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.
BOOK REVIEW – TIM BURTON: THE ICONIC FILMMAKER AND HIS WORK - ****
Written by Ian Nathan. 176pp. RRP £25
Out now from Aurum Press.
At first glance, Ian Nathan’s coffee table book on director Tim Burton appears to be both stunning and yet unoriginal. The magnificent outward presentation and cover artwork sandwich some glorious looking pages and splendid photography. Yet it appears that this is little more than a collection of dressed up essays on the Burton’s many films as director, the like of which we have seen about many filmmakers and stars many times before.
Yet when you actually delve into Nathan’s words, you realise that the book is a triumph of both style and substance – not unlike many of Burton’s films.
Nathan doesn’t dwell too much on his subjects life or upbringing in the introduction but highlights what is relevant in creating the man that would create many remarkable worlds.
Instead of just going through the films chronologically, the book groups them into interesting sub-catagories – Happy Horrors (PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, BEETLEJUICE) Strange Heroes (BATMAN, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS), Poetry into plot (BATMAN RETURNS, ED WOOD) Drop Dead Gorgeous (the stop motions), Head Cases (MARS ATTACKS!, SLEEPY HOLLOW), Time Warps (PLANET OF THE APES, BIG FISH), Just Desserts (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, SWEENEY TODD), Family Plots (ALICE IN WONDERLAND, DARK SHADOWS) and Peculiar children (BIG EYES, MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN).
Reading the book from cover to cover, this can be somewhat confusing, especially when we’re referred to Burton’s state of filmmaking mind from one film to the next. Yet in the main it works well as a way of delving into the many different worlds and themes of his repertoire.
Nathan’s decision to largely focus on the films individual productions is the books key selling point. It enables us to gain a good insight into the sheer logistics and complexities that go into each and every Burton film; how his worlds are created and crucially what makes them Burton-esque – a phrase that has now become part of the cinematic lexicon.
The essay on PLANET OF THE APES for example highlights the sheer logistics of the film including three units shooting simultaneously, the remarkable make-up that was as uncomfortable as it was impressive and the ape training that the actors undertook. Meanwhile though, the script was being re-written daily and subsequently the result was a film that had much that was impressive about it but that equally failed to impress.
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is the only film covered at length that was not directed by Burton and Nathan does cover the debate over the credit. The film’s actual director Harry Selick claims Burton was only on set for an estimated ten days. Yet it’s none the less another informative and interesting read and nobody can deny Burton’s role in the film. It is somewhat disappointing that Danny Elfman isn’t discussed in much more than passing – even here. The same can perhaps be said of his production designer Bo Welch.
A through-line is also that of the films and filmmakers which influenced and inspired Burton and while most are obvious (FRANKENSTEIN, Ray Harryhausen, BRAZIL), it none the less serves as a decent reminder that it is possible to pull on the work of others in order to create something unique. Burton’s work nearly always feels like his own, even if it’s been inspired and influenced by others.
For there is something of Tim Burton in each Burton film. Nathan points out that Johnny Depp is as much Burton as Burton himself – the manifestation of the director on screen. And the filmmakers somewhat awkward relationships with big studios (fired and then re-hired by Disney) throughout his career means he is in many ways like Alice – tumbling down the rabbit-hole, making sense of it all in his own unique way. BIG FISH meanwhile, arguably his most grounded and sentimental film, was made shortly after the death of his own father.
Burton’s more recent output of films has been somewhat mixed of course. ALICE IN WONDERLAND took over a billion dollars at the box-office but will not perhaps be remembered as one of his better films, unlike the criminally under-seen ED WOOD. DARK SHADOWS was not a flop but never really found its place. Many would argue that it was from the late 1980’s to the late 1990’s from BEETLE JUICE through to SLEEPY HOLLOW that was Burton’s real purple patch and that he hasn’t fully scaled those heights since.
What Ian Nathan has done here though, is serve up a timely reminder of the world and subsequently the films of Tim Burton and once you’ve finished reading, you’ll realise it’s a world that you want to delve back into and that there are many classic films that deserve re-visiting. Again.