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.
DVD REVIEW – REALM OF THE DAMNED TENEBRIS DIOS – ****
Directed by Tom Paton. Starring David Vincent, Dani Filth, Jill Janus, Steve Beatty. USA / Ireland 2016 97 mins Certificate: 15
Released on Blu-Ray and DVD from April 7th 2017
Adapted from the black-metal-infused graphic novel by Alec Worley, this is the first in a four-part series of “animated motion comic” adventures that also ties in with the recent release of Sons of Balaur’s album “Tenebris Deos”. The Norwegian metal band are a core part of the narrative and, naturally, provided the aggressive soundtrack to the movie, helping to energise the vivid fight scenes, though overall it’s one for the niche audience rather than casual viewers.
REALM OF THE DAMNED posits an apocalyptic scenario in which the “monsters” have won, the Vatican has fallen to the forces of darkness and Alberic Van Helsing (David Vincent, of Morbid Angel) is persecuted, defeated and addicted, struggling himself to survive in the new world order. Ancient vampire Lord Balaur is resurrected by the band Sons of Balaur and summons a myriad of classic monsters – shape shifters, mummies, ghouls and werewolves – to rule over what remains of humanity. Van Helsing is lured out of his Norwegian refuge to commence a redemptive journey to save what he can.
Vincent’s deep-toned voiceover provides an evocative anchor to this frame-by-frame adaptation of the comic, with some “motion” to keep it visually alive. Vincent is the stand-out in a cast that sees Cradle of Filth frontman Dani Filth relishing his inevitably guttural portrayal of the ultimate evil and Huntress lead vocalist Jill Janus among those in support. Some of the vocal performances are better than others: the band are a bit of a wash out and at least one key character is awkwardly miscast.
Director Paton gives it an atmospheric horror-noir visual style, with sparse use of colour highlighting the regular infusions of gore – though the dialogue often sucks the life out of it (“Which hole should we fuck first?”) and you probably have to be a devotee to be in eager anticipation of the next instalments. Either way, it’s presented in a handsome home video edition complete with booklet and collector’s cards.