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
DVD REVIEW – THE ONES BELOW – ****
Directed by David Farr. Starring Clemence Poesy, David Morrissey, Laura Birn, Stephen Campbell Moore. UK 2016 83 mins Certificate: 15
Released on DVD 4th July 2016 by Icon.
Playwright / screenwriter David Farr makes a compelling directorial debut with THE ONES BELOW, a taut psycho-drama with a debt to Polanski that stretches to the eerie, wordless female vocals of the main theme, a potent aural echo of ROSEMARY’S BABY.
Inspired by Parr’s own big city parental anxieties, the story has thirtysomething couple Stephen Campbell Moore and Clemence Poesy moving into a London flat, with Poesy particularly apprehensive about the baby they’re soon to bring into the world. She befriends slightly more pregnant new neighbour Laura Birn, the Swedish wife of intense, rather remote English businessman David Morrissey, who have spent years trying to conceive the child they so desperately crave to truly fulfil their union. Following an uncomfortable dinner together, an unfortunate accident outside Moore and Poesy’s flat leads to a tragic loss that fractures the burgeoning friendships and instigates a growing sense of threat when one of the women finally gives birth.
On one level, THE ONES BELOW is simply an authentic evocation of the anxious, stressful twilight world that, for some, defines new parenthood. Although Stephen Campbell Moore is credibly drained in the less showy role of the new father, Clemence Poesy is outstanding as the insecure young woman whose existing fragility descends into paranoia when the situation escalates. As with Polanski’s REPULSION and ROSEMARY’S BABY, our genuine empathy for the female protagonist splinters when ambiguity increases about whether the events we are watching are genuine or merely projections of her unhinged mind. Reflecting Mia Farrow’s career best turn in the latter, Poesy undergoes a physical and emotional transformation on screen that becomes genuinely wrenching to watch.
Running parallel to the believable character study is a smart and restrained variation on the fill-in-the-blank-from-Hell Hollywood psycho-thrillers that emerged in the wake of FATAL ATTRACTION. Although one scene offers an echo of a key moment in the more melodramatic THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, Farr’s film never descends into thriller clichés or violent, audience-pleasing confrontation. Instead, it offers an effective accumulation of disquieting details, from the baby that suddenly rejects its mother’s milk to the invasive sight of another woman taking photographs of the protagonist’s baby as if it were her own. The payoff is suitably chilling but executed in an understated fashion consistent with what has gone before, a devastating climax to a movie that never condescends its audience. Almost entirely a four-hander and mostly set in and around the homes of the two couples, it is superbly played by all; Morrissey, terrific as always, is immensely intimidating without seeming to do very much at all.