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
Interview –CHARACTER BEFORE GENRE – DIRECTOR COLM MCCARTHY DISCUSSES BRINGING THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS TO THE SCREEN
Horror’s monsters continue to endure, capturing the interest of each new generation of storytellers. None have been as symbolic of the end of the world as the zombie, yet screenwriter Mike Carey and director Colm McCarthy askew the perspective of the zombie as metaphor. Here this fabled movie monster signals not the end, but the next step in the story of evolution, a transformative rather than a dystopian future. In part two of a two part interview series, McCarthy discussed the connection between dreams and stories, whether the zombie film can be considered a genre, and how the success of the film was placed on inexperienced shoulders.
Genre is said to offer a portrait of the angst troubling us at different points in time, and the post-apocalyptic film specifically continues to fascinate storytellers and audiences alike. What do you attribute as the reason for our enduring fascination with the apocalypse?
It's interesting, and I always think stories are to society what dreams are to people. So an individual dream can work out what's going on for them in their lives - there is a filing or sorting thing going on by dreaming all of these different scenarios in this surreal way. And stories are a similar thing for society as a whole to work out our fears or anxieties through the process of a story. Right now I am driving out to Heathrow, heading through Hammersmith. There is a McDonalds and there are pubs and shopping centres all around me, and I am very conscious that in a thousand years time, which is just the blink of an eye on a quantum level, all of this will be gone. Now maybe there will still be people around and they'll have built something else here, or maybe there will be a desert here or a swamp. Certainly in ten thousand years time it is quite likely that there will not be a city here at all. When we don't quite know how to contend with something on a conscious level, then stories allow us to do it as a people on an unconscious level… If that is not too ponzi an answer!
Is it genre that shapes the filmmaker or the filmmaker that shapes genre?
I have never thought about genre in a pure sort of way when I've been telling stories. I think about the story and what's right for it, and I guess my only thought about genre in coming into this was that we need to make sure there are some scary bits, because if there are no scary bits, then the people that go to a zombie film will be pissed off [laughs]. But to be honest, I don't know if a zombie film is a genre per say. A lot of genres already have story archetypes within them, and so if you are making a western there is usually a man with no name, a person with a mysterious past, and the films are usually very threatening. With your classic western there is usually that character who has to be violent even though he doesn't want to be, whether it is A FEW DOLLARS MORE, SHANE or THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. They all have that similar story aspect, and other than people trying to live as zombies try to kill them, I don't know whether there is a story archetype within the zombie film.
The thing that was exciting for us right away with GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS was the character of Melanie. When we sat down and started chatting about that Mike [Carey], Camille [Gatin] and I never really had a conversation about the zombie film genre. We had a conversation about Melanie and what was going to happen with her - the journey she was going to go on. In designing the story of the film, but also the story of Mike's book, it was coming across the ending. Once we had a beginning and an ending we felt like we could map out a story. And so I don't know that we thought about it in that kind of way. I think other zombie films all do quite different jobs that are appropriate for them. I like 28 DAYS LATER and DAWN OF THE DEAD a lot, but I don't think our film is the same story as either of those at all.
Having collaborated on the script you'd have had a good understanding of these characters. When you saw the actors performing on set, did the actors surprise you and reveal new aspects of the characters?
The thing is that you have a script and you have an idea about the story, but until the actors are on set you don't have human beings. And people watch films to watch humans – to react and respond to them. I find the process of working with actors to be very exciting, and I always have done. We had a very diverse group of actors on this film in terms of their backgrounds, socially and in their methodology of working as actors. From Glenn [Close] who has won loads of Tony Awards and has been nominated for the Oscars six times, through to Sennia [Nanua] who has done one little short film, and has never really been on a proper professional film set before. And then everything in between, from Gemma who has done all these indie films through to the Bond movie, and Paddy who is the daddy of social realism, if you can say that. So it was quite a disparate group, but they all approached the filmmaking as a company in a sense, and everyone gelled together in terms of their make-up of the group that was appropriate for telling this story. And what was great with all the adults was that they were aware of the fact that the film was centred around this little girl, and the performance of Sennia was going to be the key thing that made the film either work or fail. I talked to them all about it, and all of the adult actors, not just Paddy and Gemma, but Anthony [Welsh], Anamaria [Marinca] and Dominique [Tipper] all worked with Sennia to help her to deliver the amazing performance the film needed. It was very much a company effort of the actors making this world feel real, their characters feel like real human beings, but also supporting this amazing young talent.
German filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the filmmaking process?
I have directed quite a lot of stuff now, mostly television drama. I think that sometimes you are engaged in telling a story and the experience becomes very special. I don't think it always happens, but sometimes it becomes special and something profound happens. And for me that definitely happened on GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. I feel like I learned a lot, and one of the things that was most exciting about it was seeing how big a transformative process it was for all the kids involved. Sennia obviously, but also the kids that played the classroom kids, and those that played the feral kids - how the two different groups of children bonded, how they developed and what they learned through the process, and how much fun they had. It was an incredibly rewarding part of the whole filmmaking process.
THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS was released in UK theatres Friday 23rd September 2016.