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
FILM REVIEW - THE NICE GUYS - *****
Directed by Shane Black. Starring Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Matt Bomer, Angourie Rice, Kim Basinger, Keith David. USA, Action/Comedy, 116 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Icon on the 3rd June, 2016.
How does this work? You have numerous proper comedies out there, starring professional comedians who trouser shedloads of money to be funnier than me - people like Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, Sacha Baron Cohen and so on - which completely and utterly fail on every level, and yet here's a movie that is as much an action movie, mystery thriller and a period piece as a comedy, starring two people who (let's be honest) are not generally expected to be particularly funny, and the result is more consistently hilarious and joyous than a dozen ANCHORMANs or a hundred GRIMSBYs put together.
Maybe it's the ambience of seedy, sleazy Los Angeles in 1977, signposted as much by the fashions and music as by the billboards for JAWS 2 and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. Maybe it's the wonderfully eccentric supporting characters, ranging from dotty old ladies to incompetent henchmen. Maybe it's the wonderfully smart dialogue, as you'd expect by now from Shane Black: IRON MAN THREE is one the best of Marvel's ongoing world domination project, and THE LAST BOY SCOUT is one of the great underappreciated action thrillers of the 1990s. Or maybe it's seeing two A-list stars just having fun: Ryan Gosling has abandoned his inexplicable mumbly sex-god persona for some actual character acting, while Russell Crowe appears to be morphing into John Goodman. (Neither of these are bad things.)
Like INHERENT VICE but without all the drugs, The Nice Guys has a plot that's really less important than the superbly realised recreation of a place and time. Second-rate private investigator Holland March (Gosling) has been hired to track down a missing girl, while strongarm-for-hire Jackson Healy (Crowe) has been hired to make sure she isn't found. But with two goonish hired killers on the girl's trail, Healy and March team up and find themselves in a world of porn movies, industrial corruption (enter Kim Basinger as the glamorous head of the Justice Department), environmental protests and Hollywood parties....
It's got all the Shane Black trademarks you now expect - not that it's any less enjoyable for that - from the writer of LETHAL WEAPON and THE LAST BOY SCOUT: colourful villains and henchmen, well handled extended action sequences, wisecracks on tap, kids in adult situations, plenty of violence and profanity (to the extent that the 15 certificate feels lenient) and disreputable fun throughout. For 70s inflected entertainment it's much more successful than, say, Quentin Tarantino's riffing on 70s grindhouse: not that there's anything wrong with nerdy showing off about obscure B-movies, but Shane Black is aiming much higher than that. (Gosling spends much of the film with his arm in plaster, the way Richard Dreyfuss does in genuine 1978 PI comedy/mystery THE BIG FIX, but here it's more of a plot point and character detail than a nod to the geeks.) The end result is great fun, genuinely funny (even with the occasional civilian casualties thrown in for bad taste throwaway laughs), and for me it's easily one of the best and most hugely enjoyable films of the year so far. Go and see it.