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.
Film REVIEW – TALES OF HALLOWEEN **
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, Axelle Carolyn, Adam Gierasch, Neil Marshall, Lucky McKee, Mike Mendez, David Parker, Ryan Schifrin, John Skipp, Andrew Kasch, Paul Solet. Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Adam Green, Pat Healy. Horror, USA, 97 Minutes. Cert. 18.
Released on download in the UK by Epic Pictures Group on the 17th October and on DVD/Blu-Ray on 24th October.
Presented as a feature film, TALES OF HALLOWEEN is actually a collection of ten individual shorts, all set in the same town on Halloween night and, although not interconnected per se, all sharing the same stylistic look. A few characters even crop up throughout. The tone is surprisingly even, especially in the aesthetic of the films, with the effective opening credits setting things up neatly. The films themselves however are, predictably, a mixed bag with many of them being just plain predictable.
SWEET TOOTH is a neat riff on the ancient idea of the dead walking the earth on October 31st coming face to face with the more modern notion of handing out sweets on the self-same night. It’s heavy on its references to John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN with the director even lending his name to a chocolate bar left out for the titular boogeyman. It relies a little too much on gore though, with the character of Sweet Tooth being far too comical when he is briefly glimpsed.
THE NIGHT BILLY RAISED HELL is the tale of a somewhat recluse neighbourhood villain wreaking genuine havoc on the town with a young associate alongside him. It aims for dark humour, but the conclusion to the final twist results in it simply feeling unpleasant.
TRICK works as an effective home-invasion story, whereby the trick or treaters terrorise a group of adults and involves a well-executed tracking shot.
THE WEAK AND THE WICKED is a somewhat obvious revenge story in which not enough time is given to explain the antagonists reasoning for wanting to do what they initially did to set up the protagonists need for vengeance.
GRIM GRINNING GHOST opens with a tale of a bullied girl who stalks her prey when they least expect it. It’s fairly clear what is going to happen, but director Axelle Carolyn plays on a few horror genre clichés and, somewhat surprisingly, ends the segment with the best jump in the entire feature.
DING DONG plays on Hansel and Gretel and examines a barren couple upset about all the children running around at Halloween. It could have been a lot more effective without the odd monster overtones that are as unexplained as they are unnecessary.
THIS MEANS WAR has the type of plot we’ve come to expect from terrible Christmas films over the years as rival neighbours compete with their Halloween decoration display. It’s actually a smart fusion of old and new horror on some levels but, bizarrely for a short, feels lacking in story development.
FRIDAY THE 31ST contains sci-fi overtones as a crazed killer kills a teenage girl only for aliens to possess her body and turn the tables on him. The title may be an obvious reference to another horror film set on the same day of the week but the blood and gore are EVIL DEAD like, certainly in terms of the humour expunged from the situation and this can’t be a bad thing.
THE RANSOM OF RUSTY REX sees the tables turned on a pair of hoodlums who kidnap a young child out trick or treating. It’s a simple but smart idea, told with a decent amount of humour and boasting a cameo from John Landis, although the ending is predictable.
Lastly, THE DESCENT director Neil Marshall gives us BAD SEED, a hilariously ludicrous story about a carved pumpkin going on a killer rampage. It’s as daft and as humorous as it sounds, tapping in neatly in to B-movie aesthetics and means you’ll never look at a jack o lantern in the same way ever again.
Yet while the films hang together well and there is at least something to be admired in most of them, the key issue here is that they’re all under ten minutes long. This gives the individual filmmakers little time to create myth, backstory, plot and characters for mood or atmosphere to truly unsettle in the way a good horror film would. On top of this, there is an over-emphasis on gore or shock instead of just an unnerving atmosphere that would have perhaps been more effective. And whatever happened to a good old fashioned haunted house story?