which TROLL HUNTER didn’t really give them.
The Autopsy of JANE DOE is released on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD on 26th June 2017