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 PACK ***
Directed by Nick Robertson. Starring Jack Campbell, Anna Lise Phillips, Katie Moore, Hamish Phillips. Australia 2015 85 mins Certificate: 15
Out March 7th on Arrow Video
Although not a remake, this small scale Australian thriller borrows a title and central threat from Robert Clouse’s effectively suspenseful 1977 movie THE PACK, an underrated entry in the 70’s American revolt-of-nature cycle. The 2016 PACK is a pared-down, straight-forward animal-assault reminiscent in recent terms of the tiger-home-invasion suspenser BURNING BRIGHT, and as indebted as most to the second half siege scenario of Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS.
A tense and discreet opening attack is largely conveyed via sound, shadow and suggestion. Subsequently, farmer Jack Campbell discovers his livestock gruesomely ravaged, the latest in a series of unexplained attacks over the last six months. Faced with a barrage of overdue payments and debts, his remote rural home is under threat of foreclosure, his teenage daughter (Katie Moore) is moaning about the lack of mobile phone coverage and wife Anna Lise Phillips’ veterinary side-line isn’t going to pay the bills in such a sparse community. Money worries pale in comparison to the life-and-death struggle that follows when the rampant pack of wild dogs responsible for draining Campbell’s livestock show up at the house to gnash some teeth and munch some human flesh.
Debut director Nick Robertson has made a technically competent picture, with a decent, dread-infused build-up and a better than usual combination of CG elements and real trained dogs representing the menace. It’s quite well acted by the small cast and the fast-cut attack scenes convey a sense of viciousness lacking in some of the genre’s feebler attempts at killer canine action (here’s looking at you, DOGS and ROTTWEILER). Both the 1977 PACK and the 2006 theatrical release THE BREED were far stronger at selling the concept of marauding mutts.
THE PACK is also dispiritingly unadventurous. Disposable or obnoxious characters are introduced as obvious cannon fodder: even the simplest of village idiots would surmise that the patronising bank manager character is going to be savaged within minutes of offering the struggling family some very limited options (and, yes, he is savaged while having an inglorious widdle in the woods). Too often, the film falls back in age-old clichés: a silly cat-scare, a prowling subjective camera pointlessly observing the pretty daughter having a shower…you know the drill. The general lack of surprises is sustained right up to a pat resolution and the kind of goofy final cutaway “stinger” that was already a groaning cliché in 1979 (and, probably, in 1879).
Fans of the earlier eco-horror cycle will appreciate a simple, efficient throwback picture like THE PACK, and it passes the time inoffensively – but it will be forgotten faster than one of Guy N Smith’s killer crabs can disembowel a horny housewife on a Welsh beach.