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 WAILING– ****
Directed by Hong-jin Na. Starring Do Won Kwak, Jun Kunimura, Jeong-min Hwang. South Korea 2016 149 mins Certificate: 15
In cinemas and on demand from Kaleidoscope Entertainment from November 25th 2016.
The latest movie from writer-director Hong-jin Na is, like his well-regarded THE CHASER and THE YELLOW SEA, undeniably guilty of an excessive running time that proves slightly detrimental to its otherwise beguiling execution. In his first full-length foray into the horror genre, however, Na has made his most accomplished picture yet.
It unfolds in a small South Korean fishing village in the mountains where family-man detective Do Won Kwak is having an affair while being plagued by bizarre nightmares. His increasingly terrified community has suffered a series of unfortunate events, including a corner store owner who went crazy and butchered his family. The growing number of local deaths is linked to the recent arrival of an elderly Japanese man (Jun Kunimura), though the authorities are also eager to pin the blame on a bunch of “fucked up mushrooms”. Village folk share different (dubious) horror stories about the apparently evil stranger, painting him as a diaper-wearing, cannibalistic, raping ghost – among other things. Closer to home, however, our easily freaked-out hero faces up to the fact that the inexplicable, hysteria-bringing virus spreading through the village may have also claimed his pubescent daughter.
The pudgy, unfashionable, adulterous Kwak is a refreshingly flawed hero and conveys an unforced sense of intimacy on-screen with his afflicted daughter, whose physical and mental decline owes an obvious debt to the plight of Regan MacNeil in THE EXORCIST, complete with profane outbursts and violent mood swings. Indeed, the deceptively understated film captures a sense of encroaching evil, building to moments of true alarm and cannily keeping us guessing via Kunimura’s muted performance in the pivotal role of a possible agent of evil. Character-based humour and a vivid portrait of a community beset by superstition carry the film through its many tonal shifts, and it’s beautifully shot in autumnal hues, the backdrop dominated by omnipresent torrential rain.
There is no denying that THE WAILING would have been significantly more dynamic if Na had been more disciplined in the editing room, with the worst indulgence a Shaman character who, although not uninteresting, is afforded too much screen time. Nonetheless, the filmmaker has a real command of the story’s various twists and diversions, even pulling off a seemingly left-field interlude riffing on 80’s splatter comedies, as an apparently indestructible antagonist (garden implement embedded in cranium) provides a jokey detour that doesn’t detract from the sincerity or intensity of the film’s core.
Largely restrained in terms of on-screen gruesomeness – in contrast to the punishing brutality of Na’s earlier non-horror work – the film is instead overwhelmed with dread from the outset, paying off with a marvellously sinister climax. As with this year’s more famous South Korean horror film, TRAIN TO BUSAN, Na never loses sight of the central human story, bowing out with a heart-breaking final moment.