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.
BOOK REVIEW – SKITTER - ***
By Ezekiel Boone. Published by Gollancz, 27th April 2017. Hardback £14.99, eBook £7.99, Audiobook £19.99
What is it about spiders. Why are people so frightened of them? You should see the hysterics in my house when one turns up in our bathroom. So I'm surprised that I haven't been reading more books like SKITTER.
SKITTER is the sequel to last year's THE HATCHING in which a plague of long dormant flesh-eating spiders erupts devastating huge areas of the world. Millions are dead and much of China is a nuclear wasteland and after an infected ship runs aground in Los Angeles the city and much of the west coast of the US is quarantined.
Spider expert Professor Melanie Gruyer and her team are struggling to make heads and tails of what's going on after the spiders stop their relentless advance, retreat and die. Humanity breathes a huge collective sigh of relief as people begin to think that the outbreak is over. In reality it’s not so. It's a tactical retreat to protect the eggs of the next generation of spiders. In a related sinister development, a lorry-size glowing egg sack is discovered in Japan. Meanwhile, survivors from Los Angeles break the quarantine cordon around the city and this and other events prompt the US president Stephanie Pilgrim to activate The Spanish Protocol.
SKITTER is the middle book of three and does a lot of marking time. It uses the time to fill in a wee bit more of the back story of the spiders and to catch up with many of the folks that featured in THE HATCHING. FBI Agent Mike Rich, Gordo and Shotgun, and Professor Melanie Gruyer's ex-husband, Manny Walchuk with the aim of keeping readers interested while setting things up for the finale.
Ezekiel writes well and the pages whiz by. SKITTER manages to retain much of the creepy-ness of book one while getting on with the business of building to the inevitable cliff hanger to make sure we will be back for book three. Although you could read SKITTER as a stand alone novel, I wouldn’t, read THE HATCHING first.
It's always darkest just before dawn.