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.
FILM REVIEW – NAILS **
Directed by Dennis Bartok, Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Ross Noble, Steve Wall. Horror, Ireland, 2017, 85mins, Cert 15.
Released in cinemas on 16th June 2017 by Kaleidoscope Entertainment.
Super-fit track coach Dana Milgrom’s early morning jog is rudely interrupted by a near fatal run-in with a car which leaves her almost completely paralysed. Trapped inside her own body, with her speech severely affected, Dana communicates through a voice synthesised computer keyboard. Staring at the prospect of a lengthy recovery process in a (very) rundown rehabilitation hospital, Dana’s physical vulnerabilities are about to be heightened by a supernatural inhabitant of the hospital. A shadowy figure with long, sharp, finger nails...
Despite a strong committed performance by Shauna (THE DESCENT) Macdonald as the recovering patient trapped by her injuries, the initially promising basic premise never develops into anything more resonant than a couple of jump-scares and some truly clunky dialogue and exposition. Ross Noble is largely wasted as the sympathetic and seemingly only full-time employed nurse in the hospital. Not since HALLOWEEN II (1981) has there been such an under-staffed and under-lit hospital setting. (Frankly, given its sparse resources, I was surprised there was even Wi-Fi available for Dana to conduct the obligatory historical-news-clipping-revelation on her MacBook!)
Narrated by the resident shrink ‘Dr Stengel’ with such a deadened one note delivery you wonder whether he’d previously performed a self-lobotomy, the back-story to ‘Nails’ reads better than it sounds or translates on screen. (It’s creepy, albeit highly implausible – hence why it may work better on the printed page).
‘Nails’ himself appears to have Freddy Krueger-like dream aspirations - albeit preferring to skip manicures instead of threat-enhancing finger knives. Sadly, without recourse to witty pun-laden one-liners, he is somewhat limited to dramatically opening supply cupboard doors, scraping Shauna MacDonald’s paralysed bedsore legs, and scratching out an ominous message on her bare tummy.
The introduction of surveillance cameras half-way through the film seemed at first to suggest a visual detour into PARANORMAL ACTIVITY territory, (the film’s working title was ‘P.O.V’) but it’s not tellingly utilised apart from a clumsy means to emphasise a marital sub-plot which doesn’t need highlighting.
NAILS had potential, but for me it rather disappointingly failed to scratch more than the surface of its terror intentions, and despite a surprisingly bleak finale, remained largely bedbound.