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.
THE KIDS AREN’T ALRIGHT – THE ROLE OF CHILDREN THE HORROR FILM
Throughout the history of the horror genre there have been ghosts and demons, murderers and monsters, heroines and heroes, vampires and werewolves. Yet a somewhat less discussed aspect is the role of young children. While teenagers are usually being stalked (or doing the stalking) in slasher films, the pre-teens often play a pivotal role, offering a unique world view as well as on occasion being the scariest thing in the movie.
‘Well kiddo, I thought you out grew superstition’ Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) says to herself during HALLOWEEN by way of trying to convince herself that she is not being followed. She is, of course, but being a teenager, she is too mature to believe in boogeymen. The children in the film, some of whom Laurie babysits, are more observant. With a lack of life experience removing any idea that imagination or superstitions are just that, they are more alert to the very real threat of Michael Myers. It’s a game to them at times – daring one another to go to the door of Myers childhood home – but note how the children Laurie is babysitting warn her of ‘the boogeyman’. The ideology of HALLOWEEN, and more specifically Laurie’s character, has been discussed many times before. She is a good girl who does her homework, doesn’t have sex and babysits youngsters. She survives while Myers kills her hormonally overcharged friends. Yet it might not be so much that she isn’t having sex , drinking or doing drugs but that she has the young children she is looking after actually protecting her. Were she on her own, the children would actually have been out of harm’s way (Myers was after the teenagers) but wouldn’t have been there to warn her. At the end of her ordeal she looks at Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and with an almost childlike wimper asks ‘Was that the boogeyman?’ She has regressed from the teenager who was too old to believe in such things, to a childlike state where such monsters are very real. The children warned her and only by thinking like them does she become aware of the threat Myers poses.
A more recent example of a child’s eye view comes across in Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK. The titular character makes an appearance through a pop-up book that Samuel (Noah Wiseman) finds on his shelf. ‘Let me in’ comes the cry and when that happens, he’s there to stay. Noah’s mum Amelia (Essie Davis) understandably burns the book in question, but Noah is far wiser to proceedings. ‘You don’t get rid of the Babadook’ he correctly informs her. One thematic interpretation of the Babadook is that he is a symbol of mental illness and cannot be simply thrown out. Noah understands this in a way his mum does not and has to guide and teach her of how to live with the monster in the house. A more simple understanding of a problem that only a child can possess is the way to handle the situation.
In THE OTHERS Nicole Kidman’s Grace undergoes a similar journey too, again guided by her children. Throughout the film she falls back on her own staunch Catholicism and initially ignores her children’s references to ‘the others’ as silly child’s play. The children are wiser and equally questioning, in the way children are, of their mother’s religious teachings. ‘I believe some of it’ Alakina Mann’s Anne tells Mrs Mills (Fionulla Flanagan) ‘but I don’t believe God made the world in seven days or that Noah got every animal in the world on to one boat’. The children’s logical minds are in contrast to some of the Grace’s religious teachings and enables them to the be first to see what is really happening that – SPOLIER ALERT – they’re actually dead and the ‘ghosts’ are living people. The children are able to reach that conclusion and interestingly, the living person that sees them is, once again, a young child named Victor. Come the end, Grace admits to her children that she is no more knowledgeable about God and the afterlife than they are. She has become an agnostic and the children she has been trying to teach religion to have opened her eyes to her lack of understanding. It’s not too dis-similar to Hayley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear in the similarly themed (and released at a similar time) THE SIXTH SENSE. He is the one that can see, communicate with and help the ‘dead people that don’t know they’re dead,’ including – SPOLIER ALERT - Bruce Willis’s Dr. Malcolm Crowe in order to help them reach peace. As THE OTHERS Mrs Mills says ‘Sometimes, the world of the living gets mixed up with the world of the dead’ and it takes children to bridge that gap and show adults the way.
In Guillermo Del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH it is a child that moves between the fantasy world and the real world amidst the backdrop of the Spanish civil war. Del Toro points out that the real and fantasy worlds are two sides of the same coin, but it takes a child to link them. Adults are far too blinkered and set in their ways to find the path themselves.
It also takes a child in the form of Kere Hedebrant’s Oscar in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN to befriend and help ‘young’ vampire Eli (Lina Leandersson). Her adult helper earlier in the film had failed where Oscar later succeeds.
In THE SHINING, Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) is the one who has premonitions about the hotel and what might happen there. This is not only through his ability to ‘shine’, but also, possibly, because he has been abused by his father Jack (Jack Nicholson). Nobody else knows this, but he could well be aware to the monster within and his simple and curious mind of Danny is the one thing that saves him and his mother (Shelley DuVall) when Jack does go mad. He too bridges the gap between the living and the dead and again, the ghosts that talk to him are the Grady twins, two girls of similar age, butchered in the same hotel by their father with an axe. In their invites to ‘come and play with us Danny, forever and ever and ever’ they’re actually warning him as to his possible fate.
In RINGU, the adults believe that by excavating Sadako’s body they have broken the curse of the legendary videotape when in truth it is continuing her legacy by copying the video that means Reiko avoids the curse but it is her son who again shows the way. In the re-make THE RING we see the young son saying the line ‘she never sleeps’ to his mother. It is a child who directs the adult by pointing out they are powerless to end the curse.
Yet it’s not always so dark and cynical. One of the great misunderstood fictional characters is Frankenstein’s monster and one famous scene in James Whale’s classic sees the monster throw a young girl into the lake and she thusly drowns. The scene is tragic not only for the fact that the young girl dies but because she is the only individual that actually sees the monster (Boris Karloff) for what he is – an innocent, mis-understanding and mis-understood victim of his own creator. The simple child’s worldview once again provides the accurate insight and the monster himself has a similar world view. She is not blinded to his innocence by the fear that adults have developed and an see beyond the disfigurement (much like the blind monk in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN). They both throw flowers into the lake and watch them float away but the monster’s misunderstanding of the world leads him to believe the young girl will float on the surface in much the same way. This actually causes the adults of the town to have their own fears confirmed, again without fully understanding the situation.
It’s the simple mind of a child that so often proves to be the guide and have the answers that adults do not. Children by definition are logical beings, often understanding of the world in a simpler and in many ways more frightening way. They can provide answers, insight and a pathway to the terrifying (or saving) truth that adults are often too blinded by their life experiences to see.
That they are able to do this is, in a genre full of surprises, perhaps the least surprising thing.