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.
BOX Set REVIEW – WOLF CREEK: SERIES ONE – ***
Directed by Tony Tilse, Greg McLean, Starring John Jarratt, Lucy Fry, Dustin Clare. Horror/Thriller, Australia, 293 minutes, cert 18.
Released on DVD and BluRay in the UK by Eureka! on the 10th October, 2016.
It's now been eleven years since Greg McLean's first WOLF CREEK film roared onto screens (the closing film at FrightFest 2005): a steady build up of suspense followed by a third act of ferocious head-on-a-stick screaming horror. Oddly, WOLF CREEK 2 didn't show up until 2013, a full eight years later: to some extent more of the same, but still satisfyingly nasty and without the need to devote early parts of the film to setting outback bogeyman Mick Taylor up.
Now comes the First Season of the TV continuation: a six-episode wider exploration of the WOLF CREEK universe in which our beloved genial mass murderer (John Jarratt) is still out there, killing and torturing backpackers and tourists for no particular reason. Enter the Thorogood family, on an extended family road trip, upon whom Mick Taylor chances and promptly slaughters. But teenage daughter and one-time Olympic athletics hopeful Eve (Lucy Fry) survives the rifle bullet and ends up in hospital where, in the face of the police's lack of interest in tracking Taylor down, she resolves to do the job herself....
In truth it takes a bit of swallowing that a teenage girl from Nebraska with no apparent experience of life in the wild is able to transform herself into a tough warrior woman so quickly: able to hunt and kill animals for food as well as humans for survival. Dropping off the grid entirely (the police just want her on a plane back to the States as quickly as possible), Eve tangles with drug dealers and biker gangs as well as any number of colourful scumbags while tracking down Taylor through reports of his previous victims, while Darwin cop Sullivan (Dustin Clare) is dragged further into the case as he tries to keep the girl out of all the trouble she keeps stumbling into. Meanwhile, vast chunks of time go by in which Taylor doesn't show up except to casually kill a stranger who has literally only turned up for that scene.
At a whopping 293 minutes (Tony Tilse's first five episodes are about 45 minutes each, with McLean's own finale running a whole hour), has a lot of time to fill. The main problem isn't that it tried to "explain" Mick Taylor and why he does what he does, though backstory always weakens the scariest villains (like, say, Jason Voorhees, he's more potent as an almost mythological monster than as a human being); it's that the explanation offered doesn't seem to make much sense. [SPOILER WARNING!] Through black and white flashbacks we might learn that it's all down to childhood trauma and parental mistreatment, but that still doesn't actually explain why he's taken to torture and mutilation now. [END SPOILER.]
For all that, Wolf Creek looks fantastic: the outback vistas and landscapes are absolutely stunning on BluRay and the various small-town locales (one per episode) each have their own look and feel to them, such as the bleached-white sands of mining town Opalville or the abandoned spaghetti Western cemetery in Rome. Visually, Australia comes out of WOLF CREEK beautifully, though as a snapshot of gender attitudes it's as terrifying as Mick Taylor himself, with unreconstructed, unironic sexism and cheerful misogyny (including one particularly loathsome individual who, having already been thwarted in his rapey intentions, apparently tracks Eve hundreds of miles across the desert just so he can try again).
Despite its unflattering portraits of outback masculinity, I still enjoyed it a lot, though I'm wondering if there's any mileage in a further return to the WOLF CREEK franchise. Even though it's billed as the First Season, there is a sense that it's reached a natural endpoint, and it's not clear if there is anywhere new it can go rather than just wheeling another set of victims for Mick Taylor to persecute only for one of them to turn the tables on him. For now, though, this is a thoroughly entertaining ride that doesn't stint on the nastiness and brutality, gorgeously shot and brimming with colourful (or just plain weird) side characters. Grisly fun.