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 eVIL WiTHIN ***
Directed by Andrew Getty, Starring: Frederick Koehler, Sean Patrick Flanery, Dina Meyer, Michael Berryman. Horror, US, 2017, 98mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD on 4th September 2017 by Screenbound Pictures Ltd.
It’s impossible to review THE EVIL WITHIN without considering the extraordinarily protracted 15-year journey it took to get the ‘finished’ product released. Writer/director Andrew Rork Getty, billionaire grandson of J. Paul Getty, started principal photography on his first and only feature film back in 2002. Having sank an estimated $4-6 million of his own fortune into the project, (the actual production ran on for 5 years) the film still remained unfinished with colouring and editing left to complete when Getty died on 31st March 2015 aged 47 from a haemorrhaging ulcer after a history of recreational meth usage. Enter stage left editor and producer Michael Luceri who made it his mission to see Getty’s obsession completed.
The plot reads like your standard average straight to DVD supermarket shelf-filler. An antique mirror contains a demonic entity which commands a man to commit grisly murders.
Dennis Peterson (Frederick Koehler) lives with his older brother John (Flanery). Dennis was a child prodigy until an altercation with his jealous brother resulted in him suffering severe brain trauma and ongoing learning difficulties. Despite protestations from his unsympathetic girlfriend Lydia (Meyer) that Dennis should be placed in an institution, older brother John’s guilt outweighs his desire to appease Lydia. Unfortunately, John’s misguided gift to Dennis of an antique mirror results in Dennis’ reflection, (overseen by a demonic entity listed as ‘Cadaver’ in the credits and played by the iconic Michael Berryman), convincing Dennis that the only way to prove he is smarter than everyone perceives him to be is to kill the next door’s ginger cat. Once Dennis begins to fill his ice-box with most of the neighbourhood’s furry critters, Dennis’ killing spree cranks up at an alarming rate of notches and soon human corpses both young and mature begin to pile up at the behest of Cadaver and Dennis’ ‘smarter’ reflection...
Given its production history, the final product is surprisingly coherent (albeit within the context of potentially meth-induced fever dreams). The film opens with a barrage of surreal stop-motion-like images before a very young Dennis recounts a childhood nightmare whereby his mother takes him on a ghost train ride in the middle of an arid desert landscape before removing her sunglasses to reveal tiny mouths in her eye sockets. Getty pulls off some impressively bravura effects and illusion sequences which are hard to forget. His use of mirrors proves particularly unsettling, and the sight of the creepily demonic Berryman unzipping Dennis’ back like a fleshy jump suit is now burned into my retinas forever.
Back in the mundane ‘real’ world, the scripts blandness and general implausibility occasionally threaten to put the brakes on the outlandishly inspired weirdness of Getty’s visions, but thankfully you don’t have to wait long before the next act of random violence, head spinning in-camera surrealism, or jarring time-machine cameo (Matthew ‘Tiny’ McGrory from THE DEVIL’S REJECTS!).
Sean Patrick Flanery and Dina Meyer give it their best respective shots with the uninspiring dialogue, but given the sheer lunacy bookending their scenes together, these inevitably appear hollow and flat. And to be fair, Frederick Koehler’s portrayal of the duality of Dennis and Dennis’ ‘smarter’ reflection is, how much misguided, an undeniable tour-de-force which inevitably overshadows his fellow cast members.
So there you have it, a bewildering mixed bag of Grand Guignol nightmares, which has the potential to become somewhat of a cult classic in years to come, and which, sadly, provides fragmentary glimpses of a real artistic talent lost.