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 – LAST STOP - **
Directed by Travis Oates. Starring Mena Suvari, Brian Austin Green, Fiona Gubelmann, Zack Ward, Joanne Kelly, Robert Picardo. Horror/Mystery, USA, 92 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD by 101 Films on 22nd February 2016.
It is time once again for a group of friends to go to a cabin in the woods where bad things are going to happen. Only this time there are no masked maniacs with machetes, chainsaw-wielding madmen or demons given life by a magic book; in this cabin there is… nothing. That’s right – LAST STOP (a.k.a. DON’T BLINK) is a mystery horror movie with no real villain to speak of, and because of that there’s not a lot you can really get to grips with unless you have a degree in philosophy.
This is because LAST STOP takes a very different approach to telling its story than your average stuck-in-the-middle-of-nowhere horror movie. The mystery begins when the group of 10 friends arrive at the secluded mountain lodge that they have booked for a short break and find that there is nobody there; a bath has been run, food and drink have been consumed and clothes are to be found in random places, but the place is deserted. Outside, there are no birds, no insects and no animal noises that one would expect to hear in such a location and before long the members of the group begin to disappear. Not with any fanfare or trace of abduction, they simply vanish within the blink of an eye and as the numbers begin to dwindle it is up to those left to try and figure out what is happening.
And not just the other characters but us as well because nothing is given away, made very clear or actually revealed as the film manages to build up an intriguing mystery only to not really have any payoff for the dedicated viewer. Of course, there is a payoff for those who wish to ponder the existential fears that the film, at its core, is trying to address but coming to any definite conclusions about what you’ve just seen depends on what you come to the film with as writer/director Travis Oates isn’t going to give you anything concrete, which is quite frustrating if you’ve just sat through it hoping for a big reveal because there isn’t one. Oates’ idea is that after having spent time with the characters on the screen and we can see the situation they are in, we are in as much of a state of shock as they are when their friends start disappearing for no reason. It’s an interesting idea and one that, given more development, could have paid off a lot better than it eventually did... or didn’t, as the case may be.
But the film does have some positives, mainly in the casting and characterisation. Brian Austin Green (CHROMESKULL: LAID TO REST II) and Zack Ward (FREDDY VS. JASON) give the best performances, Ward especially giving more than the rest of the cast and making his character the standout, but Mena Suvari is wasted and not given a whole lot of screen time considering that her character is the one we’re obviously supposed to latch onto. In fact, the character development is fairly well written and acted out in a believable manner that makes the film less of a chore to sit through than a film with not much of a plot should be but it also makes the ambiguous ending all the more frustrating.
There will be those out there that will slate this film for being nothing more than an unfinished mess that is trying to be clever but without any real substance. There will also be those that will hail it as an intelligent and thoughtful meditation on the futility of existence. As with anything that divides opinion in such an extreme way the truth sits somewhere in the middle and although there are glimmers of something better to come from Travis Oates, on this occasion LAST STOP is just too underdeveloped to really be cohesively satisfying.