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 – NOW YOu SEE ME 2– ***
Directed by John M. Chu, Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizy Caplan, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman. Action, Adventure, Comedy, 2016, 123mins, Cert 12.
Released in the UK to download from 28th October 2016 and on Blu-ray, DVD on 7th November 2016 by Entertainment One.
A year after winning worldwide acclaim and admiration for pulling off a spectacular populist heist, the four illusionists known as The Four Horseman are tempted back out into the limelight to expose a dodgy tech magnate. Having the tables turned upon themselves in the process, they find themselves blackmailed into performing an abracadabra snatch and grab of a highly prized microchip with the FBI in hot pursuit.
I hadn’t seen the original NOW YOU SEE ME – but it doesn’t take long to get up to speed thanks to some nippy exposition (and a quick supplementary peek at IMDb.) Feisty brash Lizzy Caplan (Lula) has replaced Isla Fisher (Henley) as the female ‘Horseman’, whilst hypnotist Woody Harreslon (doubling this time as his goofy brother), card-shuffler Dave Franco and rain-controlling (not really, it’s just an illusion) Jesse Eisenberg continue to work what magic they can pull out of the hat with surprisingly unlikeable and paper-thin characters. The joker in the pack this time is manic Daniel Radcliffe, more annoying than Jesse Eisenberg (now that’s some trick to pull off), as Michael Caine’s villainous ‘mini-me’-like son. The script does allow Radcliffe a couple of self-referential Harry Potter digs about how he once dabbled in magic at school (snigger snigger) – presumably the raison d'être for his involvement. Caine looks bleary-eyed and unengaged as the billionaire who previously had his fortune nicked by The Four Horseman, whilst Morgan Freeman seems to breeze through a largely nonsensical character arc with a (no doubt) large pay check induced grin. Mark Ruffalo’s FBI agent by day (leader of The Four Horseman by night), gets sealed in a replica safe his escapologist father supposedly failed to break out of underwater in an opening flashback. (If I were a betting man I’d wager dad will turn out to be very much alive in part 3).
Director Chu directs this giddily ridiculous OCEAN’S ELEVEN (with magicians) heist sequel with an assured visual aplomb. Logic is tossed to the wind like a playing card, and the actual ‘illusions’ are obviously reliant on the sleight-of-hand of CGI artists rather than any genuine illusionist skill. The London-based New Year’s Eve finale proves to be an especially unconvincing overblown set-piece, hampered further by the fact the scriptwriters seem to think the whole world runs on Greenwich Mean Time!
But it’s a breathless, slick and glossy piece of multiplex fodder, and director Chu is wise enough to not give the audience any real down-time to figure out the audacity of the cheap tricks and logic cheats constantly being pulled on them. Will I watch the seemingly inevitable NOW YOU SEE ME 3 - well, we’ll just have to wait and see. But to be fair - and to paraphrase that venerable stage magician Paul Daniels: I liked NOW YOU SEE ME 2, not a lot, but I liked it.
Extras: Audio Commentary with Director John M. Chu, making of feature.