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 UNRAVELING ***
Directed by Thomas Jakobsen. Starring Zack Gold, Jason Tobias, Bennett Viso, Bob Turton. USA / Denmark 85 mins Certificate: 15
Out now from Matchbox Films
The title of debuting feature writer / director Thomas Jakobsen’s film refers to the fracturing mental state of its likeable but deeply flawed protagonist. It also, however, could just as easily be an obvious signifier of the film’s unravelling narrative: Jakobsen playfully misdirects the audience at various intervals while knowingly straddling an assortment of seasoned genre tropes and clichés. The fact that the UK’s DVD cover features a quartet of forest-dwelling, hooded, hockey masked figures reveals that the misdirection, as ever, stretched to various marketing meetings.
Zack Gold is effectively washed up in the lead role – he’s a young man with a pregnant girlfriend and a major issue in paying for their upcoming wedding. He’s also less than a year on from rehab and, while suffering the daily grind of his dead-end warehouse job, takes every available opportunity to sneak off to the rest room and get high. His mates stage, with the usual noble intentions, a back-to-nature makeshift bachelor party “100 miles from anywhere”, complete with campfire whiskey, inflatable doll and boy-banter about old girlfriends. What they didn’t plan was a hostile presence in the woods picking them off one by one – an escalating threat that naturally has a detrimental impact on his already unhinged state of mind.
The premise deliberately leans on well-worn horror conventions, from obligatory references to the lack of cell phone reception to the familiar swooping, isolating aerial shots that, in the age of drones, add significant production value to a low budget movie, while also heightening the characters’ entrapment further. As the small central cast fall victim to an unseen, possibly supernatural presence, we are in territory often explored by 21st century found footage films in the wake of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. The film’s heritage, of course, dates back much further – specifically to the strain of modern American horror sometimes referred to as “urbanoia”, in which out-of-their-depth city folk (often male-dominated, sometimes exclusively male) become disconnected and imperilled in the wilderness. DELIVERANCE was the benchmark, though the long-underrated and more overtly frightening RITUALS perhaps the most nightmarish imitator.
The sense of Deja-vu is a significant part of the movie’s plan to pull the rug out from under the knowledgeable audience as its end game emerges. Alas, the foray into a kind of JACOB’S LADDER-lite mind-fuck territory hinges on a twist that, sadly, feels almost as familiar as the lost-in-the-woods clichés it exploits. In the post-Shyamalan era, a Big Twist of this nature no longer offers a Big Gasp. It’s still a competent debut, with a nice line in aimless male bonding (“Alcohol causes dehydration!” / “Er…well that doesn’t make any sense…”) and effectively disorientating moments along the way.