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 – SHELLEY – ****
Directed by Ali Abbasi. Starring Cosmina Stratan, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Peter Christoffersen. Horror, Denmark, 92 mins, cert 18.
Released on DVD in the UK by StudioCanal on the 10th October, 2016.
Horror doesn't need to be grand and graphic and spectacular to succeed. It can be, but there are other paths to tread. Sometimes you can succeed on a smaller scale by being understated, naturalistic and restrained, provoking a feeling of discomfort, rather than flinging entrails around the room for an in-your-face grossout to a crash bang wallop soundtrack. Quiet darkness can be far more eerie than sound and fury.
SHELLEY is a Danish (though mostly English language) horror film which, despite carrying an 18 certificate, keeps much of the proceedings so subtle and steadily paced that it manages to be far scarier and far more unsettling than any number of horrifying prosthetics or violent death scenes. Young Eleni takes a job at a remote farmstead, cut off from the world without even mains electricity (thus rendering her cellphone useless since she can't charge it) or water supply. Initially she's generally helping Louise and Kasper around the house, cleaning out the chickens and picking the crops, but eventually Louise asks if she would agree to be a surrogate mother so they can finally have a child. Tempted by the financial offer, she accepts - but it's a difficult and awkward process right from the start....
This is a pleasingly weird kind of body horror film in which the natural process of pregnancy, which is supposedly perfectly normal, here seems to be deeply worrying: I squirmed repeatedly through the second half of the film and it's obviously not a process I'm ever going to experience for myself. (When I'd got to the end the one thing I really wanted to do was dig out my old DVD of Cronenberg's THE BROOD.) The changes through which Eleni goes are presented more uncomfortably than any kind of alien or demonic possession, and left me feeling as distressed as pretty much any horror movie I can think of has ever managed. And even when the child (Shelley) is finally born, the film switches from "what's wrong with the pregnancy?" to "what's wrong with the child?", maintaining that level of gloomy worry. That's because everything is kept so low-key and intimate: the malign influence that the newborn Shelley may or may not possess is left unexplored.
Yet another of the FrightFest Discovery selections that I missed simply because you can't see everything, SHELLEY turns out to be one of the best films on show. Most of the time it's downbeat and downplayed, though it does go for blood on a few occasions and it pulls these off very effectively. And perhaps most impressively, it's stuck with me and won't fade away: I'm still thinking about it a week later. Well worth catching.