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 HALLOW ***
Directed by Corin Hardy. Starring Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton, Michael Smiley, Gary Lydon, Stuart Graham. Horror, UK/USA/Ireland, 92 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD by Entertainment One on 21st March 2016.
When a press release comes at you screaming the words “The best horror film of 2015” you have to consider that this was a year that gave us the unfathomable popularity of the very mediocre IT FOLLOWS, the overhyped THE BABADOOK and another all-too-knowing entry in the SHARKNADO saga, so a vintage year for the genre it was not. However, looking around at the horror landscape and the seemingly never ending barrage of direct-to-DVD paranormal nonsense that never seems to end, there’s a good chance that THE HALLOW may have something slightly different to offer, if only because the premise is something familiar yet not something you see a great deal of in horror movies.
The brainchild of first-time filmmaker Corin Hardy, THE HALLOW sees happily married couple Adam (Joseph Mawle) and Clare Hitchens (Bojana Novakovic) and their infant son move to an isolated house on the edge of a huge forest in rural Ireland. Adam is a conservationist who spends a lot of time in the forest examining the trees, much to the anger of his neighbour Colm Donnelly (Michael McElhatton) who owns the land the forest is in and seems very troubled that Adam is poking around in there. Both Adam and Clare discover a strange black fungus that seems to be spreading all over their house and before long they realise that they are being stalked by the various creatures that dwell in the forest, creatures that seem to be after their baby son, and the night becomes a battle for survival as the nocturnal demons close in on their home.
Steeped in Irish folklore and evocative of cinematic fairytales like THE COMPANY OF WOLVES and PAN’S LABYRINTH, THE HALLOW succeeds offering up a horror film that actually puts a bit of effort into trying to offer up some scares. You can tell that this film was a labour of love for writer/director Hardy as a lot of care and attention to detail went into framing each shot and filling up the screen with an ethereal sensibility that gives it an authentic and effective atmosphere. In all honesty, not everything is magic as the film does meander with the pacing here and there, and the CGI effects don’t quite gel enough to look totally realistic, but this is no shoddy effort on the part of the filmmakers, rather than the limitations of what they were working with. The creatures themselves look eerie enough and are introduced into the film at exactly the right moment, and Hardy never lingers on them long enough to become too familiar, making their sporadic appearances all the more unnerving.
The two main leads have to carry most of the film and this is the major problem with THE HALLOW as Joseph Mawle just isn’t convincing as a man who is trying to protect his family against the onslaught of changelings and goblins that keep attacking, coming across as a poor man’s Clive Owen in the charisma stakes (and that really isn’t a good thing). Bojana Novakovic fares much better as Clare but unfortunately she doesn’t actually have that much to do other than run around the enchanted forest clutching her young son and scream for help. She does, however, have that certain mysterious something that the best female characters in horror movies have and hopefully she’ll get more roles to flex her acting chops in. The film also features a couple of other familiar genre faces, the most notable being KILL LIST’s Michael Smiley as a local policeman, but as 95% of the film features Adam and/or Clare then it becomes somewhat problematic that one actor is quite bad and the other (and better) one is underused.
When it works THE HALLOW is a very enjoyable piece of fantasy/horror storytelling that may not be the most original film out there but being a good film is a better target to aim for and more often than not it hits it. At its worst the film does try to punch above its weight with regards to some of the effects – a mixture of decent practical and slightly dodgy CGI gore that takes in Fulci and Raimi influences - and suffers from a fairly weak lead performance, but the positives outweigh the negatives and as a calling card for Corin Hardy it certainly points at greater things to come as he obviously has a love for the genre. The best horror film of 2015? No, but possibly the most ambitious and heartfelt.