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 EYES OF MY MOTHER – ****
Directed by Nicolas Pesce. Starring Kika Magalhaes, Will Brill, Flora Diaz, Olivia Bond, Paul Nazak, Calra Wong, Diana Agostini. USA 2016 77 mins Certificate: 18
Released theatrically by Park Circus on March 24th 2017
Divided into three chapters (Mother, Father and Family), this is a distinctive, disturbing insight into a sheltered, lonely existence from debut feature writer-director Nicolas Pesce, a graduate from the worlds of animation and music video.. It is galvanised by two quite extraordinary performances, from Kika Magalhaes and Olivia Bond – who portray the central character, Francisca, as (respectively) a warped young woman and an impressionable child.
Francisca’s mother (Diana Agostini), a brilliant surgeon in Portugal, fosters the sweet, loving little girl’s early fascination with dissection and the body, bringing a cow head home to highlight the similarities between bovine and human eyes. When a grinning, clearly deranged, gun-toting stranger shows up at their remote farmhouse, Francisca’s life takes a dramatic and defining turn. Her mother is killed, and for some considerable time, the perpetrator is retained, living an increasingly animalistic existence in their barn – chained up, fed like a pet, his wounds proficiently stitched by Francisca. She asks him simple, pressing questions like “Why did you do it?” (“It feels amazing”), and this peculiar relationship with her unlikely captive –her only true friend – has a huge influence on Francisca’s later life, particularly following a further personal loss.
The sympathetic, tragic protagonist of THE EYES OF MY MOTHER echoes the kind of anti-hero played throughout horror history by young men. The mother-dominated, long-suffering killers of PSYCHO and its vast spawn spring immediately to mind, though its focus on murder as a rite of passage for an adolescent girl also has its precedents in the chilling, offbeat likes of THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE. The grim scenes of the captive savage in the barn offers a gender reversal of sorts of the basic set-up of THE WOMAN (complete with a queasy, albeit suggested, sexual element) and there are specific visual echoes to movies as diverse as Bigas Luna’s ANGUISH and Takashi Miike’s legendary AUDITION.
Much about the film, however, feels unique and original. Belying the post-HOSTEL trend for explicit on-screen sadism, Pesce keeps the violence almost entirely off-camera: we glimpse the gruesome aftermath, but so much of the film’s impact is character based rather than in servitude to visceral visuals. There is credible, powerful domestic horror (and pathos) to be found in the deceptively quiet scenes in which the grieving, terribly lonely Francisca maintains the illusion of normality by manoeuvring, sleeping with and bathing the corpse of a parent. This is in stark contrast to the post-PSYCHO sub-genre of loner serial killers, in which the catalytic cadavers of the protagonist’s past would typically be utilised for gruesome punch lines and to enhance the freakshow horror of their surroundings.
In a film with minimal dialogue, the subtleties and nuances conveyed by Magalhaes and her co-stars are so significant, as is the evocative black and white cinematography of Zach Kuperstein. Largely confined to the farm house, Kuperstein makes rich use of light and shade, trapping the characters in door frames and finding both beauty and a sense of human fragility in his exquisitely framed wide shots of Francisca’s isolated backdrop. Enhanced further by foreboding sound design and the sparsely used music of Ariel Loh, it’s a bold and beguiling film that refuses to exploit material familiar from decades of gaudier genre films and, in the process, leaves us with an overwhelming sense of melancholia, rather than disgust.