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 – DEAMON HUNTER **
Directed by Zoe Kavanagh. Starring Niamh Hogan, Alan Talbot, Michael Parke. Horror, Ireland, 85 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD by Left on the 12th June, 2017.
There's a moment early on in this new, slightly Buffyish occult thriller from Ireland when the line "Are you ready?" is actually followed by "I was born ready" and you wince. Really? And it's not the only line of duff dialogue on show. It's a pity, because although the film could do with some more technical polish (and, like a lot of low budget horrors, some more money spent on it) it's an agreeable enough though underpowered little action movie that has some nice ideas but unfortunately it doesn't really pull them off.
Taryn Barker (Niamh Hogan) is the titular DEMON HUNTER: a formerly stroppy teenager whose negligence led to the death of her younger sister Annabelle eight years ago. Racked with guilt and desperate to find the killer, she agrees to take part in an occult ritual with the wonderfully named but clearly evil Eskerin Falstaff (Michael Parke): a deal that goes wrong for both sides but which leaves Taryn with special abilities. Having taken the killer's head off with a katana at the start of the movie, she's promptly arrested by some incredibly dumb cops led by Beckett (Alan Talbot), the man who failed to solve Annabelle's murder. But then the severed head grows a new body (sadly this takes place off screen) and sets off on a new rampage, including the abduction of Beckett's own young daughter...
There is actually more to it than that, though it's oddly structured in that Taryn's backstory is teased out throughout the film: it's not until the halfway point that we find she has a Mystery Inc backup team and a secret base. Taryn herself is an interesting enough lead character, and one wonders whether there's been any thought of trying to make a franchise out of her. There's a night attack on a police station where the all-red lighting looks pretty good, and it's nice to see that much of the creature and demon effects are done mostly with prosthetics rather than iffy CGI.
But it is a shame that some of the dialogue was lost in the sound mix, and the swordfighting action and fight scenes lack oomph, which is clearly down to budget: these things cost. In addition, some moments didn't appear to make much sense (having cut off the head, why bury it rather than destroy it?) and the ending, which seemed to refer back to THE EXORCIST, seemed unaccountable in terms of exactly why it happened. It's never boring and it has plenty of incident, and happily it has no romantic element at all, but sadly it never catches fire the way it clearly wants to. Perhaps it could also have done with a less generic title: there are three or four other films also called DEMON HUNTER. In the end, it's unremarkable but not unenjoyable.