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 – VIRAL - ***
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, Starring: Sofia Black D’Elia, Analeigh Tipton, Michael Kelly, Travis Tope, Machine Gun Kelly. Horror. US, 2016, 82mins, Cert 15.
On EST from 10th October and on DVD from 17th October 2016 from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.
A global parasitic virus is turning victims into blind blood spewing zombie hosts for squiggly worms. Cut off from their parents, teen sisters Emma and Stacey’s relationship is tested to breaking point when the ‘Worm Flu’ inevitably begins to take a stranglehold on their isolated desert community.
Under the auspices of the seemingly unstoppable Blumhouse Productions juggernaut, directors Joost and Schulman (PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 & 4) deliver a well-worn (or ‘worm’) premise which, whilst adding nothing new to the global infection plague scenario, at least provides some half-likeable teen characters for once. The end result is that even when the sisters make the inevitably irrational kind of decisions that horror so often relies on (e.g. attending a house party despite a military enforced home curfew) you still half-care about whether the Worm Flu will eventually be spat all over them.
Younger Emma (Sofia Black D’Elia) is sympathetic as the more bookish slightly reserved sister to Analeigh Tipton’s older, snarkier Stacey. Nice guy next door Evan (Travis Tope) is well, nice, as Emma’s secret crush until big sis gives loves young dream a less-than subtle nudge to start the ball rolling.
There’s not a lot of actual zombie mayhem on display here as the story is largely (and wisely) confined to the immediate neighbourhood and the intimacy of the sister’s plight. The worm effects are modest, nothing we haven’t seen before, but nicely handled and there’s a pleasingly icky sequence involving an improvised amateur worm removal from a bulbous neck wound.
VIRAL is hardly a game-changer in the zombie-virus-pandemic field, but its redeemably likeable teen characters for once don’t get too under your skin (unlike those Worm Flu worms that is).