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 – WARRIORS GATE **
Directed by Matthias Hoene. Starring Uriah Shelton, Mark Chao, Dave Bautista, Ni Ni. Action/Fantasy, France/China, 101 mins, cert 12.
Released on DVD in the UK by Kaleidoscope on the 2nd October, 2017.
When he's not directing his own bonkers SF extravaganzas, Luc Besson has had a nifty line in writing dumb but glossy popcorn action spectaculars in which A-list Hollywood stars and Oscar winners scoot around France shooting people and blowing things up. It's given us such silliness as 3 DAYS TO KILL, The TRANSPORTER, LUCY, TAKEN and THE FAMILY: fun, fairly empty but fast-moving nonsense. It's odd that this time around he and his regular co-writer Robert Mark Kamen have gone off in a completely different direction, throwing together such unremarkables as THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, BULLETPROOF MONK, LES VISITEURS/JUST VISITING and THE KARATE KID (one of Kamen's earliest writing credits, over thirty years ago) for a teen-friendly kickabout that's actually surprisingly weak.
Videogame nerd and school bully fodder Jack (Uriah Shelton) helps out at a local antique/junk shop in Averageville, America, and is given an old Chinese chest as a gift. That very night it becomes a magical time portal, disgorging arrogant Chinese princess Su Lin (Ni Ni) and her protector Zhao (Mark Chao) as they flee through time from Prince Arun The Cruel (Dave Bautista), who's scheming to become Emperor by marrying the rightful heiress. Arun's minions turn up and kidnap her; Jack follows them through the portal and finds himself back in ancient China and charged with helping to rescue her...
It's probably not much of a surprise that the action sequences in THE WARRIORS GATE are pretty light: skewing younger than Besson's and Kamen's usual fare, it's a 12-rated film and it's clearly not aimed at the dedicated martial arts fanbase. It's very silly: the idea that a kid who's been studying martial arts for maybe three days is going to take down someone like Dave Bautista in mortal combat is ludicrous, and why do they even need armies and protectors when they've got such powerful wizards? Nor does it even bother trying to explain why warriors from dynastic China are speaking English (in fairness, none of these films ever do) and aren't baffled by everything in their brief excursions to modern American suburbia. Instead it's concerned with Jack's journey (as much spiritual and geographical), standing up to the bullies in both worlds and becoming the better person within himself.
Still, as a disposable Saturday matinee that eventually gets a move on after a slow start (perhaps spending too long with Jack's put-upon life) it's watchable enough. But sadly it's never more than watchable enough, it never catches fire and bursts into life and it's never surprising. It doesn't have any of the wit or invention of director Matthias Hoene's earlier COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES (though, granted, it's still much better than BEYOND THE RAVE, his unwatchable MySpace serial for Hammer). Not to be approached with anything like high expectations, but it'll just about pass an afternoon.