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.
BLu-ray Review – the boy and the beast ****
Directed by Mamoru Hosoda. Starring Koji Yakusho, Aoi Miyazaki. Japan 2015 116 mins Certificate: 12
Out now on DVD and Blu-Ray from StudioCanal
Japan’s second highest grossing film of 2015, this is a charming and smartly handled coming of age story brought to life via a combination of hand-drawn and CGI animation from WOLF CHILDREN director Mamoru Hosoda, whose reputation is steadily growing. Punctuated by large scale action set pieces, battles and a myriad of monsters, it invites predictable comparisons to SPIRITED AWAY but has a poignant charm of its own amidst the action and light humour.
The boy of the title is Kyuta, a lonely, embittered orphan on the streets of Shibuya, whose only friend is a humble mouse. Meanwhile, in the bowl-shaped Beast Kingdom, wherein around 100,000 beasts dwell, agile but childless “warrior beast” Kumatetsu is named as a successor for the current, soon-to-retire Lord. He sets out to find a human apprentice, grooming Kyuta as a disciple, struggling at first with the training process and also with their mutual differences: in the beast kingdom, Kyuta has to face his fear of being skinned or caged, while also being appalled by Kumatetsu’s habit of eating raw eggs.
There follows a rites of passage tale refracted through two disparate characters who are nonetheless equally lonely and stubborn. A sub-plot details Kyuta’s budding romantic interest and Hosoda manages to juggle the tonal shifts without the movie ever becoming overly sentimental. He is helped in this regard – at least in the original Japanese language version - by sterling voice work from Koji Yakusho and Aoi Miyazaki who find subtle nuances in their characterisations of, respectively, Kumatetsu and Kyuta.
The second half, featuring an older Kyuta and side-lining Kumatetsu, is perhaps a mite less engaging since the appealing interplay of the first hour is reduced. It’s still a real charmer, however, and satisfies with its pleasing avoidance of a predictable Hollywood narrative path, and its memorable central double act: the clumsy, muscular beast and the sharp-tongued Kyuta (“Stop sulking and get up!”) could make for a great sitcom couple.