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 – MARK OF THE WITCH ***
Aka: Another. Directed by Jason Bognaki. Starring Paulie Rojas, Lillian Pennypacker, Maria Olsen, David Landry. USA 2014 80 mins Certificate: 18
Out February 15th 2016 from Metrodome.
Writer-director-cinematographer Jason Bognaki’s ANOTHER enjoyed a well-received trip around the festival circuit a couple of years ago (including Frightfest 2014), and now shows up on UK DVD having undergone a generic, uninspired retitling as MARK OF THE WITCH. This is a title it shares with the long-forgotten 1970 vengeful-witch-on-campus low-budgeter – itself released (confusingly) in the same year as the far more notorious MARK OF THE DEVIL.
Bognaki’s feature debut was made on a budget of approximately $25k over the course of two years and, as the “Special Thanks” section of the end credits attest, is an unashamed, stylistic love letter to European horror cinema of the 70’s with notable nods to Dario Argento and Jess Franco. Thematically it echoes the post-ROSEMARY’S BABY cycle of American occult horror films, though the deliberate muting of dialogue and narrative coherence in favour of an escalating assault on the senses bring it far closer in tone and spirit to SUSPIRIA than, say, THE DEVIL’S RAIN.
Paulie Rojas, a gamine beauty destined for comparison with Audrey Hepburn, is striking as the film’s heroine Jordyn, who turns 18 and immediately faces a barrage of sinister revelations about her heritage. We get a strong inkling that she’s not from conventional stock during a prologue of her infant self embroiled in an ominous, apparently Satanic ritual. In the present, a sequence of sinister visions, the grim behaviour of her Aunt Ruth at the birthday party, random blackouts and a clock that persistently blinks “6-6-6” would seem to suggest that Jordyn may indeed be the kin of Old Scratch himself.
With its powerful use of music (classical cuts alternate with The Drifters and an experimental original score) and striking use of light and colour, the film is an aural and visual ode to an oft-imitated golden age of giallo and horror. It’s also oddly uninvolving, with no tangible characters to root for and a tendency to flat line whenever the characters are allowed to talk (note: this is consistent with many of the film’s key influences so it could be considered an inherited flaw).
The longer it goes on, the less forgiving you may become of the excessive slo-mo usage and the ill-advised CG intrusions, though it’s an often startling calling card for a filmmaker likely en-route to an impressive future.