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.
GAME REView – THE eVIL WITHIN *****
Developed by Tango Gameworks. Action, PEGI 18
Released in UK on PS4/Xbox One by Bethesda Softworks on 13th October 2017, RRP £49.99.
If you thought The Evil Within was completely bonkers and utterly gross, then boy are you in for a grizzly treat with this sequel, which was penned by none other than Trent Haaga, who wrote and directed ’68 Kill.
Haaga’s B-movie credentials are out in full force here as he delivers a story riddled with goofy dialogue that sees returning hero Sebastian Castellanos thrust into a virtual world of sorts known as STEM in order to save his daughter, Lily, who we all assumed dead in a house fire during the messed events of the first game.
Now, don’t mistake our words as a knock on Haaga’s work, in fact it’s quite the opposite – despite some of the narrative choices and simplicity of the tale he’s woven here, it’s actually a pretty solid story that deals with some interesting themes for a video game, including guilt and, ultimately, redemption.
Beside the twisted story there’s a whole new world for you to explore here – the virtual world in STEM takes the form of a town called Union, which has been overrun by gnarly monsters guaranteed to scare the bejesus out of you on more than one occasion (tip: play with headphones on and all lights off). The game design itself feels like a mash up of the first game fused with the semi open-world sensibilities of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, which is a not a bad comparison at all.
And, just like the first time around, you’ll need to really take your time with this one. It’s tough, and at times frustrating; this writer spent most of his time going for the stealth approach rather than all out modern warfare on the un-dead, because that particular course of action usually culminated in a Game Over screen.
What’s really interesting about The Evil Within 2 is how fleshed out it is. You can play through the main campaign, focusing solely on the mission to rescue Sebastian’s daughter, or you can explore some of the optional side stories that really open up the world and Sebastian’s interactions with it. In the end the game, much like its predecessor, feels like a throwback to the horror titles of yesteryear, and that’s not something to be scoffed at, but rather embraced, because The Evil Within 2 is probably one of the best horror experiences you’ll have this Halloween.