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.
DVD REVIEW - THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS ****
Directed by Colm McCarthy. Starring Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close. UK / USA 2016 111 mins Certificate: 15
Available On Demand from January 16th 2017 and on Blu-Ray / DVD January 23rd 2017, from Warner Bros Home Entertainment.
In a strong year for smart, unpatronising horror, veteran TV director Colm McCarthy made his second feature (his first being 2010’s distinctive OUTCAST) with screenwriter Mike Carey adapting his own novel. An understated zombie apocalypse, this largely underplays the visceral money shots the sub-genre would seem to demand, crafting an eerily credible vision of a world ravaged by disease and following the grim plight of those who evaded death.
The girl of the title is Melanie (an impressive debut for Sennia Nanua), a bright and imaginative pre-pubescent whom we first see learning the Periodic table in class, appreciating sympathetic teacher Gemma Arterton’s interpretation of “Pandora’s Box”…and eating a pot full of worms in her darkened cell. Humanity as we know it has been decimated by a fungal infection spread by bodily fluids, turning the afflicted into rabid, insatiable flesh-eaters dubbed “Hungries”. Melanie was among a group of new-borns who ate their way out of their infected mothers’ wombs and are found to be partly immune to the “hungry” pathogen, able to think and interact like normal people. Held captive, studied and educated at a remote army base, the kids are the focus of Doctor Glenn Close’s experiments to find a vaccine, but when the base is bloodily compromised, a small group of survivors are forced on the run with Melanie in tow.
The cinematic zombie universe is so overcrowded, that it’s tougher than ever to find a fresh angle: narrative familiarity is reflected by the movie’s larger-scale set pieces. The creepily desolate, decayed cityscapes and deserted London shopping districts immediately earned the film comparisons to 28 DAYS LATER - in reviews that ignored just how indebted Danny Boyle’s film was to numerous much earlier horror and sci-fi pictures. The most ambitious, overtly gory action sequence, in which a horde of hungries penetrate the army base, is the most generic scene in the film, though – in keeping with the film as a whole – supremely well executed and terrifying.
McCarthy’s film, however, is no compendium of clichés. It certainly builds to scenes of genuine alarm (a gang of feral juvenile “hungries” trap and kill a soldier) though acknowledges the impact to be had from implying more violence than it explicitly depicts. There are clever, and disturbing fresh riffs on the themes at work: the discovery of the plague’s secondary evolution stage incorporates unique and unnerving imagery while setting up a suitably ambiguous closing sequence. The scenes of the classroom “hungries”, manacled to their desks and briefly sent into a jaw-snapping frenzy by Sergeant Paddy Considine to prove their animalistic hunger, are genuinely distressing.
Carey’s screenplay has depth and an emotional undercurrent setting it apart from most of its sub-genre rivals, raising fascinating moral questions and offering no convenient answers. The small cast is top-drawer: Glenn Close has the most conventionally “horror-movie” type character and borderline B-movie dialogue (“It’s the end of the world!”) but handles it all with the vast conviction and sincerity which she brings to everything she does. Considine and Arterton are effectively low key, while young Nanua’s naturalistic portrayal of a multi-layered character suggests a bright future: maturing enough to question her own humanity, she oscillates between normal, playful juvenile behaviour and the inescapable need to eat human flesh. Equally striking is the distinctive, haunting score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer.