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.
IN CONVERSATION: THE GAUNTLET OF EMOTION: BEN PARKER ON THE CHAMBER
FrightFest has always tried to instil an emphasis on family – individuals connected by a shared affection for genre cinema. Writer-director Ben Parker’s debut feature THE CHAMBER had its UK Premiere at FrightFest 2016, and recalling Scorsese’s words about the role the cinema played in ushering him into a filmmaking career, Parker’s film echoes such a sentiment. Looking back on the experience Parker says: “It was fantastic. I was very nervous about showing it to FrightFest because I know they are hardcore horror fans and this is not a hardcore horror film. But but it reminded and reassured me that it's not just hardcore horror, they appreciate the whole genre. They appreciate good films, good tension, good suspense and good scares. I go to FrightFest every year and so to premiere the film there was special.”
In conversation with FrightFest Parker discussed the regrettable approach cinema is taking to pursuing audience interest, the business versus the art, and the flexibility for a storyteller to learn outside of the actual filmmaking process. He also shared his thoughts on the relationship of the audience to a film in the scope of responsibility and ownership.
How did the expectations of the experience compare to the realities?
It's a very weird mix for me because I'd spent quite a lot of time trying to get a feature film made. Shooting the film itself was stressful and chaotic, but really I was on cloud nine making it. The daunting reality that it takes a year to put the film together in postproduction is a surprise, and then the absolute fear that you've been watching it over and over again, you're pretty sure it's okay, but you then have to show it to an audience. I remember thinking: Oh, it's going to play at FrightFest and then crapping my pants about a month beforehand [laughs]. I had a good experience because everybody liked it, not everybody, but it had a good response. I think I was dreading the worst and so my experience was always going to be good - much better than my worst case scenario.
I'm thinking of the famous political line, “… You can’t please all of the people all of the time”. As a filmmaker is it essential to accept that there will be a mix of positive and negative reactions?
Yeah, and the horror genre is interesting because you ask people what scares them and you'll get a lot of the same answers. But if you ask people what will make them happy, what they find romantic, it's a lot harder to get the same answer. So the horror genre is the one a lot of directors and writers feel: As long as I do the same thing that scares people, as long as I do the same thing that horror fans appreciate, I can live within that quite comfortably. And it's my opinion that directors and writers should be going outside of their comfort zone. I personally wouldn't feel satisfied if I wasn't trying to push at the boundaries a little bit to show the audience something they haven't seen before. In that way you are bound to get lots of people that don't like it, but if you can get to the option where people don't like it and are vocal about why they don't like it, then I'm fine with that. It's people who don't bother to see it or don't feel either way. The review of ‘meh’ is the worst nightmare [laughs] - that you feel completely indifferent to it.
There are a number of suspense directors including Roman Polanski and Brian De Palma that are cited as Hitchcockian directors. Having completed a suspense film yourself, how do you and your generation look upon Alfred Hitchcock and his place in cinema as the Master of Suspense?
Well anybody that doesn't like Hitchcock is kind of weird, but not everybody likes De Palma. I am a huge De Palma fan and I think at the time everyone said that he was just ripping off Hitchcock. I don't have a problem with that. If you can rip off the Master of Suspense then you are doing something good, and I would be more than happy if somebody said I was ripping off De Palma or James Cameron. I think the the problem with modern film is, and this is going to sound retro and old, but when MTV came in during the nineties everything got quicker and the attention span of everybody dropped. Now that we've got social media everybody's attention span has just dropped to zero, and filmmakers feel they need to do a hundred and one jump cuts to make it interesting. I think it's a shame that more filmmakers don't take enough risks to be more confident and build suspense over a two hour period. I appreciate films that do that.
A slower pace forces the audience to look more closely and allows a cognitive process to unfold that would be suffocated by the approach of a hundred and one jump cuts. But as you say, film is a business and the need to get the audience through the doors will often mean artistic integrity is a casualty of the business objectives.
Yeah, I do appreciate and I do get that it's a business as well, and I applaud films that are able to walk the line between being business viable, but also doing a great job. It's a good time at the moment for nerd directors like Joss Whedon and James Gunn that are able to be super geeky, be good filmmakers and are also able to get money from the studios. I think that's a great thing and with horror we need a new resurgence of directors that are appreciated for being masters of the craft and who are driving it forward. John Carpenter did that really well, and as my generation get older and we look back to see that the John Carpenters and Brian De Palmas were the masters, and we should be looking to them for inspiration.
How has THE CHAMBER impacted your perception of the creation of suspense in the cinema? Has your understanding of and appreciation for suspense changed?
I think the key to directing is to get on camera what you have in your head and that didn't change for me. To understand suspense and to be someone that can practice that in a film, then a good place to start would be to tell a good joke. A musician understands suspense because they know how to grab an audience and keep them on that journey. I think a good storyteller, a good joke-teller, a good musician, they all understand suspense. To be able to create good suspense I think you need to appreciate all of those things as a filmmaker.
Of course the understanding of suspense from the perspective of the audience differs to that of the perspective of the filmmaker, owing to the latter having to create the suspense.
Yeah and a lot of it’s down to the edit, and telling a really well crafted joke is remembering the lines, which is the script. So make sure that the joke is there in the script. The directing is the delivery and you need to make it easier to direct that because you could overshoot it, and you need to make sure you get the timing and the delivery in the edit.
Filmmakers have told me that editing is the best training ground for a director. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how the experience of editing THE CHAMBER will impact your approach to writing and directing in the future?
It's all about coverage and timing. Coverage is something you learn a lot about in the edit, when you go through it and you see here's my delivery of the joke, but this punch line is missing because we needed to shoot it. That tells you as a director that you need to have a keen eye on making sure that you get the shot that you need to tell the story. As a writer the editing process teaches you about suspense and tension. When you go through the slow process of editing and you see the film you’re making a hundred times, that repetition of seeing it over and over again teaches you the form and the timing of the film itself. It teaches you the beats of here's what happens in the first act, the second act and then at the end. But I don't think that's confined to editing because as a filmmaker and writer you can get that from watching a film, if you really sit with it over and over again.
Speaking with Carol Morley for·THE FALLING she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” And if the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
It definitely does. There was a recent example where a filmmaker said: “Well I wanted to do that differently, so I'm going to take all this back and I'm going to change it.” But it has already gone out there and it belongs to the public now - to the people that paid to see it. Obviously they own it and I think if you want to mess with the film after it has been made, you need to talk to them and make sure they're happy. And if you are going to remake a film as well. I have a complicated feeling about remakes because you are remaking something that belongs to the audience, and I think they should have a say. The judgement of the film is always: Did you look after the opinions of the people who loved the original. It definitely does belong to you and it belongs to you earlier than the release. It belongs to the people who worked on it as well. You have a responsibility to the people that worked on the film and a responsibility to the audience. But even before it’s shown to an audience, you have to bear them in mind.
THE CHAMBER is in UK theatres from 10 March 2017 and will be available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital Download from 20 March 2017 courtesy of Studio Canal.
Read Richard Street's four star review HERE