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.
dvd REVIEW – THE RESIDENT **
Aka: The Sublet. Directed by John Ainslie. Starring Tianna Nori, Mark Matechuk, Krista Madison, Rachel Sellan. Canada 2015 78 mins Certificate: 15
Released on DVD / On Demand / Download by Second Sight on 22nd May 2017.
This small-scale Canadian chiller represents the feature directorial debut for John Ainslie, best known thus far as co-writer of the rather charming JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER. Given a less US-centric title for the U.K. (it was release Stateside as THE SUBLET), the movie optimistically channels Kubrick and Polanski but winds up as a fairly humdrum and transparent psycho(melo)drama.
The recurring intertitles, informing us in an increasingly irrelevant fashion that we are watching events from “Week One”, “Week Two”, et al, are a deliberate lift from the intentionally disorientating use of stated time periods in Kubrick’s adaptation of THE SHINING. Ainslie’s telegraphed denouement pays equally overt homage to the key reveal of that famous film’s denouement, and the central scenario offers another study of isolation, as an already unbalanced individual gradually loses grip while facing real and / or imagined ghosts from the past.
Tianna Nori has put her career on hold while caring for her baby at a creepy sublet apartment. Her fiancé (Mark Matechuk, dullish) is an ambitious young actor working his way up the film business ladder and, consequently, notable for his absence most of the time. Nori’s natural post-natal insecurity about her body, her relationship and her new commitment are not aided by Matechuk’s habit of bringing home his very attractive (and very French) ex-girlfriend for some extra company. Nori, meanwhile, is ever more unsettled by a series of sinister experiences, from the regular sightings of a strange, hooded female outside the apartment building screaming “My baby!” to vivid nightmares and the ominously recurring discovery of razorblades in odd places.
It’s a short movie so there’s no significant option for a true slow-burn, but one of Ainslie’s mistakes is to show too much too soon. Ominous shadowy figures walking behind the heroine and creaking / banging doors offer premature (and clichéd) frissons at the point where the movie needs to be slowly unfurling the malevolence. Ainslie nods to REPULSION in its portrayal of the crack-up of a young, insecure woman, but only superficially: Nori’s plight is far more banal and, needless to say, the actress is no Catherine Deneuve.
A hybrid of psychological meltdown horror flick and home-with-a-bad-past supernatural chiller, THE RESIDENT lacks the required intensity to grip as either. Largely a two-hander, its lack of conviction largely stems from the just-adequate performances of its soap opera-style leads. This all results in a mundane build up to a guessable climactic bloodbath, and the kind of lazy, circular closing scene that was old hat in the horror genre by around 1965.