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 – SWISS ARMY MAN – ****
Directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, Starring: Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. Comedy Drama, US, 2016, 94mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray on 10th April 2017 by Lionsgate UK.
Imagine an art-house reworking of WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S and CAST AWAY with Daniel Radcliffe as a perpetually flatulent drowned corpse who washes up ashore a deserted island. Well, almost deserted, apart from a bearded young man, Hank (Paul Dano), a stranded castaway who’s just about to hang himself when he spies ‘Manny’ lying on the beach. Hank’s initial hope of living company soon turns to despair when he realises Manny is dead, but Manny is destined to become Hank’s ‘Wilson’ like Tom Hank’s volleyball in CAST AWAY. And he’s also about to be Hank’s ticket off the island when Hank harnesses Manny’s propellant fart power to ride him like a jet ski back to the mainland.
Bodily functions play a crucial role in directors’ Scheinert and Kwan’s (the ‘Daniels’) surreal and charmingly quirky meditation on the human condition. Audaciously skipping across a tight rope of puerile crudity and gross-out outrageousness, it also finds time to juggle in affecting moments of pathos and regret, and a re-evaluation of the restorative power of Cheesy Puffs.
Radcliffe undertakes as much of the physical dead corpse work as he can, including selling practical effects such as spewing geysers of digestive seawater, whilst inevitably having to concede certain tasks to stunt dummies, stunt bottoms (and animatronic penis).
Paul Dano carries the film (and often Radcliffe’s corpse) as the desperate and disillusioned Hank, who finds himself increasingly confiding in his deceased confidant. The two characters ‘exchanges’ on the intricacies of the body’s biological functions induce full-on guffaws, whilst scattering wry observations on modern life and unrequited love in equal measure.
The sound department excel themselves in providing an impressive arsenal of variant fart effects which renders the camp fire sequence in BLAZZING SADDLES positively constipated in comparison. The uplifting vocal scoring elevates and soars to accompany Hank’s trials and tribulations. The detailed intricacies of the set designs (such as the simulated ‘bus ride’ sequence) consistently provide intriguing possibilities for the players to work with. And there’s also a refreshing commitment to practical effects over CG work, wherever possible, so whilst you won’t quite believe a man can fly by intestinal gastric expulsion, you have to at least admire the audacity of the gag.
I know this is a film which divides. I’ll wager you’ll know by the time the title credits flash up to accompany Hank’s butt-ski dash across the waves whether this is a film you’ll happily let float your boat, or one which you’ll happily tell the filmmakers exactly where they can shove it. I for one loved its unabashed unapologetic lack of self-restraint coupled with its joyously tainted sentimental optimism about acceptance. And it had the best use of the theme from ‘Jurassic Park’ ever.
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Q&A with the filmmakers, Behind the Scenes Featurettes and Audio Commentary.