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 BINDING ***
Directed by Gus Krieger. Starring Amy Gumenick, Josh Heisler, James Rose Collons, Kate Fuglei, Leon Russom. Horror/Drama, USA, 85 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK as a Digital Download on 18th December 2017.
Dealing with concepts of faith, belief, the family unit and the perception of others in an intelligent way not often seen in modern horror, writer/producer/director Gus Krieger’s debut feature THE BINDING is a surprisingly effective and thought-provoking independent movie that suggests Krieger may be a filmmaker to watch if the stars align and THE BINDING doesn’t get lost amongst the plethora of low-budget direct-to-DVD dreck that gets marketed as one thing when, more often than not, it is something else entirely.
The film centres on Sarah Iman (Amy Gumenick – ARROW), her husband Bram (Josh Heisler – THE BANNEN WAY) and their baby daughter Scaia. The family are deeply religious, with Bram being a priest at their local church, and although to the outside world everything seems perfect as the family celebrate Scaia’s christening a few small chinks in the armour start to appear as Sarah hides packets of cigarettes around the house to sneak in a crafty smoke when she thinks nobody is around, and she also barely hides her disapproval of their openly homosexual neighbours who offer good tidings for the Imans’ happy day.
However, after the celebrations have finished Bram starts to experience what he interprets as visions of God instructing him on how to prevent Armageddon and save mankind, although when the couple go to speak to Bram’s superior Father Uriel (Leon Russom – TRUE GRIT) Bram reveals that in order carry out God’s wishes he must sacrifice Scaia, forcing the family to look to the church and to look within themselves to try and work out whether what Bram is experiencing is indeed divine, psychological or whether there is something more diabolical at work.
From the outset THE BINDING is a film that is very dialogue-heavy and it soon becomes apparent that this is not going to resort to CGI demons or pea soup being flung around in great quantities in order to get a reaction so anybody going into this expecting THE EXORCIST on a budget is going to be very disappointed. What you do get, however, is a very intelligent and mature exploration of the nature of faith and the questions it throws up that is helped no end by a brilliant performance from Amy Gumenick as Sarah, the too-good-to-be-true housewife and mother who must face her own prejudices and question what she has been told by the church in order to keep her family together. In one scene Sarah goes to visit her gay neighbour in order to return the neighbourly gesture of some biscuits he brought round for the christening and, after getting the initial awkwardness out of the way, is taken aback when said neighbour laughs at her Christian beliefs. It isn’t a majorly important scene in terms of the plot but it does show thoughtful writing on the part of Gus Krieger and Amy Gumenick acts her heart out as Sarah realises that the beliefs she holds dear may not be totally in keeping with how she would like to be perceived by others.
However, Krieger’s deep writing and Gumenick’s dynamite performance do get undermined every so often by Josh Heisler’s wooden delivery, as Bram is given some fairly schizophrenic lines to say and Heisler just doesn’t grasp the tone of what is required to make Bram the sympathetic character he should be, even when his intentions are made clear and he feels he cannot do anything to stop it. Whether it is down to plain bad acting or lack of direction is not clear but it does bring the film down somewhat, almost to a halt in certain places..
But poor performances aside, THE BINDING does ultimately prove to be a simple but effective drama with a horror-driven heart that, given a bit more experience behind the camera and a bigger budget in front of it, would likely have studios willing to give it a bit of a push if it contained more of the head-spinning and melting ghost faces that bring in teenage audiences, something that the narrative really does not need in order to work. Nevertheless, there are more than a few neat writing tricks Gus Krieger employs that make THE BINDING worth watching for something a little more cerebral than your average possession/exorcism movie and that heartfelt performance from Amy Gumenick is more than enough to keep you invested in the compelling and contemplative story.