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 – CAGE DIVE *
Aka : Open Water 3 : Cage Dive. Directed by Gerald Rascionato. Starring Joel Hogan, Josh Potthoff, Megan Peta Hill, Pete Valley. Australia 2017 77 mins Certificate: 15
Out on 9th October 2017 from Lionsgate Home Entertainment
This Australian contribution to the found footage cycle – and a rare shark-based entry in the sub-genre – emerges hot on the heels of Johannes Roberts’ deserved Stateside box office success with the suspenseful 47 METRES DOWN. OPEN WATER, another intense ocean-set thriller with a pervasive shark threat, obviously still carries some kind of marketing cache, since CAGE DIVE follows ADRIFT (aka OPEN WATER 2) by becoming a sequel-in-name-only in America, where it is known as OPEN WATER 3 : CAGE DIVE.
In truth, it has more in common with the original OPEN WATER than it does 47 METRES DOWN: the set-up of the main characters in a shark cage is very quickly abandoned in favour of a general series of life-threatening encounters and mishaps in the unforgiving deep. Opening with a typical found-footage movie disclaimer – purporting to be footage recovered from an underwater camera, and accompanied by a gimmicky, unfulfilled warning of graphic content – the movie also notably lacks any of the conviction, tension or likeable characters of the earlier films. And it can’t even hold a candle to the vastly mediocre SHARK ATTACK III, because at least that film features John Barrowman delivering the most astonishing line in cinema history…with a straight face.
Clocking in at a mere one hour ten minutes minus the endless credit roll, CAGE DIVE opens with familiar, inauthentic simulations of “reality”: fake news footage of the incident that will imperil our three Californian protagonists, integrated with talking-head interviews featuring the British diver who found their camera (SD card conveniently preserved!). Two U.S. brothers decide a shark cage adventure in Adelaide may help them to win the $100,000 prize offered by an “extreme” reality show competition. This means that one of them will spend the entirety of the movie filming everything, even when in grave danger, following a freak tidal wave that flips over their tour boat and strands them in the water. It also means carelessness threatens exposure of a soap-opera style love triangle involving the blonde beauty (Megan Peta Hill) who is shagging them both.
OPEN WATER, although a conventional third-person narrative that just happened to be filmed in a verite, surface-bobbing fashion for post-BLAIR WITCH PROJECT authenticity, was perhaps destined to inspire a bunch of full-blown ocean-set horror films. This disposable offering shoehorns in the endlessly quoted “We’re gonna need a bigger boat line” and has an amusing use of the low-battery cliché early on in which the audience is deprived a bout of titillation, but it otherwise fails to convince from the get-go. One character notes with surprise, and in retrospect, “He never stopped filming” as if to acknowledge and overcome the silliness of the conceit, but in this case, it’s just distractingly absurd that anyone would still be documenting their holiday-from-Hell.
The sharks are used sparsely, with real underwater footage intercut with amateurish attack simulations, while the sequence of unfortunate events striving to sustain the threat are sorely lacking in tension. Most crucially – and a common trait to this brand of first-person genre filmmaking – there’s no one to sympathise with. The characters are uniformly one-note and irritating, particularly during the script’s attempt to recreate the arguments and on-camera breakdowns that punctuated THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Inevitably, one key character performs a weeping straight-to-camera farewell / apology a la Heather Donahue, by which time even the most forgiving of audiences will be hoping for an apocalyptic tsunami.