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 Shallows– ****
Directed by Jaume Collet-Saura. Starring Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen. UAS, Thriller, 83 mins, cert 15.
Released on DVD and BluRay in the UK by Sony on the 5th December, 2016.
The shark movie has had a pretty ropey time of it recently. They've generally been represented by the ongoing idiocy of SHARKNADO, GHOST SHARK, SAND SHARKS, MEGASHARK and AVALANCHE SHARK movies (and sequels whenever possible), usually from The Asylum and The SyFy Channel and all apparently based on the shark being the free demo creature on the cheapest effects software available. Say what you like about JAWS: THE REVENGE being absolutely dreadful, it was leagues better than the jokey, hollow silliness of a SHARKTOPUS movie.
Taking a break from his usual schtick of giving Liam Neeson a hard time (UNKNOWN, NON-STOP), director Jaume Collet-Saura has managed to rescue carcharadon carcharadis from years of low-budget winking-to-camera tedium, restoring its credibility as a genuinely predatory presence instead of a badly composited joke. Stripping down the monster movie to a basic one-on-one between medical college dropout Blake Lively, paying tribute to her late mother by surfing off the Mexican paradise beach she loved, and a primal, unfathomable and largely unseen beast cruising the deathly shallows relentlessly, as if on patrol, between the safety of dry land just two hundred yards away and the jagged island of rock she gets stranded on. Without cellphone, food or bandages for her gashed leg (leaving blood in the water), with only a wounded seagull for companionship, and with the approaching high tide set to submerge that dwindling outcrop of rock...
There are only the briefest of interactions with other characters, only one of whom is even named, so THE SHALLOWS is almost entirely Lively's show. (Kudos, incidentally, for making a movie that puts a young woman in a bikini or wetsuit for pretty much the entire running time and never once making it feel leery or salacious.) It starts slowly enough but once the shark's presence is established it racks the tension up nicely: maybe the stuff with "Steven Seagull" is a bit cutesy but I didn't mind it that much. The shark itself is entirely convincing: you won't believe it's neither a real shark nor a Bruce animatronic but a wholly CGI creation, and keeping it largely off screen makes it more of a threat. And the film is only 83 minutes long: there's not an ounce of fat or flab on it.
Brightly shot on Australian Gold Coast locations, and with an typically impressive Marco Beltrami score (actually his second woman-versus-shark soundtrack after 2012's SOUL SURFER) that obviously knows it can't compete with the simplicity of John Williams' JAWS themes so doesn't even try, THE SHALLOWS is top-notch on a technical level. But it's also pretty exciting as a gripping thriller of survival and inner strength, with a tough and resourceful lead, and a neat set of twists and extra perils thrown in to ramp it up even more. Not to be confused with THE GALLOWS or THE HALLOW, this is one of 2016's more pleasant surprises.