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.
DVD REVIEW – LIGHTS OUT– **
Directed by David F. Sandberg, Starring: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello. Horror, US, 2016, 78mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download on 12th December 2016 by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.
“Ghosts aren’t real”- “Then what is she?”
When the lights are on, there’s nobody home...
David F. Sandberg’s 2013 short film competition entry went (deservedly) viral on YouTube. Within its 2 ½ minute running time it succinctly encapsulated and distilled the very essence of being afraid of the dark. A supernatural silhouette appears at the end of a hallway every time the occupant switches off the hallway light. There’s two punchily effective jump scares and it’s over: job (well) done.
Having been invited by producer James (all things that go bump in the night) Wan to direct an expanded feature based on his short, Sandberg delivers a visually slick piece of lightweight multiplex spookery, but fails to conjure up anything more than run of the mill chills from a script that combines THE BABADOOK with DARKNESS FALLS with incrementally diminishing returns.
In this unsuccessful endeavour Sandberg is hampered by a script which on the one hand seems obliged to crank out expositional ingredients by the numbers yet never satisfactorily explains away how the entity, known as ‘Diana’, haunts the shadowy recesses of creaking cupboards and under lit interiors.
Teresa Palmer (Rebecca) older sister of Martin (Gabriel Bateman) generate some sympathy when they’re lured into a trap in the basement with only a UV glow stick and a torch to defend themselves. Maria Bello as their manically depressed and under-medicated mother spends most of the running time either unconscious or oblivious to the harm she’s exposing her (remaining) family to by entertaining her ‘friend’.
Despite it’s relatively short running time, you do get a decent ration of scare set-ups for your buck - rarely do you have to wait more than a couple of minutes for the next ‘BOO!’ moment – even if they’re only occasionally effective (the use of a flashing neon sign outside Rebecca’s apartment being a rare moment of inspiration).
But ultimately the more contrived instances of lights out in LIGHTS OUT, the less the scares register, and the fade out to credits is decidedly underwhelming. Watching the deleted scenes on the disc, there’s an alternate coda sequence which concludes proceedings far more satisfactorily – and I can only assume it was dropped in order to implausibly green-light LIGHTS OUT 2 (although where the filmmakers go from here is something I can’t shine any illumination on).
Extras: Deleted scenes.