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 BELKO EXPERIMENT – ***
Directed by Greg McLean. Starring John M Gallagher Jr, Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C McGinley, Michael Rooker. Action/Thriller, USA, 89 mins, cert 18.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Vertigo on the 21st April, 2017.
Or Battle Royale: The Marketing Department Years. Kinji·Fukusaku's 2000 cult action movie really is the template here: a large group of innocent people are dropped into a senseless game of Last Man Standing. Truth be told, I was never a huge fan of BATTLE ROYALE: the rationale behind the contest didn't make much sense, and there was the overriding impression that the film's real appeal was the sight of girls in school uniforms beating the daylights out of each other with assorted kitchen implements.
There isn't that much of a solid rationale behind·THE BELKO EXPERIMENT·either, beyond the obvious titular fact that it's an experiment. But by whom, and for what purpose? Eighty American office workers at a non-profit NGO in Bogota, Colombia are suddenly locked into their fortress-like office block and informed via tannoy that unless two of the personnel are killed in the next half hour then other randomly selected workers will be executed. They've all agreed to have electronic gizmos implanted in their skulls, ostensibly as a precaution against kidnappings, but they're really small bombs that will be spectacularly detonated unless they get on with the grisly business of killing their friends and colleagues...
Sure, it's got some shades of the moral quandaries, as some of the staff are okay with killing some to (possibly) save more, while others don't want to cross that line at all. But the ethical arguments are secondary to the film's Friday night splattery entertainment value, with a lot of (literally) headbanging violence and liberal bloodshed, aided by a strong supporting cast of familiar faces: among the villains are John C McGinley as a creepy sex pest and Tony Goldwyn as the office manager, while John M Gallagher Jr (10 CLOVERFIELD LANE) is the more likeable but less strident voice of sanity. It's perhaps a pity that as the carnage continues and the body count gets higher, some of the character gets lost as the excessive killing and slaughter piles up while cheery pop or (as in BATTLE ROYALE) imposing classical music plays on the soundtrack.
Still, it's enjoyably grisly with more than enough blood and grue to get that 18 rating and, as one who's worked in offices since the 1980s, there's always that mischievous question of which of your water-cooler colleagues you could take down if you absolutely had to (sadly, for me the answer is "very few"). James Gunn's script doesn't hold back on the ickiness: he may be a big name now with the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films, but he started out with the Troma outfit and also gave us SLITHER and the screenplay for Zack Snyder's DAWN OF THE DEAD, so he knows his cheery nastiness. Meanwhile Greg McLean gets his winning form back somewhat after the POLTERGEIST-lite THE DARKNESS; it's not WOLF CREEK by a long way, and it doesn't have great depth, but it's a solid, decent, well-shot (!) exploitation movie that may occasionally go over the top but does have a terrific final shot to pull back on. No great shakes, but agreeably trashy fun.