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 SON OF BIGFOOT ***
Directed by Jeremy Degruson, Ben Stassen. Starring Pappy Faulkner, Sandy Fox, Kyle Hebert, David Epstein, Tara Platt. France / Belgium 2017 92 mins Certificate : PG
Out 20th November 2017 on DVD / Digital Download from Studio Canal
The film career of Bigfoot (aka Sasquatch) has been the most prolific of the poster boys and girls for cryptozoology. Since the 1967 release of the famous Patterson-Gimlin “real” monster footage, he has been the antagonist of cheap and cheerful gore flicks like NIGHT OF THE DEMON and a whole sub-genre of found-footage horror films equally inspired by THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT - the best of which is Bobcat Goldthwait’s WILLOW CREEK. William Dear’s 1987 HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS (released in the U.K. as BIGFOOT AND THE HENDERSONS just in case we thought it was about Harry H Corbett taken in by a smart-aleck American family) helped spawn an equally persistent series of family-friendly Sasquatch comedies, most of them forgettable and dumped on DVD. This one is the sixth computer-animated feature from the Belgian-American studio nWave Pictures, following last year’s ROBINSON CRUSOE and THE HOUSE OF MAGIC. Its title – intentionally or not – echoes a much earlier child-friendly incarnation of a different monstrous character, RKO’s whimsical cash-in sequel SON OF KONG (1933), and the results are equally inoffensive and pleasant.
The protagonist is Adam, a 13-year-old with rapidly growing bird’s nest hair, feet that protrude from his school shoes and acute hearing. He’s an easy target for a bunch of caricature bullies and an unsympathetic Principal, but all of this is small fry after the discovery that the Dad whom he previously thought had died when he was a baby, is actually alive and well and living in the woods. Adam hasn’t inherited Dad’s hairiest physical features and more obvious Sasquatch traits, but he learns of how his absentee parent was forced to run away years earlier to avoid becoming a lab rat. Pharmaceutical company “Hair Co” has been looking to ditch toupees and hair plugs in favour of revolutionary DNA manipulation to grow real hair. Their desperate pursuit of Bigfoot – a key part of their research and potential ground-breaking success – amps up when father and son are reunited.
“This place is like a Disney movie…” a character says at one point in THE SON OF BIGFOOT, reinforcing the film’s self-conscious appropriation of elements from key animation rivals like the house of mouse and Dreamworks. There is a wood full of (slightly weak) talking animals and a bunch of jokes pitched at the adults. Obvious targets are huge corporations, with Hair Co the butt of pretty obvious jokes thanks to their corny slogans (“Hair is a growth business”) and ridiculously coiffured CEO (“All powerful men have one thing in common…they have great hair!”). A sequence with Adam’s Principal takes pot-shots at political correctness in schools: “Mid level acquaintance deficiency” is a polite and appropriate way of referring to friendless losers.
It's a little strained and bland, with a soundtrack by the Belgian band Puggy a significant part of a leaning toward heavy handed sentimentality. The emotional core of the plot relies on an acceptance that Adam’s parents would rather raise him with the lie that Dad is dead than deal with dodging the corporate villains eager to turn him into a lab rat. Nonetheless, there is something endearing about this Belgian-French film’s representation of America : all overweight truck drivers, dumb redneck hunters taking selfies with dead animals, low-rent diners and tabloid magazines eager to report on Bigfoot sightings. There’s not much peril given this particular Bigfoot’s magical powers to heal injuries, but it’s hard to hate any movie in which its friendly hairy monster wears cut-off jeans throughout, perhaps in homage to Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman and Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk, who always managed to keep their trousers on after transforming.