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
DVD Review - JERUZALEM **
Directed by Yoav Paz, Doron Paz. Starring Danielle Jadelyn, Yael Grobglas, Yon Tumarkin, Tom Graziani. Israel, Horror, 91 mins, cert 15.
Released digitally in the UK on the 28th March, 2016, and on DVD and BluRay by Solo Media on the 4th April, 2016.
Unthinkable! Can it really be that someone has managed a new wrinkle on the found footage genre several years after it had been thoroughly flogged to death? Israeli production JERUZALEM (despite the large red Z in the title it's nothing to do with WORLD WAR Z, and isn't even a zombie movie) doesn't solve any of the by now overfamiliar problems of the form - either narrative or technical - but at least it's documenting something slightly more interesting than the usual night-vision idiocy and it does lace proceedings with a few nice gags about the technology.
Shot entirely first-person with Google Glass (which makes the film a one-off, at least for the present, as that product has now been put on hold), JERUZALEM tells of (the barely seen) Sarah and her best friend Rachel, two annoying American tourists who suddenly decide to abandon their (presumably expensive) holiday to Tel Aviv in favour of hanging out in Jerusalem. Of course they don't know that there have been documented instances of the dead coming back to life there; they don't know one of the holiest cities in the world is built on one of the three gates of Hell. So they've having a terrific time partying when suddenly the apocalypse happens. As the city descends into the chaos of a hasty evacuation, impossibly tall demon beasts walk the streets and the dead return as malevolent angels spreading a contagion, our heroines try and get out of the city through the network of ancient tunnels....
It all ends, as these things inevitably do, with a lot of running around in the dark and screaming while the impressive-looking monsters aren't seen in more than shaky glimpses, and Sarah does the usual illogical thing of refusing to believe that one of her comrades is transforming into a demon in front of her. Still, the film does manage some nice moments through the Google Glass technology: music tracks, maps and Skype conversations open up on screen (bringing to mind UNFRIENDED), while facial recognition software that opens up Facebook profiles is a neat way of introducing characters.
But you are yet again left with the feeling that this could have been a decent little religion-based horror movie if they'd made it as a proper film. I know it's more difficult and more expensive, but it's worth it. Yet again the project is sunk by the format: it restricts the film-makers to a single viewpoint and it allows for no injection of visual style. Moreover, it (yet again) makes no narrative sense within the context of events on screen: how has all the footage been obtained, who has edited it together, and why on Earth would they spend half the running time documenting the holiday antics of Sarah and Rachel when there's a full-on biblical Day Of Judgement going on down the street? Overall it's a slight improvement on the usual found routine, but not enough.