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 – Viking Siege **
Directed by Jack Burton, Starring: Michelle McTernan, Sarah Driver, Rosanna Hoult, Samantha Schnitzler, James Groom. Horror. UK, 2017, 95mins, Cert 18
Released in the UK on DVD on 26th December 2017 by Altitude Film Distribution.
Drunken monks vs. killer tree trunks
“I’d rather have a rusty sword shoved up my arse!”
The year is, err... (unspecified), in a place called, err... (unspecified). A brethren of drunken debauched monks are about to be slaughtered at the hands of the serving wenches they are lecherously pawing at. Unbeknown to the more pissed than pious brothers; their servants are actually a band of female warriors out for revenge against the monks who have sold their loved ones as slaves. Unbeknown to everyone however, they are about to be joined at the monastery by a handful of bedraggled gate crashing Vikings fleeing from an army of mutated tree-like demons (listed as ‘tree bastards’ in the end credits, but also colourfully described at one point as ‘splinter dicks’).
The publicity blurb references a disparate range of film and TV comparisons, from EVIL DEAD, RED SONJA AND ASSAULT ON PRECINT 13, to ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Vikings’ – none of which are remotely justified. If they’d listed CREEPSHOW on the other hand...The film opens with a falling meteor sequence lifted straight out of the ‘The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill’ segment which provides the origins of the tree mutation ‘delivered from the skies’ and bestowed upon the cursed men. Unfortunately, you then have to wait 45 minutes before these ‘tree bastards’ finally show up - which is fatal as the build up really doesn’t justify the disappointingly desiccated sub SWAMP THING like creature designs (mostly covered by robes).
Up until that point, we are treated to a barrage of luridly unsubtle ribaldry, washed down with decidedly historically unauthentic (and foul) dialogue, a decent throat slashing or two, some vicious stabby stabby dispatching, and scarred warrior leader Atheled (Michelle McTearnan) and her mini crossbow with its seemingly magically unending supply of arrows.
None of the characters are afforded anything other than rudimentary character traits, and the often misjudged attempts at humour (yes I’m including you ‘lute player’ in this observation) are largely cringe inducing.
Yet despite the film’s numerous faults, it’s still watchable in a guilty pleasurable kind of way, never dull despite its 90+ minutes running time, and occasionally hints at what could have been given a better script and a bigger budget to properly deliver on the undeniably promising premise. Given the scope afforded to Peter Jackson to realise the ‘Ents’ in the LORD OF THE RINGS films, you can’t fault the filmmakers ambitions, but inevitably, viewer goodwill can only stretch so far before it snaps (like a twig) at these ‘tree bastards’. And you can only sell a gory death by having an actor spew up gobbets of stage blood as a substitute for an actual make-up set-piece or half-decent CGI rendition so many times before you begin to realise that the requisite gory punch line isn’t coming.
But for a first-time feature, director Jack Burton’s Viking wooded demon mash-up isn’t completely barking up the wrong tree.