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 – THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE – ****
Directed by André Øvredal. Starring Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond, Michael McElhatton, Olwen Kelly. US, Horror, 85 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Lionsgate on 31 March, 2017, and on DVD and Blu-ray on 26th June, 2017.
The boy genius of Kuba Czekaj’s THE ERLPRINCE ponders what if death is not the end of consciousness? Speaking only for myself, from the Y incision turning our flesh into body flaps, to the violent noise of the rib cutting, I can only hope that it does in fact mark the end. Although SOME KIND OF HATE’S vengeful spirit Moira offers no reassurance, nor does André Øvredal’s THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE that combines an investigative Quincyesque narrative with supernatural horror.
When the body of an unidentified woman is found in mysterious circumstances, veteran coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and son Austin (Emile Hirsch) are asked by the local sheriff to work through the night to shed light on the mystery.
Øvredal’s sophomore feature is an accomplished exercise in escalation, the subtlety of the horror first bleeding out of the autopsy, before things start to go bump in the night. The pair are left dumbfounded by their findings, the story the body tells adding to the mystery rather than clarifying it. The pale lifeless and pristine looking corpse only serves to make the grisly details all the more unsettling, nurturing a sympathy towards the supernatural force as her story is revealed. It instils the horror and suspense with an emotional conflict, sidestepping a simple tale of good versus evil.
JANE DOE puts a whole new spin on the dangers of curiosity as the scalpel blade replaces the insertion of the VHS cassette in the Japanese classic RINGU. While in crime stories there is the risk of failing to catch the killer, in horror there is the danger of winding up a victim. It is this danger that makes the investigative in horror so compelling, characters stepping onto the precipice in search for the truth. And in the case of JANE DOE, the two men all alone in the dead of night only adds to the suspense.
While it is not without a thoughtful side, the themes are never laboured and so it remains an highly effective piece of genre cinema. Filling you with apprehensive dread and making you jump in fright it never leaves you feeling cheated, as though the scares were not earned. Executed so meticulously it almost has the rhythm of a musical score, Øvredal showing his skill at synchronising the anticipation with the climax. But the success of the film must be credited to the collaboration of its writers, director and actors. It is meticulously plotted, a perfect blend of investigative and supernatural horror, and while Øvredal shows off his technical skills, Cox and Hirsch show they know how to work with this type of dialogue and plotting.