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.
FILM REVIEW – THE KILLING OF AMERICA– *****
Directed by Sheldon Renan Documentary, USA, 95 Minutes. Cert. 18.
Released in the UK by Severin films on DVD/Blu-Ray on the 31st October
Made way back in 1981, THE KILLING OF AMERICA is a film many may have heard of but few will have seen. It has never been released in the USA, and only now becomes readily available in the UK. And what is so frightening is that it tackles a debate that still rages on to this day, with no action taken despite the problem it investigates remarkably getting worse.
There can be fewer debates that enrage such anger and passion on both sides of the argument than that of gun control and mass killings in America. On the news, in the presidential debate and in literature and films – from Michael Moore’s BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE to Lynn Ramsay’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN via Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT – everyone and everything has something to say on the issue but nothing is ever actually done to stop, or at very least curb the cycle of violence.
What THE KILLING OF AMERICA does is adopt a shocking show and tell approach. This is not overtly a polemic against violence but an expose of American history from the 1950’s to the early 80’s. Using nothing more than voiceover and shocking archive footage, it highlights how a land of opportunity post World War 2 was sent into a downward spiral after the assassination of JFK. This lead to another assassination – that of Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby before the film looks at the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. which resulted in riots across the country. Vietnam, the shootings of George Wallace and Ronald Reagan and then JFK’s brother Bobby’s assassination are all given sufficient coverage in a world where the political landscape was being more influenced by guns and gunmen than by senators and voters. We’re then taken through the killings of less high-profile murders and murderers that are equally shocking – Charles Whitman, the ‘Son of Sam’, Brenda ‘I don’t like Mondays’ Spencer to the well-known likes of Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. Some killed for sexual gratification, many to make a name for themselves, one to save California from the threat of earthquakes (really) and some youngsters as a way of transferring their own anger with themselves onto their classmates, and kill America’s hope of a future. No reasoning ever makes sense to the sane mind of course, but the ease with which many individuals were armed to carry out their attacks is in some cases an equally shocking aspect.
Stats and backstory are filled in by Chuck Riley’s deep voiceover but the film never needs to try too hard to shock. The images and what we’re seeing unfold in front of us are more than enough to do that and at times you have to remind yourself you’re watching an expose of the richest and most powerful country in the world. The land of the free is killing itself from within and the film’s point is clear – violence breeds violence. It’s a simple but obvious contrast to the mind-numbing argument from some constitution waving patriots that the solution to cut gun crime is more guns so any would-be victims can defend themselves.
THE KILLING OF AMERICA doesn’t offer any solutions to the problem per se but simply asks why the issue isn’t being deal with. Yes the cost would be high but is living in fear not a higher price? Does the senseless murder rate need to quadruple AGAIN for something serious to be done? The fact that over thirty years after this documentary was made, a sequel could quite easily be produced suggests that even that won’t be enough.
As the film reaches its conclusion, we see John Lennon singing the simple line ‘all we are saying, Is give peace a chance’ before the well-known aspects of his own senseless murder at gunpoint are relayed. As we see the vigil to Lennon in Central Park, the crowd are reduced to a moment’s silence before ‘Imagine’ plays out over the tannoy. As the star-spangled banner waves and the screen pauses, we appear to be ending on a message of hope, before some final statistics are presented via voiceover that make you realise that the cycle of violence and the continuous killing of America is all set to continue until something, more than just a documentary or peaceful vigil, is actually done to drive down the shocking murder rates.
THE KILLING OF AMERICA is a call to action to those in power. The fact that you feel nothing is going to change in spite of all you’ve seen is the most terrifying thing of all.