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 FOREST OF LOST SOULS ****
Directed by José Pedro Lopes. Starring Daniela Love, Jorge Mota, Mafalda Banquart, Lília Lopes, Lígia Roque. Horror/Drama, Portugal, 71 mins.
THE FOREST OF LOST SOULS is being premiered at the Triple Six Horror Film Festival in Manchester on 27th May 2017.
A black-and-white Portuguese art-house movie may not sound like the most tempting offer an average horror fan may get when it comes to suggestions for what to watch of an evening but THE FOREST OF LOST SOULS is certainly worthy of your time even if you have only the vaguest interest in genre cinema or are just looking for something a little different. Unfortunately it is also one of those movies that benefits from not knowing too much about it before going in, which isn’t really helpful when pushing for the big sell.
Nevertheless, it is a film that draws you in from the very beginning with some stunning photography of the titular forest. Each shot is crystal clear and gives you a sense of place, the forest being a huge landscape that the people who live nearby are all too familiar with as it is known as a suicide spot. On this particular day a married middle-age man named Ricardo (Jorge Mota) has gone into the forest to set about killing himself only to cross the path of Carolina (Daniela Love), a young woman also on a self-destructive path. The two seem to bond as they talk through their reasons for being there in a way that suggests a friendship is on the cards, with Ricardo questioning how a woman as young as Carolina could want to kill herself while Carolina offers the uncertain Ricardo her advice on how best to do the deed. This is all during the first 30 minutes of the film and as setups go it is highly engaging and emotionally charged as the two strangers, both from different backgrounds and age groups, share a series of dialogues that give you a reason to want to find out more about why they are there... and then you find out.
Which is about as much as it is possible to reveal without spoiling the film but just based on the filmmaking style that writer/director José Pedro Lopes has adopted as a framework for his story then THE FOREST OF LOST SOULS stands out amongst the plethora of cheap CGI studio horror fare and the seemingly never-ending slew of remakes doing the rounds as something special. Apart from the captivating visuals the movies has a very off-kilter atmosphere, soaked in gothic melancholy but with a sense of danger that evokes the top drawer slasher movies in its attempts to add an edge of brutality that is at once both contradictory and totally fitting with the beautiful surroundings. The line “Sadness will last forever” is often quoted in the film – a little too much if truth be told – but it is a fitting one as the story is played out and the full scope of each character’s actions is revealed, resulting in violence and bloodshed that may be a little too much of a tonal shift from the initial setup for some but never goes to shocking lengths with what it shows you, the implications of what happens being more downbeat and disturbing than anything you see.
THE FOREST OF LOST SOULS is a short and deliberately paced film that won’t appeal to everybody but if you do get a chance to catch it on its festival run then do so as it is a very unique horror movie that shines a (black) light on human nature that not many genre filmmakers are willing to embrace in such a stylish and self-assured way.