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 – ORIGIN MYTH FOR A NEW WORLD – PauL risker talks for Frightfest to SCREENWRITER MIKE CAREY ON HIS POST-APOCALYPTIC VISION: THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS
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 a 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 one of a two-part interview series, Carey reflected on the unique writing process, exploring the world with a new lens and the celebratory nature of the post-apocalyptic narrative.
How has the experience of writing the screenplay for THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS influenced and informed your perspective of the role of adaptation, as well as the distinctions between the storytelling mediums?
I've done a lot of adaptation work before, but overwhelmingly it was in the comic book medium. I did a comic book adaptation of ENDER’S SHADOW by Orson Scott Card, and NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman. I'd also done the comic book of THE FANTASTIC FOUR movie, I'm not proud, but there it is. So I'm familiar with the idea of stripping a story down and looking at how the parts work, and then putting them together again in a different form, for a different medium. But having said that, this was an entirely different process because both the novel and the movie are adaptations or extensions of a short story. So I'd already done Melanie's story as a short piece for an anthology, and then I was doing the novel and the movie side by side, which was incredible because obviously, you are working with different media. You are aware of the weaknesses and the strengths of those media, and what things will play well and what things won't. And so the novel and the movie follow the same path - they have the same ending, but in significant ways, they are very different. The novel has more points of view while the movie is relentlessly focused on Melanie. The novel has the junkers while the movie doesn't, and some of the very key scenes function and articulate differently. But actually, doing them side by side made those decisions easy and illuminated the thinking behind them.
Talk to any storyteller and they'll acknowledge the unpredictable audience. Despite being a success, the publication of the novel must have been a nervous and anxious process. You are now repeating that same process with the film. Are you concerned that some will struggle to adjust to the film adaptation, especially owing to the fact an adaptation should never be a replica of the source material, but an extension of or even its version of the story?
Yeah, we've seen what happens when that process doesn't work such as the CONSTANTINE movie with Keanu Reeves as John Constantine, which I happen to think is quite a fun movie, although it's got nothing to do with the comic. But yeah, the people that went against that were the people who loved the comic. They were outraged at the creative choices that had been made. I think in this case the people that have read and loved the book are going to find themselves in that same world. But what they are going to find is a different experience, because once you realise that world visually on the screen, then your reactions to it are different. There're certain scenes that are implicit in the book that comes out really sharply in the movie, especially with the idea that this is a world that is now functioning very well without us. We are walking through urban landscapes that have been spectacularly reclaimed by nature, and the way this informs the significance of Melanie's final choice in the last few scenes, it becomes an environmental fable or reverie on the process of evolution. So it is the same world seen through a different lens, and therefore there are new dimensions discovered through it.
The post-apocalyptic narrative continues to fascinate storytellers and audiences alike. What do you attribute as the reason for our enduring fascination with the apocalypse?
There are lots of different things that feed into that. I grew up in the seventies and eighties, and so I can vividly remember the last time the end of the world was such a compelling topic. It was during the Cold War, a time in the eighties when not just TV programmes and movies, but every song you listened to was about the end of the world - Dancing With Tears in My Eyes, Let's All Make a Bomb and so on. It felt like we were inches away from disaster and we couldn't stop probing the wound. I think people tell post-apocalyptic stories when their lives seem precarious or the world seems to be in a precarious place as it does now - on the brink of many possible catastrophes. But paradoxically the other thing is that part of the appeal of the post-apocalyptic story is the beauty and the simplicity, almost the constellation of a world where you only have to worry about survival. A world where all of the things that make your current life stressful and difficult, your worries about your job, mortgage, family or whatever just all fall into the background, and it's just live or die. There are a lot of scenes in post-apocalyptic movies that are almost celebratory. An example would be the opening scenes of I AM LEGEND, where you have Will Smith hunting in the streets of Manhattan, chasing deer through these avenues where waist high grass has sprung up. There is a beauty to that, and it makes the world we know strange and compelling.
THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS could be viewed as celebratory – the end of humanity just another stage in a broader evolution that transcends our sense of self-significance?
Yeah, it almost becomes an origin myth for a new world at the end.
Having written both the novel and the script, you'd have had a good understanding of these characters. When you saw the actors performing on set, did you have the experience that you were seeing the characters anew?
Yeah, very definitely. Again and again. Most sharply and most poignantly with Sennia Nanua who played Melanie, which I think is astonishing. But also Gemma Arterton as Justineau. With those scenes in the classroom, one of the things that really struck me was just how brittle she looks. She's a character that is already close to her breaking point, and that fragility is not in the screenplay, it's in the performance. It's fascinating and compelling to watch, and it obviously reaches a climax when she breaks into the lab and interrupts the dissection. But it's an aspect of the character added in at that stage.
I'm not sure if you re-read your work, but after the book was published did new things occur to you that can only come with distance from the writing process?
I have to admit that I haven't re-read the book - I think I am still to close to it. You go through a phase that is weird when you are writing the thing because you reach a point where you are word blind. You have no idea what works and what doesn't, and you need to give it to someone else to be told that, which is why editors are so vital. And then you reach a phase after that where you are just so familiar with it that you just can't think about it. So I haven't re-read the novel and I almost never re-read any of my novels. But I have watched the movie again and again, and I still get enormous pleasure each time from watching it.
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 storytelling process?
I feel that it is transformative, and when you tell a story, there's a sense that you are working out something that's in your head. Therefore if you do your job well, you come out changed because you come out with that particular knot unravelled.
THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS is in UK cinemas on Friday 23rd September 2016.