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 - WORM ***
Canada 2013 Directed by Doug Mallette. Starring John Ferguson, Shane O’Brien, Jes Mercer, Scott Ferguson, Sarah Shoemaker. 93 mins Certificate: 15
Out on DVD and VOD from Left Films on 16th January 2016.
The feature debut for writer-director Doug Mallette, WORM expands upon his own 2011 short film of the same name, utilising much of the same cast and built around the same compelling premise.
In the near future, the world has cumulatively lost the ability to dream, and thus inevitably becomes a mass customer base for “Fantasites”, a fresh spin on virtual reality that operates via a genetically modified worm entering the ear of the paying consumer. The company promises a whirlwind of spectacular living dreams and fantasies, all of which is good news for our loser handyman hero (John Ferguson), a likeable schmoe with no real friends and consistent incompetence around women. He gets hold of Fantasites’ Premium package, artificially transforming him into the trench coat-wearing, slo-mo-walking epitome of knicker-moistening coolness. Unfortunately, the product is still a relatively unknown quantity, and the impact of its side effects proves a real downside.
WORM’s central concept has the potential for a bleak dystopian Cronenbergian study of human frailty and body horror, though Mallette’s lightness of touch largely bypasses the dark side in favour of emphasising the absurdity of our loser protagonist’s dismal descent into a hyper-reality. It is, ultimately, too slight in the early going: the tonal shift into more ominous and violent territory in the final half hour is oddly less effective than the engaging build-up.
Although it never fulfils its promise, WORM still gets a lot right. A pleasing touch is “Frank”, the omnipresent, smiling mascot of “Fantasites” featured on a vast array of merchandise, including kids’ Halloween costumes. The film’s commentary on consumerism may be unsubtle, but its faux-advertisements and fake-sitcom clips are funny and cleverly executed. Our favourite: a “Pups for People” promo for the best dog store in town…with the small-print advisory note “Euthanised nightly”.