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.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
FILM Review - THE WITCH ***
Directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie. USA, Horror, 93 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Universal on the 11th March, 2016.
It's always interesting to see a movie which makes absolutely no concessions to the multiplex audience somehow getting a release beyond the arthouse circuits. Will it find favour out of its natural habitat? Will the Friday night date-and-a-pizza crowd give it a go or stick to the big studio crowdpleasers? And if they do make that leap into the unknown, will they like it and maybe make genuinely weird movies a viable concern? Or will they find it so strange and different that they'll scurry quickly back to the safety of Marvel and Michael Bay? Because pretty much everything about THE WITCH seems to have been designed specifically to annoy and alienate that popcorn demographic, from the dialogue to the score and even the aspect ratio. Which is no bad thing, frankly.
Subtitled A New England Folktale, THE WITCH (technically it's THE VVITCH but that just looks weird) tells of an immigrant English family in 1630's America, freshly thrown out of a Puritan community for being too puritanical. Trouble strikes early when the youngest of the children disappears without trace: was it witchcraft that spirited the baby away for an occult ritual? Is there something genuinely evil lurking in the woods? Or does it lurk within the family themselves - as a result of their unreasoning obsession with original sin and eternal damnation, or a need to escape that suffocating religious fervour?
It aims for an atmosphere of quiet dread rather than big shocks (though it did make me jump at one point): it has no gore or black humour, its bogeyman figure is kept to the shadows at all times and may not even be there. Instead it works its power through terrific acting (especially from the children) and its unbroken mood of darkness that may or may not contain some malevolent physical entity, all helped by keeping the dialogue in ancient English throughout: lots of "thee" and "thou" which is startling at first but you soon get used to it. It's shot in a cropped 5:3 ratio (emphasising the height of the woods rather than width) with a sombre, colourless palette, and overlaid with Mark Korven’s non-traditional soundtrack of dissonant, partly improvised choir wailings (think Ligeti's choral pieces as heard in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) and instruments such as a hurdy-gurdy and something called a nyckelharpa, to create an unsettling aura of menace and unease: there might be an evil out there, or it might already be here with you.
If the film does have a manifestation of occult Evil, it's the family's pet goat, Black Phillip, sinister star of the UK poster artwork who might as easily be the Satanic embodiment as just a regular goat. Whichever, he already has his own (supposedly comedic) Twitter account and will almost certainly turn up in lame spoofs of the SCARY MOVIE variety. Certainly THE WITCH qualifies as a horror film, though it's a radically different beast from any horror movie that's played the circuits in recent years. It's a horror movie in the way UNDER THE SKIN was a science-fiction movie: that's technically what it is but it's quite unlike any other films of that category. But is THE WITCH actually scary? Not by traditional horror movie standards, perhaps: the archaic dialogue (which is apparently verbatim from records of the time) and period setting tend to distance it from the real world of 2016, and its refusal to commit to an actual or a psychological explanation for its horrors means we're not sure what to be scared of, but the film has definitely conjured something. It didn't completely wow me when I saw it, but the more I think about it, the more I like it.