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
DVD REVIEW - Visions - **
Directed by Kevin Greutert. Starring Isla Fisher, Anson Mount, Eva Longoria, Jim Parsons, Joanna Cassidy, Gillian Jacobs. USA 2015 79 mins Certificate: 15
Released by Lionsgate Home Entertainment on DVD / Digital HD on June 20th 2016
From the Blumhouse/Lionsgate horror movie factory comes another minor, generic outing that gets the job done very quickly (less than an hour and a quarter without the credits!) but leaves you feeling empty and used. It’s worth informing the makers of bravura French splatter opus INSIDE that VISIONS has stolen the opening scene, climax and entire plot twist from their movie. The act of thieving must have been interrupted, however, because they didn’t have time to steal the show-stopping gore that accompanied the other goods, perhaps the only element capable of saving VISIONS from bargain bin DVD doom.
It’s like Deja-vu all over again when lovely Isla Fisher falls pregnant soon after surviving a car accident in which a baby in the other car died as a result of the collision. One year on, she has moved from L.A. to a vineyard in the valleys. Since the movie is in a hurry to get in and out as swiftly as possible, it’s only minutes before the new home’s Horrible Past is discussed by the resident Basil Exposition character (Joanna Cassidy), who starts acting like Derek in “Most Haunted” immediately after setting foot inside. As she gets closer to the due date, Fisher suffers from harrowing visions of smashing wine bottles, creepy hooded figures on the driveway and a substantial Hollywood orchestra hovering behind her, forcing us to jump with outrageously loud audio jolts every few minutes. Husband Anson Mount is reliably patronising in his dismissal of her seemingly supernatural experiences, like every other cardboard cut-out husband character in the last four decades of feeble “paranormal thrillers”.
We’re in the patented, familiar territory of “is she losing her mind or is it Memorex?” with VISIONS, a phoned-in directorial effort from Kevin Greutert, a graduate of the SAW series who made the formulaic but marginally more interesting JESSABELLE last year. The jump-scares are heavily telegraphed and insultingly clichéd and everything unfolds in check-the-boxes, by-the-numbers fashion right up to the very last scene. Fisher is an appealing presence, as always, but she is at the mercy of a one-note character who has been given the lion’s(gate) share of the hackneyed dire-logue. At one point, she actually has to say the line “This is not a dream. It’s a nightmare!” Just when you thought SCOOBY DOO 2 was a career low point…
It resolves itself in an all too obvious fashion via a melodramatic denouement that hinges on a once-trendy, post-Shyamalan twist-o-rama that was much more powerful when it involved Beatrice Dalle wielding a mammoth pair of Sadist-Scissors.