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 CHAMBER – ****
Directed by Ben Parker. Starring Johannes Kuhnke, Charlotte Salt, James McArdle, Elliot Levey. UK, Thriller, 86 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by StudioCanal on 10th March, 2017, and on DVD and Blu-ray on 20th March, 2017.
It's always been a bit of an annoyance to me that films set in confined spaces are described as "claustrophobic". You're the one suffering claustrophobia, not the setting or the film; a small room can't be claustrophobic any more than a cobweb can be arachnophobic. Still: as far as confined settings go, there's little to beat a submarine for triggering any claustrophobia you might have. You're stuck inside a pathetically vulnerable tin box, and in the event of disaster it's still safer inside than out. In many ways a crippled submersible is even worse than a crippled spaceship: rescue or assistance may be tantalisingly that much closer, but they're still unreachable.
The horror of THE CHAMBER isn't what they're looking for at the bottom of the sea off the Korean coast; it's the confinement, it's being trapped with few supplies and fewer options. Mats' (Johannes Kuhnke) little two-man civilian sub is commandeered by a trio of hard-headed US military types (Charlotte Salt, James McArdle, Elliot Levey) on a mission so secret they won't even tell Mats what they're after; they have to break off communications in case anyone's listening in so the rescue ship has no idea where they might be. Disaster inevitably follows and the overmanned vessel (obviously without enough survival suits for the extra personnel) is stuck upside down; the bickering between the four degenerates quickly into bellowing and aggression, as it becomes clear that not all of them, and possibly none of them, will survive it.
You could trace the central horror of Ben Parker's film back to 1950's British disaster drama MORNING DEPARTURE, with its fantastically downbeat ending in which Richard Attenborough and John Mills are trapped in a sunken submarine that they cannot escape and will never be rescued; all they can do is play cards and sing hymns as the camera tracks slowly away from them. THE CHAMBER has less stoicism and stiff upper lipped calm, and more shouting and panic, as much of the midsection of the film is an occasionally repetitive shouting match, throwing blame onto each other and refusing to accept their responsibility for the situation.
Barring a brief opening on the surface ship, and with few if any exteriors once the sub goes under, the entirety of THE CHAMBER plays out between four increasingly desperate characters in one small set as a taut, terse and tense drama, well played, and occasionally shifting your loyalties from one person to another. It's a fairly grim watch, with little in the way of lightness and humour, but it's highly watchable and entertaining, and pulls a couple of effectively startling moments towards the end. And for all its minimal scope (with a little tinkering, it could probably work as a theatre piece) it feels cinematic throughout, never limited by the restrictive setting, and once disaster has struck then it doesn't let the suspense go slack. Recommended, if you can find it (it's another one that's sadly getting a minimal cinema release just before its arrival on home viewing platforms).