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 – OPERATION AVALANCHE – ***
Directed by Matt Johnson. Starring Matt Johnson, Josh Boles, Owen Williams, Krista Madison, Tom Belton. USA 2016 94 mins Certificate: 15
Released by Lionsgate UK On Demand on 6th March and DVD on 20th March 2017.
Actor / writer / director Matt Johnson’s previous stand-out collaboration with co-stars / co-writers Josh Boles and Owen Williams was the little-seen but powerful study of high school persecution THE DIRTIES (2013). Their latest, the unpromisingly entitled OPERATION AVALANCHE, also experiments with the tropes and format of the now-overly-familiar “found-footage” sub-genre and welds them to a story with the political paranoia of past low-budget triumphs like THE NOVEMBER MEN and THE CONSPIRACY. It’s not as effectively tense as either, but still serves as a fascinating story well told.
Cleverly employed archival footage wittily sets the scene, along with a black and white prologue shot in the old Academy ratio – later superceded a more familiar colour look when the protagonists obtain “better cameras”. In the depths of the Cold War, President Kennedy vowed that America would have one of their men on the moon by the end of the decade. The KGB has allegedly implanted a mole in NASA so that they can get there first. “Operation Zipper” commences to find the mole, and the CIA employs a team of ambitious young undercover agents, figuring that they look ordinary enough to masquerade as a documentary film crew filming the Apollo race to the moon. Their previous investigation was to determine if director Stanley Kubrick, then working on DR STRANGELOVE, was a spy. Our covert heroes discover that NASA can circle the moon but lack the technology to land on the lunar surface until 1971, so they are deployed to come up with a solution to save major face.
CAPRICORN ONE is an obvious influence on this light but engaging dramatisation of an obsession shared by at least one generation of conspiracy theorists. Roving verite-style camerawork (employing vintage lenses and a custom-built camera) capture a credible, aged period look, reinforced by authentic attention to detail and Credence Clearwater Revival leading the contemporaneous soundtrack. The central actors, using their real names for their characters (a recurring found-footage tradition) are appealing as they set about finding credible faux-lunar locations and smuggling their way on to the set of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Movie buffs will particularly appreciate the ingenious way the movie allows them to interact with Mr Kubrick.
At its best, the movie taps into the paranoid tone of Watergate-era American cinema, though it never achieves the sustained tension of some of its darker predecessors, and isn’t the incendiary gut-punch THE DIRTIES was. Nonetheless, it’s a neat, very well edited evocation of the time, place and subject, and bows out with an appropriately ambiguous, quietly uneasy final scene.