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 – SCARS – *
Directed by Sean K Robb. Starring Danielle Cole, Neale Kimmel, Matt Wells, Eric Regimbald, Ophilia Davis. Canada 2016 108 mins Certificate: 15.
Out on DVD and VOD from Left Films on January 9th 2017.
The feature debut for writer-director Sean K Robb unfolds in a version of Toronto where men are either loathsome abusers, conspiracy bores or the kind of humans who think George W Bush was a good President. In this world, a typical masculine retort is “You’re much more attractive when your mouth is shut” before punching a lady in the face. In reaction to this, long-suffering Goth Danielle Cole stabs her beer-guzzling, oxygen-thieving bloke to death in her kitchen without much difficulty. Meanwhile, professional blackmailer Neale Kimmel, who spends her evenings wooing and then scamming married businessmen, finally hits a streak of dangerous bad luck when she’s dragged into a dark alley by an enraged would-be victim. The two women unite when Cole rescues her from this perilous situation, stabbing the dude to death.
At the core of SCARS is the kind of premise exploitation movies have been exploring for decades. The publicity optimistically compares these two women – known only as “Scar” and “Scarlett” – to Thelma and Louise, but their predecessors are the more charismatic and sympathetic protagonists of livelier movies like RAPE SQUAD (1974) and CEMETERY HIGH (1989). More recently, the third chapter in the revived I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE franchise saw its hitherto lone heroine team up with similarly wronged women to castrate alpha-males in dingy backstreets. “Killing guys is so easy, it’s ridiculous”, our leading ladies enthuse, and certainly their rampage (sometimes played for failed black humour, sometimes straining for significance) is devoid of suspense or any true sense of threat.
Flatly shot and directed, SCARS is a ponderous, vastly overlong bore with ideas above its station. Robb apparently views the whole thing as some kind of edgy commentary on the plight of victimised women in our broken 21st century world, though the constant running commentary courtesy of TV news broadcasts (mostly reporting on Libya) is clunkingly misjudged and tasteless. Perhaps he watched a marathon of early George Romero and considered that his empty, dull movie might seem more important with a side-order of contemporary political horror-show crow-barred in.
The endless denouement involves multiple people tied to a couch, while the universally unconvincing performances give us no one to engage with. The brutality is often neutered by over-exaggerated, borderline-cartoonish sound effects (shame no one thought to add “Crunch!” and “Ker-pow!” captions), but, at this length, even a second-half eye-gouge and decapitation can’t save it from the an(n)als of dullsploitation.