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 – WITHIN ***
Directed by Phil Claydon. Starring Michael Vartan, Erin Moriarty, Nadine Velazquez, JoBeth Williams. Thriller, USA, 85 mins, cert 15.
Released by Warner Home Entertainment on VOD on the 10th July, 2017 and on DVD on the 24th July, 2017.
Yet another horror movie that starts with a family moving into a new house: it's starting to become as much of a genre trope as the SUV full of bickering teen idiots or the spooky cabin in the woods. So your interest starts to seep away almost immediately, which is a pity as it opens with some nice tilt-shift shots under the opening credits, making the suburban streets of tract houses look like table-top models, before settling down as a fairly unremarkable if effective little thriller.
As you'd expect, WITHIN proceeds along very familiar lines: teenage daughter Hannah is the first to notice things aren't quite right, as furniture seems to move by itself, duvets are pulled off her bed and cupboard doors won't stay shut for some reason. Since she's been grounded she's given the job of clearing out the garage of all the stuff left by the previous residents who mysteriously disappeared - did they really just run out on their mortgage or did something else happen to them? Even the local kids think it's a scary house, but is it actually haunted? Initially, of course, no-one believes Hannah, putting it all down to attention seeking, but as things develop it becomes clear that there is definitely someone or something in the house with them...
The possible presence of a supernatural haunting is flagged up by the cameo casting of JoBeth Williams from POLTERGEIST as the neighbour, while more mundane and rational horrors are highlighted by the creepy locksmith from next door with a leery fixation on Hannah. And the film does keep you guessing as to which route it's going to opt for (although the original American title gives that game away). There are a few effective jump moments and simple chills like cupboard doors opening, and a refreshing lack of fake scares given that Hannah has not only a cat (who doesn't like being there) but a teddy bear that says "I love you" when hugged; neither of which are dragged out for easy Boo! moments. Most intriguingly of all, there's a final caption which suggests that the film is depicting a real world phenomenon that's been growing in the last few years.
Written by Gary Dauberman, who also wrote the wildly misjudged WOLVES AT THE DOOR, and directed by Phil Claydon, whose last film was the Hammer spoof LESBIAN VAMPIRE KILLERS (which is generally reckoned as terrible for some unknown reason), this is an entirely anonymous 15-rated horror movie straight off the studio production line. There's nothing that's traumatic or distressing, there's really nothing that's going to trouble anyone beyond the end credits. But on that fairly unadventurous level it's perfectly well bolted together for an undemanding Friday night rental. Copyrighted as far back as 2014 yet only now showing up in the UK.