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 RITUAL ***
Directed by David Bruckner. Starring Rafe Spall, Rob James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Arsher Ali. UK, Horror, 94 mins, cert 15.
Released to cinemas in the UK by Entertainment One on the 13th October, 2017.
"They Should Have Gone To Vegas", quips the tagline on the poster, and they're so pleased with that line that it's used twice in the trailer as well (even though it's a line that could comfortably adorn the artwork for anything from JAWS: THE REVENGE to CARRY ON ABROAD). It's one of the choices facing a group of old friends planning their annual vacation: they're too old for Amsterdam and they have families to consider. When one of the gang is killed in an off-licence hold up, the other four decide to honour his memory by adopting his suggestion of a walking holiday in Sweden. Inevitably, one of the group falls and busts his leg, necessitating a shortcut through the creepy forest. After all, what could go wrong?
From there the film touches on THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (albeit without the found technique), with our heroes wandering endlessly around miserable woodland and squabbling, as one of them (rightly or wrongly) still has feelings of guilt over the death of his friend. In sudden torrential rain, they take shelter in a spooky old log cabin filled with bizarre religious items, and suffer vivid night terrors, at which point the film meshes into THE WICKER MAN and 2010’s THE SHRINE, as they encounter a strange village centred upon an even stranger religious cult and its associated rituals...
Directed by David Bruckner in his feature debut (his previous work thus far has been either shorts or segments of anthologies, most recently the underseen SOUTHBOUND), THE RITUAL is generally a pretty decent rural horror. It's nicely shot, capturing the cold, bleak and washed out look of the endless desolate woodland, and framed in regular 1.85 to emphasise the height of the forest rather than its width. And it's also pleasing to see a roster of older characters rather than the usual bickering teens, even if the blokey banter gets a little tiresome at times, which might lessen any empathy you feel with them. You could also argue that we see too much of the whatever-it-is creature, and maybe it should have been kept more in shadow and suggestion where it's undeniably effective, while, as in Alien, it isn't as scary once you get a clear look at it. On the other hand, the beast is an unusual enough design to warrant more than a passing glimpse and its impact certainly isn't lessened by shoddy effects work. Unusual too to see a film with almost no female characters in it: the wives and families are unseen and its only the final stretch with a few female cult members that stops the film from being exclusively male.·
THE RITUAL isn’t great: some of the hallucination moments don't really work and the weirdie religion could have done with more screen time: I'd have been happier to have lost some of the wandering about in the woods, which gets more than a little repetitive, in favour of the cult itself and the beast at its centre which is underexplored. But it's certainly well put together, it made me jump a few times, and it’s unusual and effective enough to definitely be worth a watch.