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.
In conversation WITH ALICE LOWE
THE VENGEFUL CALL OF THE FEMALE LONER – ALICE LOWE ON THE MAKING OF PREVENGE
While pregnancy is typically seen as a cause for celebration, here at FrightFest, where we lean towards ‘The Dark Heart of Cinema’, we frown upon maternal instincts suffocating a penchant for bloodshed. None of this sweet and happy nonsense, give us violent and disturbing tales. Fortunately, star and writer-director of PREVENGE Alice Lowe shares our feelings, cultivating a pregnancy revenge comedy with a body count.
Lowe’s directorial debut feature is one that she looks upon as an inevitable step on her creative journey. “I think it was something that sort of happened gradually because I started off in devised theatre and it took me a long time before I thought, oh, I am creating these characters, that means I'm a writer. And then I started to really enjoy having control creatively over the content I was acting in, and directing just seemed the next natural step really.” But PREVENGE is one that captures the spirit of independent filmmaking. “You look at what's around you before you start writing and then you write something that's tailored to the situation” she explains. “I would say to any first time filmmaker or any film student to look at what you've got around you and my film is a perfect example of that. Well what's the situation? I'm pregnant, I've got a pregnancy bump and I don't have to pay prosthetics for that.”
In conversation with FrightFest, Lowe discussed the question behind the idea that formed the genesis of the film, the moral issues of dubious characters, and the challenges and surprises in the editing and reception of the film.
What was the seed of the idea for PREVENGE?
For a while I had been talking about how there weren't that many female loner characters. I would often talk about TAXI DRIVER and say, “There’s a completely unlikeable maverick loner male character, but yet he's iconic and no one has sought of questioned whether that character should exist in cinema, or whether it's a dubious hero?” It's the model for the anti-hero and I just felt, why aren't there many female characters like that? So that was the seed of the idea that had been at the back of my head for many years, and then this opportunity came up to make a film while I was pregnant. I just thought, well what is the pregnancy story I would tell? I wouldn't tell a normal story anyway [laughs]. I'd make it dark and I decided to make her the antithesis of the pregnancy stereotype - someone who is stuck in the past, is vengeful and destructive, and is all about death rather than birth. And that character and idea just seemed to spring into life very quickly.
I was inspired by the low budget revenge films like DEAD MANS SHOES and RED ROAD that have this very simple linear narrative. I think once you choose revenge as a structure, it's a very elegant and simple one. It's quite often that the person has said goodbye to their past completely, and they've become a weapon of destruction. So you don't really know much about what's happened to them and it's pure action.
The moral issue in the cinema is an interesting one, as we are frequently entertained by dubious moral characters. But deep down what is our motivation for going along with these characters? Is it an issue of familiarity or their position as the chosen character to lead us through the narrative?
I think it is a bit of wish fulfilment. In TAXI DRIVER it is literally like you are climbing into his taxi and you are a passenger to this persons journey. And by climbing on board with them you kind of become party to their actions, but in a guilt free way. So you don't have to agree with everything they are doing, but you can get a catharsis from their actions, and I think it's the same with Ruth. She is a submarine [laughs]. She has got cargo inside of her which is a human being, but it's also the audience as well that has climbed on board, and are just being taken on her journey. I think some of it is a wish fulfilment and you are, oh this is such a relief that this person is behaving in this way because I don't have to. It's like we'll get all of these negative emotions out through what the person is doing in this cathartic way, and then you don't have to feel any anger or violence anymore.
It is morally troubling and it should be. I don't think there's really that much interest for me in a character that doesn't confuse you morally. It's the big American blockbuster trend, particularly in the 80s and 90s to have a hero that's in trouble, but there's no question that the hero is good. They make all the right moral decisions and it's more the rest of the world that's difficult and puts problems in his way. I watch that and think, well there's no conflict in that for me because I know that they are going to make the right decisions. I prefer to show someone that would make different decisions to you or I and that is what throws up new ideas, starts a debate and a dialogue that gets you thinking about things. I studied classics and the whole point of ancient tragedy was to see a character that had transgressed boundaries and why those boundaries were important. How do you know why boundaries exist unless you see someone breaking them and the consequences of crossing them.
