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
DVD REVIEW - RATTER - ***
Directed by Branden Kramer. Starring Ashely Benson, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Matt McGorry. USA 2015 77 mins Certificate: 15
From Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Released on Digital HD March 21 and DVD April 4.
Just in case you either a) were born before 1999 or b) mistook the term for a misspelt “Wind In The Willows” reference, a “ratter” is defined as “Someone who hacks personal devices to stalk their victims’ lives”. Back in the days when “trolls” were something that lived under the bridge and ate children, we would have just used the all-purpose term “rotter”. Writer-director Branden Kramer has expanded upon the theme and format of his 2012 short film “Webcam” and made a suitably unnerving feature debut. Although the technology is 21st century and the “found footage” sub-genre is a contemporary fad that refuses to die, the approach is ostensibly just a film-long extension of sundry voyeuristic sequences from decades of horror films in which the audience is complicit in the antagonist’s activities thanks to subjective camerawork.
Everything we see in RATTER is from the perspective of an (almost entirely) unseen stalker who has violated the digital world of pretty graduate student Ashley Benson and infiltrated key devices (notably, webcam and mobile phone) to spy on her every move. We assume that the stalker’s obsession extends to painstakingly – and professionally – editing together all of his footage into the feature film we are watching, adding ominous sound design and music to enhance the effect of his shenanigans. Starting a new life in New York City, Benson is initially oblivious to the fact that this stranger is watching her at her most vulnerable (dating, exercising in her smalls, sleeping, urinating, masturbating), but gradually becomes aware that something is amiss. Photos on her laptop are compromised. Strange gifts appear in the post. Voicemails are deleted. Changing passwords and installing anti-virus software prove futile. Asking Jeeves is not an option.
Kramer generates sustained discomfort as he immerses us in a prolonged invasion of privacy via proficient editing and execution. Benson is an appealing presence – sympathetic and credible – and unlike many a protagonist in movies of this ilk, generally does everything right. As the stranger’s violation of Benson’s personal space becomes a physical invasion, there are genuinely creepy moments, notably a scene in which he superimposes an image of himself laying on her bed with a shot of her sleeping in the same position. As is common to the found-footage format in general, the film’s effectiveness relies on static, fixed camera shots that hold on a seemingly uneventful image for longer than is comfortable for the typical 21st century viewer, therefore generating unease even if nothing of major significance is happening.
It is pared down to a trim running time, and takes our voyeuristic viewpoint to its zenith with a fashionably downbeat and mean-spirited ending in which an unseen secondary character gets to share our queasy wallow in someone else’s misfortune. It’s well played and suspenseful, though the overall effect is inevitably neutered by the fact that we have taken many trips already to this particular well. Recent low-budget films like THE DEN (just released over here as HACKED), 388 ARLETTA AVENUE and ALONE WITH HER have covered the stalking theme via the found-footage form, and RATTER – although on a par with those and various others – has nothing new to bring to the table. Unless you count that rather silly eponymous term.