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 HORROR NETWORK VOL 1 ****
Directed by Lee Matthews, Joseph Graham, Manuel Marin, Ignacio Martin Lerma, Brian Dorton. UK / USA / Spain 2015 85 mins Certificate: 18
Released by Left Films on October 24th on DVD.
Created by Douglas Conner and Brian Dorton, this is a horror anthology that joins the current fad for genre portmanteau pictures, though dispenses with any kind of framing story. Instead, it unleashes five different short films specifically selected for what is intended to be a regular movie series.
There are two entries from British director Lee Matthews, and it’s his “3.00 a.m.” that opens THE HORROR NETWORK. This follows Charlotte Armstrong, a woman on her own in a remotely located house, as she wakes up at you-know-what-time to be harassed by a series of increasingly unfortunate events. Although effectively shot in widescreen, this quickly devolves into a listless sequence of annoying, transparent false alarms, accompanied by an abrasive soundtrack with all the subtlety of the director himself appearing onscreen with a Klaxon horn. Just when you thought a lazy cat scare represented the short’s low point, Matthews unleashes a corny jack-in-the-box fake scare involving an actual jack-in-the-box, followed by the line “I didn’t bring over a jack in the box!”
Matthews’ other short, “The Quiet”, is the third to appear in THE HORROR NETWORK, and it’s a much stronger, creepier contribution. Reminiscent of the unforgettably sinister TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED episode “The Flypaper”, this follows a bullied deaf girl as she walks home from her school bus after learning that her mum is running late, and is subsequently stalked by a stranger in a blue work’s van. Wordless until the disturbing climactic twist, it’s a well-made and dread-infused foray into uncomfortably credible territory.
Sandwiched in between Matthews’ pair is Joseph Graham’s “Edward”, a bold attempt at an intense dialogue-driven psychological horror piece, in which a TAXI DRIVER-quoting paranoid insomniac discusses good and evil and famous madmen from history with his shrink, and the latter slowly realises the extent of the young man’s mental decline. Graham’s timely piece – with references to the current strain of anti-Muslim bigotry in the USA – sustains an uneasy ambience and pays off with both a visceral manifestation of evil and a suitably insidious closing note. It is only weakened by occasionally shaky acting.
All three of these shorts are admirably serious in intent, though it’s the final two that take THE HORROR NETWORK VOLUME 1 into much more potent horror territory. By far the best of the quintet is “Merry Little Christmas” from Spanish directors Manuel Marin and Ignacio Martin Lerma, a truly alarming and harshly violent tale of the physical and emotional scars left by a festive domestic atrocity. It focuses on a young woman who remains forever tormented by the Christmas Eve she spent watching her mother brutalised by her father. Wandering into the same gruelling, unflinching visceral genre territory previously occupied by fearless features like MARTYRS, this short revolves around a sustained, punishingly brutal assault involving rape and teeth-dashing that’s almost impossible to watch, while accommodating equally traumatising Barker-inspired Hellish imagery. Striking performances and an effectively disorientating fragmented structure contribute to a highly effective piece, culminating with suitably queasy deployment of “Silent Night”.
It says a lot about the disturbing nature of “Merry Little Christmas” that the film’s closer, “The Deviant One” seems almost like light relief, even though it’s a grimy black and white, dialogue-free depiction of one seriously messed-up guy who lives his life by taking Bible quotes literally. This involves murdering dogs and strangers, having sex with corpses and pleasuring himself with severed heads in the bath. A short slab of Jorg Buttgereit-inspired monochrome pseudo-arthouse grot, Brian Dorton’s grim Kentucky-shot piece also provides a splendid, blackly comic punchline to close this particular “Horror Network”.