C.G Jung placed an emphasis on the importance of empirical experience. It's interesting what you're saying because through film and stories we can learn vicariously…
Through someone else doing it rather than you [laughs]. You don't need to commit any murders because you've seen someone else do it [laughs]. Yeah, there might be something in that. It was definitely the function of theatre in Ancient Greece, a kind of performative thing of this is what happens when people break the rules, and this is how we investigate it. I think that is the function of it and it's like a pressure release on society to see people doing things that we feel we shouldn't.
TAXI DRIVER features moments of dark humour and as a comedy PREVENGE complicates that troubled feeling when we find ourselves laughing along with the character.
I think there is a satirical element as well to my film in terms of the comedy. I am showing you characters that are in some ways archetypes or stereotypes of particular British mannerisms or behaviours. To me life is a mix of funny, sad and scary, all of those things. So comedy is always going to be part of my work, but I don't go out of my way to write comedies. I write quite serious situations and then the comedy just comes when you cast a funny character, or sometimes the more serious it is, the more funny it is in a weird sort of way.
It is often said that editing is the best training ground for a director. How do you look back on the experience of editing your first feature film as a writer-director?
The edit was the biggest learning curve for me because although I've sat in lots of edits, I have never been in control of one. The biggest thing was that at first the editor was just sending me rushes and first assemblies because I was at home with a tiny baby, experiencing the film in this very much isolated way and thinking, what do I want to do with this film? What's important to me about it? I was listening to my own inner voice without having anyone else poke their head around the door of the edit saying, “Oh I think it should be more like this” or “it should be more like that.” It was just the editor and I, and I'd be sending him Skype notes or sending him hand typed notes, talking to him on Skype and then I'd have more time to think about the next cut. All of that was really invaluable and I was privileged as a first time director to have that time to really think about stuff. But I think there was a point, and there is with every film, where there is a wobble point. It's where you've maybe got a bit oversaturated and you’re, what's the film again? I can't remember. You lose trust in your original vision a little bit and there was a point where we were, “Shall we show it to lots of people and ask them what they think? Should we make it funnier? Is it too serious?” I think you just have to push through this point and I have to remember that for the next time because in the edit you've got to make the film worse before you can make it better. You have to explore every avenue and say, “Okay, now the film is as bad as it is ever going to be, we have to not be scared to pull it apart again and reassemble”, and actually that's a normal part of the edit. It's not, oh we've really screwed up here, it's no, that's what you have to do to know what the film is. I really enjoyed the edit and there was a point where we said, “Let's not care what people think about the film, let's just make sure everything is interesting and every scene is good”, which really was my instinct. I was, “I don't really care if people are laughing all the time” because there’s plenty of scenes where I had no intention for people to laugh. One scene is sad, one scene is scary and the next scene is funny - that was always part of my vision. Once we'd remembered that in the edit and said, “It just has to be interesting, that's all. There just has to not be any rubbish bits in it” [laughs]. This should be my main tip for any filmmaker, to make sure there are no rubbish bits in it. Just get rid of them if they're not any good.
You say you decided not to worry about what people thought of the film. Speaking with Carol Morley for THE FALLING she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” Do you agree?
Yeah, when I say that I decided to not care what other people think, I would not say that's the audience. I would say that's the critics or a director who has watched it as a favour. To me the audience are the most important people of all. It's true, I am always thinking about their experience and what roller coaster they are going through, how they are feeling and how their expectations are being subverted. And the whole thing with the film is that I see it as a kind of little ghost train ride for people that is supposed to surprise them at every turn - where they feel, oh we are doing this now, and then I take them in a different direction.
Yeah, I'd agree and I think there is a very frustrating thing because if you're a comedian doing a live show and you get an extra laugh somewhere that you didn't expect, then the next day you put in a pause for that laugh. So you'll have gained another laugh in the show, but with a film you can't do that. And sometimes you are watching it with an audience going, “Oh damn. People would have laughed for longer if I'd left that longer.” But you don't know that until it’s in front of a live audience – “Oh we didn't need that line. People laughed at the other bit.” There's definitely a bit of that, but I love the audience response to it because people make really weird noises at different points of the film, which I had no expectation of, and it is really pleasurable when you get that. If people often ask me why do I do horror, I guess it’s that comedy and horror are the two things that get an audible reaction from your audience, and that's really exciting to me. As a live performer I always have this link to the audience - it's all about the audience.
PREVENGE is released theatrically in the UK on Friday 10 February by Kaleidoscope Entertainment.