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 – THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE ***
Directed by Andre Ovredal. Starring Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond, Michael McElhatton, Olwen Kelly. USA / UK 2016 87 mins Certificate: 15
Released on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD on 26th June 2017
Inspired by the success of THE CONJURING, TROLL HUNTER director Andre Ovredal searched for a classical horror film and ended up making this small-scale but highly effective bone-chiller in an East End warehouse, filming in chronological order over a period of five weeks. Fulfilling the considerable promise of his inventive 2010 found-footage monster movie, JANE DOE is an exercise in claustrophobic suspense cannily merging the slow-burn, suggestive frissons of yesteryear’s horror with the visceral unease promised by the title.
The build-up is nerve-wracking. An unidentifiable female corpse is found in the basement of a multiple-murder crime scene; seemingly unrelated to the other victims, she also appears to have been dead for significantly longer. This Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly) is taken to the family business of father-son coroners Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, who have the night to determine the cause of death. Nothing about Jane Doe’s cadaver makes any sense, from a series of inexplicable and horrific internal injuries (yet no corresponding signs of external damage) to a swallowed tooth, an approximate time of death in inverse proportion to her physical state and bizarre tattooed markings ominously linked to 17th century New England.
Ovredal has crafted an intense, stripped-down, largely two-handed piece with no extraneous sub-plots or clumsily deployed secondary characters. The pivotal third role is that of a beautiful female corpse, played by an actress who is on-screen throughout, seems to “do” nothing and yet somehow conveys a powerful, other-worldly presence. Unfolding over a single night and never leaving the confines of the building (save for short book-ends), the film smartly exploits audience discomfort at forensic detail. Even in the post-CSI era, it becomes ever more unsettling to experience the detailed examination of this young woman, from the abrasive, deliberately heightened audio of cracking ribs to the subversion of the genre’s usual titillation quotient via the recurring imagery throughout of a very attractive but very dead naked woman. The unease sustained around this central tableau recalls the memorably gruelling autopsy in Jonathan Demme’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
Against the audio backdrop of a gathering, violent storm, radio weather-casts and ironically chosen vintage songs, the film maintains its icy grip without resorting to cheap shots or clichés. There’s a gruesome, neat riff on the age-old cat scare, oppressive use of the foreboding location and bravura sound design: perhaps the biggest fright is the simplest – an eerily tinkling bell representing one of Cox’s upheld traditions, and designed to prevent anyone from being buried alive. Orvedal knows just how much less can be more, invoking neck-hair-stiffening chills from nothing more dramatic than an open morgue drawer. Gore is used sparingly – though the make-up and prosthetics are exceptional – and atmosphere is everything: few recent horror movies have conveyed such a potent sense of a monumental supernatural force at work.
It’s beautifully lit, shot and scored, and edited to a pitch perfect pace. If the ending might err on the side of tradition in terms of cyclical, downbeat 70’s / 80’s genre resolutions, it’s still as eerily resonant as everything that has gone before.