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 - RIVER - ****
Directed by Jamie M Dagg. Starring Rossif Sutherland, Sara Botsford, Aiden Gillet, Ted Atherton. Canada, Thriller, 95 mins, cert 15.
Released on DVD in the UK by Kaleidoscope on the 18th July, 2016.
There is an idea in cinema that if you particularly notice how wonderful the photography is, then it means the film isn't working: you're not engaged with the characters, and the drama isn't standing out as much as the camerawork (or, by extension, the score or editing or any of the technical aspects of filmmaking). It's not entirely fair: it's a visual medium so why wouldn't you make the thing look as good as possible? If the visuals aren't important then you might as well be working in radio or books. It's also slightly unfair because obviously there are countless films that look great and are exciting, interesting and/or enjoyable as well, while there aren't that many "classic movies" that boast lousy cinematography. Presumably it's down to what grabs your attention first.
I have to confess that the photography of RIVER was the aspect that struck me first: the Laos locations, which are so far largely unseen in movies (this is apparently the first North American film to be shot there) are gorgeous without being glamorous travelogue, and give the movie a distinct sense of place. But that's not to suggest that story and character are lacking. John Lake (Rossif Sutherland, son of Donald) is a volunteer doctor in Laos ordered to take some time off. While at a bar he sees a pair of backpackers plying a local girl with alcohol; on his way home he encounters the girl being attacked by one of the men, but in trying to defend her he accidentally kills him. What to do - face up to local justice, or make a run for it?
Even though Lake is not really a villain, there is a certain satisfaction in seeing him make one colossally bad decision after another, decisions that clearly confirm his already obvious guilt in the eyes of the authorities, and it's not until much later that he actually has to make a moral decision based on anything other than fear, panic and self-preservation. It's all far more interesting than it could have been: they could have gone down the overtly commercial thriller route with lots of chases and fights, and essentially turned it into a remake of THE FUGITIVE. Or they might have taken it the other way into a mumbly character piece where the crime didn't really matter. In the event first-time feature director Jamie M Dagg has managed to navigate between those two extremes and the result is an entertaining as well as thoughtful movie which I enjoyed a lot. Making us maintain a measure of sympathy for someone like Lake isn't easy but he has managed it.
To be honest it could perhaps have done with a slightly more traditional soundtrack - certainly not the full orchestral Korngold, but RIVER's score (by experimental ambient German drone duo Troum) qualifies only very loosely as actual music. I have some of their earlier tracks playing on Spotify as I type, but I can't honestly say that it's my kind of thing. But the film's an enjoyable ride, perhaps more for home viewing than cinema (it's short on easy multiplex thrills) but worth seeking out. And it looks terrific.