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.
INTERVIEW – RICHARD KELLY
Fifteen years since its original release, Richard Kelly’s indie hit DONNIE DARKO, a film he describes as, “THE CATCHER IN THE RYE as told by Philip K. Dick” illuminates the creativity of both filmmaker and film. It is a product of inspiration filtered through the writer/director to create something distinct, even if cinema has seen many an American story about an American teenager. For those of us that saw the film on its original theatrical release, it perhaps retains a special resonance because to rediscover it is to go back in time and re-encounter a different version of ourselves. While few films offer such an experience, DONNIE DARKO remains one of those defining films for an entire generation that experienced it in a formative moment of their encounter with cinema – broadening one’s cinematic horizons. Now it has a second chance to make an impression on a generation of future critics and cineastes.
In conversation with FrightFest, Kelly discussed the impact of time on his feelings towards the film, his memories of the experience and the broader industry changes in the past fifteen years. He also shared his thoughts on the enduring and universal nature of storytelling, and the intersection of consciousness, dreams and the cinema.
How do you look back on the experience of making the film and how as your memory of that experience changed with time?
The more time that passes, I have a fondness for it. Getting to go out and do this restoration, to restore and enhance the images with today's technology has been a very cathartic and positive experience, because you want to make sure your art is properly preserved and maintained. This film was never transferred to the proper image quality, so we've really done a lot of work on the film, and we've spent quite a bit of time going back. It feels great and I’m really excited to put the extra in more than anything.
If you were to have made the film now rather than in 2001, how dramatically would that alter the film we'd see?
I am sure it would be significantly different, but I don't know because with every film that is made, they happen when they happen. I can't imagine it being with a different cast or in different locations - I don't think I would change any of those things. If anything, I wish I’d had more visual effects and money, and I wish I could have shot some additional sequences. But again we got as far as we could and we did the best with the resources that we had. I don't really live my life in hindsight, I try to move forward.
And how has the audience and cinema changed in the time since the film’s original release?
Well, I think the market has collapsed in a lot of ways for mid-budget films. It's harder to get a mid-budget film made, either micro-budget or blockbuster budget, it's really hard. There are far fewer dramas made in this space that can have a proper studio supported mid-budget drama, and so it doesn't really exist any more because the business environment has changed. You also have digital filmmaking. People can now make feature films with their iPhones and that certainly wasn't possible fifteen years ago in 2001. We now have streaming services, Amazon and Netflix, and all the other distribution apparatus, and so it is just a different business, it is a different era. DONNIE DARKO is specific to its own time, but it still exists and it is still relevant today. It still connects with people and so storytelling is timeless. The business constantly changes because the resources, the access and the technology is always changing, but storytelling is forever.
Not only does storytelling endure while everything around it changes, but there is a universal dimension to it. Regardless of geography, the stories we tell universally connect us as people and so storytelling at its heart celebrates universal connectedness.
Yeah, it is absolutely universal and that's why I think it's so fascinating that this film connects with people all over the planet that speak different languages. It is just an American story about an American teenager in 1988, but it connects with people that were not even alive in 1988, and it connects with people that have never even maybe been to America. There are fans in all these different countries and so there's something universal about the experience of this story, and I am very grateful for that. And I think your point is correct that stories can be unifying.
Speaking with Oliver Stone about SNOWDEN, he spoke of the need for a filmmaker to tap into the collective unconscious. Having spoken with filmmakers about the relationship between cinema and dreams, this reference to the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious taps into the layers of a film’s consciousness. Owing to DONNIE DARKO’S dreamlike nature, I'd be interested to hear your own thoughts on the link between dreams, consciousness and cinema?
I believe that there is a logic to consciousness and I think that dreams do have a design to them, and that design can be very much based upon the dreamer. I don't disagree with anything that Oliver Stone said and that's a great observation because I think we all struggle to understand our own dreams, and we wrestle with our own sub-conscious or unconscious mind in the best way we can. So if anything, as you get older you try to make sense of all these layers and you try to make peace with them. And if anyone can survive what Oliver survived, the experience of serving in Vietnam, then that's an inspiration to anyone.
Recalling the idea that there are so many archetypal stories, is one of the reasons because films like dreams serve to help us to understand our world? Hence, are the same stories told again and again in order to help each generation deal with those cyclic themes that confront each generation?
There are no rules in a dream, but there are rules in storytelling to a certain degree because if you threw all the rules out the window, then you might not even have anything coherent. So if you are dealing in the verse of dreams, or you are using dreams as a storytelling mechanism for trying to create a logic that has a metaphysical quality to it, then it's just trying to find that balancing act. I mean again, this is part of our jobs as storytellers to make our own rules I guess. But I don't want to put limitations on anything anyone can do, but I do think there is a ground plan you have to put together.
The 4K Restoration of DONNIE DARKO by ARROW FILMS is screening exclusively at the BFI now and will be on general UK release from the 23rd December.
Read the Gore in the Store review of DONNIE DARKO by Steven West here