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.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES - **
Directed by Burr Steers. Starring Lily James, Sam Riley, Suki Waterhouse, Lena Headey, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Douglas Booth, Sally Phillips. UK / USA 2016 107 mins Certificate: 15.
Out 27th June 2016 on Blu-Ray / DVD.
Writer-director Burr Steers certainly picked all the right actors to populate his adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s popular Jane Austen mash-up novel, and the film begins on a high with a spirited prologue in which Sam Riley’s dashing, solemn Mr Darcy shows up with carrion flies to detect restless cadavers before Charles Dance narrates an illustrated (alternative) history of England over an imaginative title sequence. The premise was fun in the book and could conceivably work as a brisk, knockabout 90 minute feature: 19th century England has fallen victim to an infestation of the brain-eating undead, with various measures (including a 100 foot wall encircling London) proving less than fool proof when it comes to keeping the rotters away from the upper classes. The Bennet family, particularly the feisty Elizabeth (Lily James) prove to be incredibly proficient at dealing with the encroaching threat.
Looking fabulous in a corset and convincingly high-kicking her way through the central action sequences with brio, Lily James is an appealing lead, and the consistently good Sam Riley is watchable as ever. It’s too bad that Dance’s GAME OF THRONES co-star Lena Headey is sorely underused as Lady Catherine, now redefined as the most deadly swordswoman in the land. Matt Smith is amusingly fey, bumbling and mannered as Parson Collins and steals most of his scenes.
The film itself, however, is oddly underpowered. One slo-mo action shot of the sisters (tamely) slashing up zombies plays like the title sequence of some previously undiscovered post-BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER TV teen series, and the rest of the movie unfolds like a TV pilot paving the way for greater things. Adding to the late 90’s network TV feel, the zombie action has clearly been contrived to slot in to the American PG-13 category, which means uncommonly dry exploding heads and limb severing, off-camera splatter and CG embellishments that, in any case, take the edge off any of the brief on-screen carnage.
What’s more, for a feature that should be a zesty, ballsy twist on a beloved literary property, it’s all too pedestrian. Grahame-Smith’s work has always been firmly located in the category of “one-joke mash up”, but, in this case, it was a pretty amusing joke on the page. In translation, it is disappointingly inert, largely lacking wit and excitement and only really sparking into convincing life at the point at which it’s way too late (eg. halfway through the end credits).