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.
TV BOX SET – THE KETTERING INCIDENT ***
Sci-fi/Drama/Mystery, Australia, 8 episodes (52 mins each). Cert. 15.
Released in the UK on DVD by Dazzler Media on the 10th April.
Evoking memories of Twin Peaks and The X-Files, The Kettering Incident is a hypnotic blend of science-fiction, horror, drama and mystery, creating an interesting and understated, if somewhat slow drama. An Australian produced and set 8-part series that originally aired on Sky Atlantic and now out on DVD, it features a cast of predominantly unknown actors with the exception of Elizabeth Debicki, whom viewers may remember from The Night Manager.
Debicki stars as Dr. Ann Macy, whom at the start of episode one we meet as a young girl. In the Tasmanian town of Kettering, she is witness to a mysterious disappearance of her friend Gillian- the incident of the title - and fifteen years later, still nobody knows who or what actually happened. Gillian has never been found and Anna is working as a doctor in London. She is still haunted by the events of her past, often waking up with no recollection of how she got to where she is, with the CCTV in the hospital at which she works suggesting seemingly erratic behaviour. When she returns to Kettering though, she tumbles even further down the proverbial rabbit hole as questions, if not exactly answers, elevate to the surface. When another young girl disappears in similar circumstances, the town becomes embroiled in another mystery with overtones similar to that which has haunted it over the past decade and a half.
One of the shows taglines inform us that we all have something to hide, and that is plainly evident amongst the array of townsfolk, all of whom conceal their own secrets. Be it regarding drug-deals, the mysterious mill, toxic pollution, the desire to preserve the local forest or links to the disappearances themselves, everyone is something of an introvert, perhaps even hiding secrets that they themselves don't know they house. Subsequently, this makes empathising with the characters (a few of whom are fractionally one-dimensional) somewhat difficult and when the subject matter relates so heavily to broken families it does become problematic at times. Our guide though is Debicki, who is superb in the lead role. She plays Anna with an icy, cold exterior, almost emotionless at times, which is fitting given her turbulent troubles, viewed as a suspect by many but clearly a victim who will be key to the mysteries.
And boy, are there mysteries. It’s a calmly built labyrinth of intrigue that sets up questions and while hints of an answer are provided throughout, in many respects you oddly don’t expect them such is the understated nature of the series.
It’s to the shows credit that they keep the tone even and subtle throughout all eight episodes, never falling into the trap of cliff-hangers with unsatisfying resolutions or distractions from one show to the next. Even in the chilling, climactic finale, there is no aggrandising, with scenes that are regularly unsettling and frightening but which never resort to cheap jump scares.
This does mean it is a show that requires much attention – thrill seekers should look elsewhere – and it does strain the patience. For some, this could be problematic and ploughing on from one episode to the next may be a stretch too far.
For those who did stick with proceedings though, they will find an interesting show that while not being overtly original, certainly gets the audience to do some of the work in trying to decipher what has gone on, what is going on and that crucial question of why.
Whether the show gets a second series remains to be seen. There are certainly plot strands that could be picked up and a further delve into the central premise is a possibility. A finale that leaves things open to interpretation and discussion though may well prove more interesting in the long run.