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 – onus – ***
Directed by George Clarke, Starring Robert Render, Anthony Boyle, Vivian Jamison, Caroline Burns Cooke. Thriller, Ireland, 95 Minutes. Cert. 15.
Released in the UK by Left Films DVD/VOD on the 26th December.
ONUS opens with an idea that, while not entirely un-original, is certainly something the likes of which we have seen in horror and thriller films before. Young schoolboy Keiran (Anthony Boyle) and his school councillor Mr. Andrews (Robert Render) wake up next to one another in the woods with a locked chain binding them together by one arm and a gun gaffer taped to the other. They appear to be part of some form of game – and it becomes clear that one of them must kill the other to survive.
There are elements of THE HUNGER GAMES and SAW in place but what ONUS manages to do is to not allow the original concept to outstay its welcome. The bigger picture is slowly revealed through a series of early twists. The key reveal is somewhat obvious and an unnecessary flashback overly emphasises the point to the audience, but it occurs relatively early on and some other plot developments aren’t quite so predictable, each of them changing the dynamics of the way in which the tension resides.
After 40 minutes though, the focus of the film shifts completely. The idea has run its natural course and we’re left to focus on the aftermath of what really happened and why and what it all means for those involved. The plot continues to unfold in just the right manner, keeping the audience interested and guessing where necessary.
On occasion the low budget is sadly evident – the lighting and camera set-ups become inconsistent as does the sound, and some of the early chase sequences are over-edited. This can be a distraction at times but one must remember the difficulties presented to filmmakers working with such restraints and fortunately there is enough talent on show for the films qualities to shine through.
ONUS may not be a masterpiece but it does bode well for the future of those who are involved. There is some intelligent filmmaking on show with an interesting premise that is allowed to run its natural course and lead the film into a gripping second half all the way to its somewhat open ending.