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 – SOUTHBOUND – ****
Directed by Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Hovarth, Radio Silence. Starring Chad Villela, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Kristina Pesic, Fabianne Therese, Hannah marks, Anessa Ramsey, Mather Zickel, Larry Fessenden. USA 2015 85 mins Certificate: 18
Released on DVD / Blu-Ray from Studio Canal 8th August 2016
Although its directorial collective have significant previous experience with the V/H/S franchise, with SOUTHBOUND they have combined to craft something far more consistent and satisfying than any of the three movies in that particular portmanteau franchise. Framed by a wraparound that cleverly dovetails the punchline of each successive tale into the opening of the next, this is a marvellously eerie 21st century incarnation of the old-school Amicus horror anthologies in which the specific indiscretions of a small character ensemble are gruesomely punished, incarcerating them in a prison of their own making. The five stories are inextricably linked by an unidentifiable stretch of highway on which all of the protagonists find themselves, and by Larry Fessenden’s off-camera radio D.J., who exists in a netherworld somewhere between Rod Serling and Adrienne Barbeau’s Stevie Wayne from Carpenter’s THE FOG.
The dread-infused tone is set by “The Way In”, in which TV clips from CARNIVAL OF SOULS reflect one of the key influences. A pair of young, wounded men have just taken the law into their own hands for unspecified reasons, and take refuge at an ominous gas station from which they cannot escape. The uniquely sinister, skeletal “Collectors” that subsequently hound them (and one show-stopping, visceral death sequence) provide startling, memorable imagery as their plight becomes apparent.
In “The Siren”, three members of a girl band on a booze-fuelled road trip get a flat tyre and are picked up by a creepily chipper middle-aged couple who invite them back to a home that seems stuck in 1950’s Americana. Unsettling platitudes (“The first time is the worst time!”) and a dubious “Sunday roast” form part of a beguiling build up, and the Sitcom-Family-From-Hell antagonists are possibly worthy of a movie in their own right. In the intense, uncomfortable “The Accident”, Mather Zickel offers a bravura performance as a distracted driver on that same highway who ploughs into a young woman and is instructed by an EMT on the phone to perform surgical procedures upon her within an abandoned, untraceable hospital he finds in the ensuing panic. This episode incorporates the most cringe-inducing grue of the quintet.
“Jailbreak” centres around a desperate, gun-toting man at the end of his 13 year search for a girlfriend who vanished in the town without a trace. His confrontation with the uncooperative regulars at a low-rent bar leads only to trouble and an applause-worthy exploding head. Finally, “The Way Out” cleverly brings everything full circle via a suspenseful story of a family beset by masked home-invaders at their holiday home; it also has the most overt creature FX of the five stories.
Set to a dynamic, pounding Carpenter-inspired score by The Gifted, SOUTHBOUND is a rare genre anthology feature in which each episode achieves its own distinctive, uneasy mood while remaining consistent with the core concept and the style of the surrounding tales. Fessenden, who oversees the superb horror radio series “Tales From Beyond The Pale”, makes for an engagingly coarse and earthy narrator, and crucially the film conveys a vivid sense of a wider mythology for its haunted backdrop, one that would warrant further exploration in future chapters. Well played by an almost entirely unknown cast (and, crucially, avoiding the kind of obnoxious, abrasive characters that marred so much of the V/H/S movies), it’s unusually smart, serious and sincere. What’s more, this modestly budgeted feature could teach an awful lot to filmmakers on all sides of the horror spectrum about effectively combining subtly deployed CGI and (terrific) practical gore FX within a well-structured context that doesn’t condescend to its own audience and also comes up with its own unique, chillingly realised monsters.