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 – ANNA *
Directed by Michael Crum. Starring Justin Duncan, Gerald Crum, Rebekah Lynn Bruflodt, Kristin Cochell, Alan Gunter. Horror, USA, 97 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD on December 11, 2017.
Two friends go about stealing an alleged possessed doll from a paranormal museum in order to capture some ghostly goings-on on film for their proposed internet show but once they have the sinister doll and they manage to unlock its power they have something of a bad time trying to put things back as they were.
That is the basic plot summary of ANNA, a haunted doll movie in the same vein as the ANNABELLE series. Well, for ‘in the same vein’ read ‘shameless rip-off’ as the title, the look and name of the doll, the DVD cover art and even the font of the title graphics all scream ANNABELLE but unfortunately the similarities end there as ANNA, despite having lofty ambitions, simply does not match or even come close to matching ANNABELLE on any level whatsoever.
And as many seasoned horror fans will know, there is much joy to be had from low-budget knock-offs of superior movies when they all they really need to do is entertain you on a basic level, whether that is through being totally self-aware and just running with it so we’re all in on the joke – such as with the ironic witticisms of SCREAM – or at least by having something about it that makes it worth checking out, such as XTRO ripping of ALIEN but doing so with a creepy creature birth scene that may not shock as much as the Xenomorph’s but is just as gloopy and unpleasant to watch. Unfortunately ANNA falls into neither category as although it is very aware what it is doing it just does not have the wit or the talent behind it to pull off what it is trying to do, if indeed it knows what it is trying to do because tonally and narratively ANNA is a total shambles. From the outset the two main characters of Jacob (Justin Duncan) and Shawn (Gerald Crum) are portrayed as a couple of Wayne and Garth-style idiots, and to be fair they do keep up the moronic personas throughout, but not at any point are they likeable or deserving of our attention, especially as the first act we see them committing is the theft of the Anna doll right from under the nose of paranormal museum owner Larry (Alan Gunter). Conversely, this is probably the best scene of the film as Duncan and Crum do seem to have the whiff of a potential double act about them but – and this is the biggest recurring problem with ANNA – director Michael Crum really needs to employ the services of an editor as he lets every scene drag on longer than is necessary, resulting in long pauses that take away any humour that the two leads manage to conjure up and leading to each scene ending up being flat and devoid of any momentum. The lack of self-editing also means that ANNA has a running time that is way too long and could easily have been trimmed, probably by about 30 minutes if truth be told, and is Alan Gunter supposed to be stuttering and getting his lines wrong as part of some weird characterisation or is he just a terrible actor not being given any direction? Given how poorly executed everything else in the movie is, chances are it is the latter.
But the drawn out nature of the direction is only part of the problem as ANNA also commits the cardinal sin of having all of its effects shots filmed in near darkness, and just to be sure you cannot make out what you are looking at Michael Crum decides to shake the camera like he is having a seizure so you never fully see what it is that Jacob and Shawn keep screaming about. The sound quality is also an issue as there are portions of the film that have no ambient noise at all, as if it has been digitally removed, and other portions where there is a very noticeable hiss in the background, again coming down to sloppy and inconsistent editing and making each interaction either inaudible or totally devoid of any atmosphere.
It may seem a bit harsh not being able to pull something positive from ANNA but the movie has nothing going for it other than the fact that it got made in the first place. Given a decent script and proper direction there is a chance that Gerald Crum and Justin Duncan could have something of a rapport going, at least enough to do a few comedy skits, but a whole movie of the two of them shrieking and goofing about like they are in SCOOBY-DOO whilst trying to convince us that there really is a threat lurking about in the dark corners of the abnormally huge basement they are making their video in is simply painful to sit through, although the blues rock songs that occasionally get played are pretty good and really the only positive thing to take away from this incoherent mess so the soundtrack CD may be a more satisfying purchase and certainly a better use of your time than the film it came from.