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.
DOWNLOAD/ON DEMAND – THE DARKEST DAWN– **
Directed by Drew Casson. Starring Bethan Mary Leadley, Cherry Wallis, Stuart Ashen and Drew Casson. Horror/Sci-fi, UK, 76 Minutes. Cert. 15.
Released in the UK by Wildseed Studios on download on the 31st October
There are many perks and pitfalls of the now oft-used medium of ‘found footage’ films. While CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST started the tremd off, it was THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT which truly brought it to the mainstream. Since then it has transcended genres and been utilised to varying degrees of usuccess with the likes of REC and THE BODERLANDS arguably being the best.
A key problem that is often difficult to overcome though is the question audiences ask while watching of ‘why is the camera rolling?’ and it’s often when characters are in mortal danger and the film is going for suspense that the question rears its ugly head.
Few films have managed to fully overcome this issue, and it crops up more than a few times in THE DARKEST DAWN.
The film tells the tale of two sisters – Chloe (Bethan Mary Leadley) and Sam (Cherry Wallis). Opening with an overly friendly and cosy depiction of family life, it soon descends into madness when an unspecified alien attack hits the U.K. Chloe has been given a camera for her birthday though and records occasional snapshots of events as the girls are separated from their mum and dad before happening upon a group of survivors trying to escape the post-apocalyptic hell they are enveloped in.
Shot on a micro-budget, the films visual effects are often impressive and are used both sparingly and effectively – an early plane crash and the visions of a wiped out London are standouts and to this end the film uses its hand-held camera approach well. The immediacy of the danger and the way that we’re almost literally viewing events from one characters point of view adds to the tension, not to mention the scripts un-prejudiced attitude to who lives and who dies.
Yet this is a double-edged sword – the need for tension and exposition means that far too many times you’re screaming ‘TURN THE CAMERA OFF AND GET TO SAFETY!’. For films that are supposed to feel realistic and immediate, it actually ends up serving as a conscious reminder that you’re watching a film. Elongated blackouts on the other hand would create tension in another way (THE WITCH, one of this year’s best films, has several of these that have the effect of leaving you on the edge of your seat). On one rare occasion during an attack on a boat, the camera is understandably dropped but keeps rolling and the effect is impressive – but this is very much the exception, and not the rule.
It also doesn’t help that the plot does feel relatively familiar. A big scale attack with a domestic focus was an original idea 15 years ago but since then SIGNS, 28 DAYS LATER and CLOVERFIELD have all tried this approach with better results. Yes, they had much bigger budgets and better resources, but THE DARKEST DAWN still feels more like a copy than its own beast. Despite some surprises and the aforementioned visual effects, it’s a film that while not lacking a degree of promise for those involved, fails to have any sort of significant impact.