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 – jonah lives – **
Directed by Luis Carvalho, Starring: Brinke Stevens, Jocelyn Padilla, Ryan Boudreau. Horror, US, 2012, 91mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD on 25th July by Left Films.
“Maybe, just maybe, we can raise one dead man from his grave”.
HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY meets OUIJA in this low-budget tale from the crypt by first-time writer/director/editor Luis Carvalho. A group of bored teens holed up in a basement dabble with a Ouija board and accidentally summon up the 69 year-old corpse of Jonah Matthias from his grave. Poisoned by his wife, who just happens to be partying with a group of middle-aged swingers in the upstairs house, Jonah is out for revenge...
Poor inconsistent writing and leaden direction hinders this film from ever rising above its meagre offerings. It’s hard to get a handle on such waveringly written characters. Morally superior and holier-than-thou Tony for example doesn’t believe in pre-marital sex and refuses to partake in the devils work of the Ouija high-jinks – yet it is later suggested he’s overindulged in drugs. Francis advises his little sister that the Bible is the only book she’ll ever need – yet it’s his suggestion to dabble in the occultist Ouija in the first place (and far from practicing abstinence himself, he’s about to become a father). Unlike the boozy old-timers upstairs who appear to be having a whale of a time – the teens below deck appear a joyless bunch without a hint of chemistry between them.
Once Jonah has staggered out of his grave and found his way to the basement, (seemingly ignoring his murderous wife upstairs) the teens seem remarkably reluctant to actually attempt to escape from the unconvincing clutches of the Dr. Freudstein-like zombie Jonah. And it’s here among the flimsy cardboard walls and implausibly large cellar spaces that director Carvalho overstretches the ‘idiot plot’ to such an extent it renders the narrative logic positively threadbare.
80’s scream queen Brinke Stevens makes a couple of brief appearances as Jonah’s widow, partying it up with the swingers and toasting to the fortune her (supposedly) dead husband posthumously bestowed upon her. Needless to say she steals the film even in those fleeting few moments.
Eventually the shambling Jonah (who resembles ‘Tiny’ from HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES) indulges in some sub-par Fulci-lite gory antics such as chewing on a chunk of neck from a (seemingly) compliant victim before chopping off another’s arm, but by then it’s really too late to raise the interest level above resigned apathy, for JONAH LIVES has unfortunately long since died.
Extras: Behind the scenes (runs 52 seconds), brief coverage of a public screening, footage of Brinke Stevens on the set, and a couple of trailers.