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.
Blu-Ray REVIEW – PREVENGE ****
Directed by Alice Lowe. Starring Alice Lowe, Gemma Whelan, Kate Dickie, Tom Davis, Kayvan Novak, Jo Hartley, Eileen Davies. UK 2016 88 mins Certificate: 15
Released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment on June 5th 2017
For genre fans of a certain bent, Alice Lowe may be destined to be remembered for her brilliantly deadpan role in Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness’ prodigious satire of 70’s / 80’s TV horror, GARTH MARENGHI’S DARK PLACE (2004). Her career, of course, stretches much further than this pitch-perfect parody – most notably as co-writer and star of Ben Wheatley’s marvellous SIGHTSEERS, a blackly comic serial killer movie set against a backdrop of disarmingly banal British locations.
Lowe makes her feature directorial debut with PREVENGE; she also wrote, and played the lead role while heavily pregnant. The opening sequence – the throat slashing of a sleazy pet store owner – and certain aspects invite obvious comparisons to SIGHTSEERS, though tonally the two movies differ significantly. Lowe’s Ruth is bringing her imminently arriving baby into the world alone following the untimely departure of its father – and she roams merry olde England in search of suitable, eligible men to take the Dad role. Her embittered, misanthropic foetus provides persistent judgement on the notably lacklustre would-be patriarchs they encounter, and indeed urges her to murder them to spare us all from sharing the planet with such blatant, sexist oxygen thieves.
The cartoonish, casually psychotic baby voice heard only by Ruth and the audience proves to be the broadest aspect of PREVENGE (with echoes of cult French genre film BABY BLOOD), as it laments the selfishness of mankind generally. It also offers a bleak ongoing commentary about the unpromising future awaiting Ruth as a single mother, including the demise of any kind of sex life. The movie succeeds as a mordantly witty observational comedy as Ruth routinely encounters people – of either gender – who are enduring varying levels of personal unhappiness and loneliness, while also guilty of unhelpful, patronising or just irritating behaviour.
Alice’s journey encompasses a grim view of potential suitors, reaching a low ebb with Tom Davis’ splendidly repellent portrayal of “D J Dan”, a loathsome middle-aged would be Player who still lives with his mother, having spent his adult life shirking commitment and responsibility while priding himself in objectifying women who wouldn’t give him a second glance. Just as offensive, however, is Jo Hartley’s midwife character – annoyingly “quirky” and condescending, her intrusive presence in Lowe’s life involves the omnipresent threat of Social Services and unhelpful homilies like “negativity’s not good for the baby’s spirit”. One genuinely decent guy Lowe encounters along the way is dismissed as a “hipster sop” by her unborn and thus doesn’t last any longer than the rest.
Less flippant and with a darker outlook than SIGHTSEERS, PREVENGE, is certainly rife with coal-black humour: special kudos to the woman who mistakes the knife-wielding Lowe for a cold caller: “I already give to loads of charities!” The tone is more often serious, and the script rises above the potential one-joke gimmickry of its premise thanks to Lowe’s interpretation of the multi-layered central character. Not above the use of throwaway one-liners as she kills (“It’s a cut-throat world” among the corniest), she is nonetheless by far the most sympathetic character on display. As director, Lowe doesn’t flinch from startlingly brutal murders which, with eyeball and genital trauma, have been crafted to ensure the audience will be suitably uncomfortable, unsure whether to laugh or flinch.
Above all, however, it’s a perceptive portrait of society’s attitudes to pregnant women, particularly lone pregnant women, and of our natural human need to not be alone, even when the options for union are so poor. It’s a bloody study of grief, of the unshakeable mother-baby bond, and of the intrusive absurdity of baby manuals, health workers and “birth plans”.