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 – UNDER THE SHADOW – ****
Directed by Babak Anvari. Starring Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi. Horror, UK/Iran, 84 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas and on VOD in the UK by Vertigo on the 30th September, 2016.
One of the great things about horror cinema is that it can do a lot more than just the horror stuff. Unlike, say, romantic comedies or courtroom thrillers, there's a lot of room within the established formulae to take it in any number of directions: it can opt for comedy or darkness, fantasy or realism. It can opt for a visceral or a psychological approach, it can flavour with social observation and commentary, it can use any number of themes from religion, science and sex to politics, race and parenting. Horror can also just settle for shouting Boo! at you at regular intervals, but sometimes the more interesting examples are at least trying to do so much more than that.
UNDER THE SHADOW is that rarity: a UK-Iran-Jordan-Qatar co-production that tackles faith, war, motherhood, folklore and sexism, mixes these disparate elements well, and still finds room for some genuinely startling moments of popcorn-in-the-air horror. Set in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, primarily in one apartment block, it concerns Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi): husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) has been conscripted into the medical corps, leaving them alone to face the daily threat of Iraqi missile attacks (they could leave town, but she'd rather stay in her own home). But once a missile has crashed through the roof, it's as if something else - something evil - has come along with it...As a former medical student, the modern and rational Shideh naturally dismisses the idea of it being a djinn - "this isn't A Thousand And One Nights". But soon she's seeing and hearing things as well, as the unknown presence becomes less of a mischievous poltergeist (hiding Dorsa's favourite doll) and more of an overtly demonic presence forcing mother and daughter apart.
THE BABADOOK is the obvious comparison point, but this is a much scarier film and, in its depiction of a world and culture, a time and place, that we're not generally as familiar with in the West, much more intriguing. Writer-director Babak Anvari is Iranian-born and much of the film comes from his memories of his own childhood at the time so it certainly has the feeling of authenticity, and that notches up the horror when the steadily paced, mostly slow-burning film finally turns on the scares. Those traditional jump moments are brilliantly timed and one in particular did have me yelling as I jolted away from the screen.
Whether all this will help when it comes to next year's Oscars (the UK's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film shortlist) is anyone's guess. It's compelling, well acted, very scary in its later stages, and it's got a lot to say about the roles of women in an authoritarian society (Shideh isn't allowed to complete her medical studies, she has to keep the family's VHS player a secret, and even the presence of an intruder in her home is no defence against the charge of not covering her head in public). Highly recommended.