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 – XX - ***
Directed by Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Annie Clark, Jovanka Vuckovic. Starring Natalie Brown, Jonathan Watton, Peter DaCunha, Peyton Kennedy, Sheila Vand, Mike Doyle, Kyle Allen, Christina Kirk . Horror, USA/Canada, 78 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD by SODA Pictures on 8TH May 2017.
Any anthology worth its salt has a strong theme running through it that ties all of the different sections together, either through narrative, subject or the filmmaking crew behind it. XX (DOUBLE X? KISS KISS? EX EX?) is an anthology of four shorts all made by female directors, and for that fact alone it should be celebrated, but somewhere along the way the messages or ideas that the film as a whole is trying to put forward seem to get lost in translation, resulting in four short stories that don’t really seem to convey what was likely the initial idea behind them.
The obvious thread is that the four shorts are directed by women and each story has a female character at its centre, therefore commentaries on the roles of females in the societies that those characters dwell in would be the thinking, and to some extent that comes through but given that XX is being sold pretty much on the basis of having four female directors involved you would have thought that somebody would have gone all out to make the writing stand up to such a strong idea. Of the four stories it is the first and last segments that have the most going for them, mainly because they are inspired by pre-existing material and already have some connections to movies you may have already seen.
THE BOX, directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, is the first film and is based on the Jack Ketchum novel, of which a full-length movie has already been made. In it, a mother and her two young children are travelling by train when the young boy Danny (Peter DaCunha) gets curious about what a fellow passenger is keeping in the red box he is carrying. After the passenger shows Danny what is inside the family arrive home where mother Susan (Natalie Brown) prepares dinner for the children and her husband Robert (Jonathan Watton) but Danny has no appetite and leaves the table. This continues for several days with Danny noticeably losing weight and not interested in food at all, eventually sharing the secret the secret of what he saw in the box with his sister, who then proceeds to follow suit and refuses to eat, with whatever Danny saw eventually consuming the family as Susan desperately tries to keep everybody together. It’s a fairly familiar concept and probably boasts some of the best performances in the whole film but the conclusion leaves you hanging in the worst possible way as Vuckovic seems to equate being mysterious as also being clever and, to be honest, it isn’t and ends on a very unsatisfactory note.
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY is up next and is the weakest of the four, despite possibly having the most potential. Directed by Annie Clark, Melanie Lynskey stars as Mary, a mother who has planned a big birthday party for her 7-year-old daughter but on the morning of the celebrations she discovers her husband has died sat at the desk in his office. Rather than upset her daughter and cancel the party Mary decides to ride it out and hope she can fool the arriving partygoers with a bit of quick thinking. Played more for farcical laughs than anything shocking, THE BIRTHDAY PARTY has an odd tone to it, similar to the dark and quirky comedy of movies like PARENTS or BEETLEJUICE, but like most farces there is very little under the surface and while THE BIRTHDAY PARTY is obviously trying to comment on the notion of a mother going to extremes to make sure her child doesn’t miss out, it never really elevates itself above being something to snigger at for 10 minutes or so.
And so Roxanne Benjamin’s DON’T FALL rolls in next and this is more traditional horror fare about four twenty-somethings on a camping trip in the middle of nowhere when they discover what appears to be some ancient cave paintings. All is well until the middle of the night when one of the women in the group wanders off only to return to the camper in a slightly different mood, essentially snarling and thirsty for blood. If you’ve ever seen the 2010 Australian horror movie PRIMAL then this should be familiar to you, and even if you haven’t then it should still be familiar as it doesn’t really do anything unexpected. In terms of bloodshed it is the goriest of the four stories and is also the one where the significance of the female is least obvious; perhaps it is because the men in the group are such idiots to begin with that there is a theme of female empowerment buried in there somewhere? Don’t know and although DON’T FALL may be the most shallow of the four shorts it is in some way the easiest one to get to grips with despite being fairly throwaway.
Finally we have Karyn Kusama’s HER ONLY LIVING SON and this one is the most interesting of the four, not only because it is loosely based on ROSEMARY’S BABY and is a reimagining of what could have happened in the years after the events of that story but because it is the only one of the four films that actually seems to get the idea of the female theme and fully realises it. Cora (Christina Kirk) is a single mum struggling to raise her son Andy (Kyle Allen) after her husband ran off to Hollywood to become a star. All is fine until Andy approaches his 18th birthday and begins to get into trouble at school, thanks in part to his obsession with finger and toe nails which he has to cut off regularly, and begins to ask questions about his father – not the actor but his real father. It’s a fairly creepy tale and one that is well acted and manages to fit a lot into its short running time, making it the most satisfying of the four shorts and it also manages to convey everything you would want to say about a mother’s unconditional love for her child through performance more than script.
So there you go, XX consists of four short stories that won’t blow you away but aren’t terrible either and that sense of the underwhelming is what lets it down the most as the whole thing is put together very well and obviously wants to make a bold statement about female roles, especially in the horror genre where men still seem to rule the roost, but it just doesn’t have enough clout to make that intent into something more substantial, which is a shame as there is definitely an idea there that could do with exploring. Perhaps XX2 will put it right.