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.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
FILM REVIEW – DON’T BREATHE – ****
Directed by Fede Alvarez. Starring Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto. USA, Horror/Thriller, 88 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Screen Gems/Sony on the 9th September, 2016.
As an arbitrary rule of thumb, horror movies exhorting the audience not to do something tend more to the bad than the good: setting aside DON'T LOOK NOW (obviously) and the perfectly solid DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, the list of Don't... movies has not been encouraging, with mostly awful entries like DON'T GO IN THE WOODS, DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS, DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE and too many others. Happily, Fede Alvarez' DON'T BREATHE more than redresses the balance: a most agreeably twisted little thriller which ratchets up the tension over a tight 88 minutes on a minimal scale: a small cast of characters in (mostly) one location over one single night.
Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three petty burglars in the dead-end area of Detroit: the decide to break into the house of a former Army veteran who is rumoured to have a substantial amount of cash in the house: enough for them to get out of town and start a new life in California. He's old, he lives alone, he has no neighbours. They're not even put off when they discover the man (Stephen Lang) is blind - just because he's blind doesn't mean he's a saint, they reason - but it's only when they get in there that they discover he's nowhere near as easy a target as they thought. And he has the most disturbing of secrets in the basement....
Alvarez' 2013 so-so remake of THE EVIL DEAD was fantastically gloopy and gory but never actually scary; DON'T BREATHE skews completely the other way, with its 15 certificate covering the swearing as much as the violence and its nominal villain being a genuinely sinister (and largely wordless) presence. It is slightly muddled in that our three supposed heroes are genuine serial criminals, and one of them is armed, so it's frankly difficult to feel that much sympathy when their disabled victim quite rightly fights back against home invaders, at least until those basement horrors are revealed. And like many of these films, it sometimes feels implausible that human beings could sustain that amount of physical violence - falls, cuts, gunshots, repeated blunt force blows to the head - and hobble away with mere scratches; something you expect in a Bond film or a superhero epic but not a small scale film about "real people".
With most of DON'T BREATHE taking place in the semi-lit house (why would he ever need the lights on?), and with one sequence in complete darkness (actually a kind of ghostly grey night-vision effect for audience purposes), the film is best seen in a cinema with as little ambient light as possible. (The downside of this is the inevitable errant cellphone usage will be even more of a distraction than usual.) It's a lean, stripped-down thriller that doesn't waste any time on irrelevancies, delivers on the suspense as well as some perfectly timed jumps, and has enough nastiness on show without wallowing in it. Don't miss.