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.
BOOK REVIEW – PRECISION ***
Written by Ryan Clipper
Published by Publish Nation. Available on Paperback and download. 302pp. RRP £9.99, out now.
In increasingly uncertain and unstable political times, fictional stories set amidst a dystopian future always become more frequent. Looking back to Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men and the subsequent book upon which it was based, it paints a terrifying picture of a future Britain cut-off from the rest of the world that feels disturbingly more relevant now than its release in 2006. In a similar vein comes Precision, the debut novel from Ryan Clipper, that manages to fuse a future picture of Britain that feels increasingly close to reality, with an almost boys own army adventure story with moral depth.
The Britain of the novel in the near future is close to a police state, where officers always carry firearms and terrorist attacks are so frequent, they barely even register on the news. Hostage taking and random killings by both foreign and domestic terror cells have stretched the military beyond breaking point. This is in part due to the fact that the army and so forth are busy fighting long since forgotten wars overseas and in part down to the fact that these attacks are sporadic and unpredictable. Westminster bridge and Manchester Arena are recent disturbing echoes of the novels current resonance. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in a hidden room beneath the Westminster corridors of power, the Prime Minister and his military aides forge a controversial resolution – training cadets from the junior wings of the army to specifically handle the threats. Aided by the Americans, the Urban Strike Group is formed. Yet it’s completely unofficial and the notion of training such young men to be ruthless killers is somewhat lost on the powers that be. ‘We just sent young boys off to war’ one General comments before their first operation, to which his equal replies ‘Well, it’s not for the first time’. The effect of World Wars One and Two on its young soldiers appears to have had little influence.
Despite a relatively slender 300 pages, the novel does not skimp on detail with even supporting and incidental characters given full backstories. Meanwhile the multiple locations – from the streets of London and its suburbs to the desert of Utah via well-known military locations in Buckinghamshire, Hereford and the Brecon Becons – paint a vivid picture of the world we know, both now and as it could conceivably be in the volatile world ahead. It is also thorough in its description of the military, perhaps unnecessarily so at times, yet this gears the novel not just to those invested in this world but readers with a lesser trained ear.
As the story unfolds it doesn’t go quite where you might expect, with the effect of the groups success being keenly felt amongst the cadets themselves. It takes a humane turn that elevates a key theme running throughout – that killing has consequences.
While on occasion the dialogue feels clunky and a sub-plot involving a possible romance between the British PM and the President of the USA sits at kilter with the rest of proceedings, Precision is none the less an exciting debut novel, and a picture of a future that feels frighteningly more and more relevant.