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.
FILM REVIEW – WISH UPON ***
Directed by John R Leonetti. Starring Joey King, Ryan Phillippe, Sherilyn Fenn, Ki Hong Lee. Horror, USA, 91 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Vertigo on the 28th July, 2017.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about whether some films are horror films, post-horror films, psychological thrillers, or whatever it is that sounds good and makes it not look like a horror film. THE WITCH, IT COMES AT NIGHT, GET OUT... they're horror films with something more, something else, something more respectable, so they don't have to carry that label that in so many minds seems to equate with the kind of cheap sleazy rubbish by which the genre is so often degraded. Well, there are no such finicky distinctions with WISH UPON: it's a straight-down-the-line horror movie with absolutely nothing to suggest it should go on any other shelves in the video shop.
Teenager Clare (Joey King) is having a hard time at her school: she's looked down upon because her father (Ryan Phillippe) is a dumpster diver, forever rummaging through people's bins looking for stuff he can either use or sell; she has the hots for the hunky guy who won't even look at her, and she's persecuted by the bitchy clique of vacuous rich girls. On her birthday her father gives her a mysterious box: an old Chinese wishing box that will apparently grant seven wishes. And it seems to work instantly - while the sudden inexplicable deaths of her beloved dog and her rich uncle must surely be sheer coincidence. But as the wishes and the deaths of those close to her continue, can she find a way to avoid the final blood price?·
Director John R Leonetti's previous hit was ANNABELLE, and he was the cinematographer on THE CONJURING and the first two INSIDIOUS movies amongst others, so he clearly knows his way around a horror film. But weirdly, unlike the best of the Blumhouse films, WISH UPON is never actually scary: it's a mixture of the WISHMASTER films, in which far-reaching powers are bestowed upon someone incredibly shallow and hard to empathise with (she uses up all but one of her wishes on herself and her high school lifestyle) and the FINAL DESTINATION series, with horrible and increasingly elaborate death scenes as their consequences. It's as if Leonetti is more interested in staging the death scenes than the character and narrative stuff, and even then the film shortchanges with relatively tame PG-13 payoffs. Still, as a mainstream multiplex horror that's not going to upset anyone, it's well mounted, solidly put together with some effective suspense sequences crosscutting in the second half of the film between two potential death scenes.
It's innocuous and bland, but that is the market it's playing to and it works well enough on that shiny disposable soft horror level. Hardcore gorehounds and MARTYRS fans probably won't get much out of it, and it's probably not going to start a franchise of its own (despite the inevitable post-credits stinger teasing a continuation). A horror film for people who don't usually watch horror films.