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.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
DVD REVIEW - THE FORGOTTEN - **
Directed by Oliver Frampton. Starring Clem Tibber, Shaun Dingwall, Elarica Gallacher. UK, Horror, 89 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD by Metrodome on the 3rd May, 2016.
Well, it's all very sad. I was honestly hoping that zero-budget British horror THE FORGOTTEN was a little genre gem that had somehow been left on the shelf (it carries a copyright date of 2013 and played the FrightFest Discovery screen back in 2014) and had unfairly bypassed cinemas on its belated way to the DVD racks. The sad truth, however, is that it's mostly just glum.
Set against an unending backdrop of social underclass misery - miserable concrete London estates, miserable unlit squats, miserable people - THE FORGOTTEN certainly has dank, cold atmosphere to spare. After a family crisis, young Tommy (the intriguingly named Clem Tibber) gets palmed off onto his father Mark (Shaun Dingwall), who makes his living selling off the copper piping from the now-empty flats in a grim London estate. He's commandeered one of the apartments for himself, but it's not long before Tommy starts hearing noises from next door, despite it still being sealed up. Turns out that flat was the scene of a brutal murder many years ago (of which we hear the audio of the emergency call at the start): could it possibly still be haunted? And what's the connection with Tommy's enigmatic new friend Carmen (Elarica Gallacher)?
The best moments of THE FORGOTTEN come when they investigate the flat next door: it's at these points that the film is genuinely creepy. But far too much of the running time is spent with Tommy and Mark being miserable and living that horrendously grim existence with no light or heat, and not even much in the way of joy or humour. (Much of it is also unnecessarily mumbly and I lost several lines of dialogue.) Obviously not everything has to be sunshine and fireworks - it is a horror film after all - but in its social reality it's so grim and glum, and occasionally violent, that it makes EastEnders look like Dynasty and even the likes of Ken Loach would be urging them to lighten up a bit. And while the ending does provide at least a hint of hope at a better life for Tommy, the resolution of the Forgotten itself feels like a rewriting of a Doctor Who timeline (coincidentally, Shaun Dingwall had a brief recurring role in the rebooted series).
THE FORGOTTEN is in no way a crowd pleaser (admittedly it's not trying to be), and for a horror film the idea of incredibly spooky things happening next door is largely ignored for much of the time. It has its effective moments but they're too spaced out and the film as a whole is too downbeat to get you to care very much about what happens, and sadly ends up as a disappointment.