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.
GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW – THE FOREVER WAR ****
Written by Joe Haldeman, Illustrated by Marvano. 144pp. RRP: £15.99.
Out now from Titan Books.
In “The Forever War” (2008), author Dexter Filkins likens his experiences in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to circling Earth from a space capsule, conveying that he might as well have been a dog in space, circling the farthest orbit. Much earlier, the combat encounters of Oklahoma-born, lifelong-sci-fi / astronomy enthusiast Joe Haldeman inspired a very different book with the same title. Haldeman, a pacifist, was unhappy with America’s involvement in Vietnam, but he, too, likened his ultimate involvement in the bloody conflict (as a combat engineer) to an alien world. On his website, he recalls, almost as an out of body experience, the serious bullet, shrapnel and machine gun wounds that resulted in his hospitalisation and return home. Starting out as a short story named “Hero”, Haldeman found a literary outlet for his haunted, post-war years – channelling his physical and mental scars into the character of Mandella in “The Forever War”, published in 1975.
The book is among the most famous of its genre, lauded as an all-time great war / sci-fi novel by heavyweights such as William Gibson and Iain Banks. The Hugo-winning novel was considered by critics of the time as an antidote to the glorification of war and patriotism of Heinlein’s Cold War-era equivalent, “Starship Troopers” and, all too tragically, remains more relevant than ever on our catastrophically ailing, conflict-torn planet in 2017. While Hollywood – notably Ridley Scott – has long circled the book for cinematic translation, its most famous adaptation was in comic book form, thanks to the union of Haldeman and Belgian artist Marvano back in 1988. Haldeman supplied all of the dialogue and scripted the comic like a movie, while Marvano illustrated it in the ligne-claire style trail-blazed by Herge. Initially published in Dutch, with an English language release much later, the graphic novel has now reappeared – accompanied with some gorgeous alternate covers – courtesy of Titan books, collecting its three volumes in one for the first time.
Haldeman’s bleak and gruelling space opera is well suited to the graphic novel form, particularly with Marvano’s unique pictorial hybridisation of realism and comic-book style character portraits. The unflinching tone is set by an early decapitation (“a scarlet spiral of flash frozen blood”), as we are introduced to a centuries-long war between humans and the “Taurans” in a world where revolutions in space travel include the ability to travel from star to star using black holes. The United Nations Exploratory Force was created to tackle the Tauran threat, consisting of a corps of elite draftees: 50 men and 50 women of above average I.Q. and strength – among them, an acrobat, a telepath and Mandella, who survives the whole length of the endless, bitter conflict. Following a harrowing training period involving an elaborate series of (often fatal) tests that hammer home the dehumanising process of war, the remaining American draftees fight their first bonafide encounter with the extra-terrestrial threat, one that results in swift slaughter.
The futuristic detail fleshes out a beguiling alternate world, where Earth has been ravaged by the 2017 food riots (hmmm, doesn’t seem that far off, all told), two-thirds of the world are unemployed and the media is overwhelmed with propaganda and “alternative” news (nope, doesn’t feel much like fiction…). In an interesting touch, half the world “practices” homosexuality as a U.N.E.F. means of controlling population growth. The bitter reflections on notorious real-life conflicts, however, dominate the story, the misanthropic mood confirmed by internal monologues of characters “horrified at the prospect of living with myself for 60 more years” and pondering over the “state of the art hate conditioning”.
There’s an intensity to the various harrowing life/death decisions, the hollow victories and blood splattered infirmary sequences – plus an outlandish “shark hunt” set piece. Haldeman flirts with double-entendres via saucier gags such as the name of a planet, “Middle Finger”, inviting lines like “You want some company on Middle Finger?” The humour , however, is largely of the gallows variety as characters reflect on the fact that it might be worth getting blown apart a bit so they can “Go home to a pension and heroic prostheses”. Ultimately, it’s a highly imaginative and deeply harrowing interpretation of Haldeman’s experiences of one of the 20th century’s most controversial conflicts. And it’s an interpretation that shall remain ageless for as long as history repeats itself by sending its citizens to their potential doom in wars so many of their fellow countrymen dispute.