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 – CHANNEL ZERO: SEASON ONE CANDLE COVE ***
Directed by Craig William Macneill. Starring Paul Schneider, Fiona Shaw, Abigail Pniowsky, Luisa D’Oliveira, Natalie Brown, Shaun Benson, Luca Villacis. USA 2016 259 mins (over six episodes). Certificate: 15
Out now on Blu-Ray / DVD from Second Sight.
The first season of Syfy’s Creepypasta-inspired horror anthology series CHANNEL ZERO taps into the current wave of 1980’s nostalgia washing over the genre as filmmakers-of-a-certain-age unashamedly wallow in tributes to key works seen in their formative years. Since it originally aired in October 2016, “Candle Cove” cannot be accused of simply riding the coattails of Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS and Warner Bros’ astonishingly successful adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, though it shares specific inspirations. Adapted from Kris Staub’s blogpost, “Candle Cove” in its televisual form was created by HANNIBAL screenwriter / producer Nick Antosca and boasts Don Mancini and Max Landis among its producers.
The set up for this six-part season apes IT in its juxtaposition of connected, harrowing events unfolding in the same community over two time periods: the present day and 1988. Prominent American child psychologist Paul Schneider has just written a tell-all autobiography chronicling his traumatic childhood, in which his twin brother (a victim of the obligatory flashback bullies in the 80’s scenes) was among the kids who vanished without a trace from their Idaho town. Schneider is fresh out of the psych ward after suffering psychotic episodes, and returns home – against his better judgement – to reunite with his mother (the excellent Fiona Shaw) and piece together what may have happened. Once there, he finds a whole new generation of kids are going missing.
For anyone who grew up on the weirdest British children’s’ TV shows of the 1970’s and 1980’s, “Candle Cove” will awaken a particular pang of uneasy nostalgia. The series incorporates cannily crafted scenes from this faux TV puppet show which, according to the plot, was “unrecordable” and never aired on certain channels. In the words of one character, “You had to find it”. But find it some kids did, and it seemed to unleash a life-threatening malevolence into their reality. The appropriately lo-fi clips sometimes echo, visually and thematically, the shows that scarred us as kids: a stand out is “The Tooth Child”, a sightless figure who collects and assimilates the teeth of children. One episode closes with an image of this creature sitting at a window, and it’s the kind of sight that could well haunt a generation.
In addition to channelling the offbeat cut-and-paste spook-fests of our youth, the series also, to some extent, apes the rubber-reality trend in 80’s American theatrical horror, and touches upon the intermittent moral panics that periodically engulf our genre via assorted formats (comic books, VHS tapes, music, et al). A key line of dialogue is “Too much TV”, and there’s an interesting, but under-developed, suggestion of the impact such a series can have on impressionable minds. One of the more subtly unnerving scenes involves a meeting with a “Candle Cove” connoisseur.
Largely avoiding the kind of in-your-face jump scares that mark – and mar – so much contemporary Hollywood horror (including the cinematic adaptation of IT), the series builds slowly to moments of genuine alarm. It is bold in its overt scenes of children as both the victims and the perpetrators of acts of horrific violence. One notably startling set piece – in which a group of small kids hack relentlessly and remorselessly at what eventually turns out to be a mannequin – revives a discomforting memory of the 1970’s genre masterpiece WHO COULD KILL A CHILD? A short but grim sequence in which a key character is gruesomely turned into a human marionette provides a visual homage to one of the more twisted surrealistic deaths in the ELM STREET franchise.
Sadly, the show’s deliberate pace too often becomes ponderous rather than ominous, not helped by bland direction and largely one-note, uninvolving performances (Shaw being the obvious exception). The limitations of the excellent premise are revealed when over-stretched to six 45-minute episodes – this is a story that could have been well served by either a two hour feature film or a shorter mini-series format. That said, the low-key tone does highlight the impact of the more explicit shocks - including a multiple stabbing played off the masks of the assailants. It’s flawed, for sure, but also mature and creepy in a fashion you wouldn’t necessarily anticipate from a SyFy horror series…it’s not MECHA SHARK VS CREEPYPASTA, that’s for sure.