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
Blu-ray REVIEW - DOOMWATCH ****
Directed by Peter Sasdy. Starring Ian Bannen, Judy Geeson, George Sanders, Percy Herbert, Jean Trend. UK 1972 92 mins Certificate: PG
Out June 20th on Blu-Ray / DVD from Screenbound. RRP : £17.99 / 12.99
Although a major hit in its time for the BBC, “Doomwatch” has not enjoyed the lucrative afterlife of many sci-fi dramas of its time, despite its obvious intelligence and its deft incorporation of contemporary issues. One reason why it has slid into relative obscurity is the loss of several significant episodes, assumed erased, resulting in incomplete home video releases. Soon after the series ended, talented Hammer director Peter Sasdy (who made the underrated, impressively grim TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) was hired to helm a feature length spin-off, in which four of the regular TV cast are demoted to supporting roles and the mood errs toward the brace of early 70’s British rural horrors.
“What’s happening to them today could happen to us tomorrow…” warned the typically ominous theatrical trailer, although the execution is deliberately understated throughout. This Tigon-produced, Cornwall-shot feature effectively establishes the eponymous government department to the uninitiated (an environmental organisation created to combat the escalating problem of worldwide pollution) before a sinister title sequence offers footage of marine life retrieved from an oil tanker spill near the Island of Balfe. Doomwatch expert Ian Bannen arrives to determine the effect the accident has had on wildlife a year on from the spill, and also the impact that has been had from the chemicals used to fight it. The forthright, polo neck-wearing Bannen receives a hostile reaction from the terse locals (“We don’t like that sort of carry on!”), and discovers a high level of physical deformity and accelerated aggression with the local male population. The anomalies are considered as being the results of generations of inbreeding, but research on the local wildlife uncovers the presence of growth hormones.
“Old Mother Nature has a way of dealing with these things…” reassures company suit Geoffrey Keen at a key point in DOOMWATCH (“Unfortunately Old Mother Nature has been nobbled in this case…” is the abrupt response). Although not strictly a horror film, it succeeds as a quietly unsettling relative to the 70’s cycle of eco-horror pictures, while both the film and the series – with the core concept of a specific government department uncovering conspiracies and mutations – prefigure iconic later shows like THE X FILES. Avoiding melodrama and overt shocks, there’s a slow-burning sense of unease sustained from the early scenes of Bannen attacked by an unusually aggressive dog or glimpsing a child’s corpse in a shallow woodland grave. A grim off-camera still-birth and the finale of the hostile, disfigured locals encroaching on Bannen and the female lead (Judy Geeson) veer more into typical climactic genre territory, although the film never demonises its pitiful villagers, and the ending is downbeat in an unusually melancholic fashion.
The grumpy, forceful Bannen was a good choice for the lead, grounding a film that is light on action but strong on thought-provoking issues. Constructed upon a foundation of environmental desecration that (tragically) is now all too commonplace, DOOMWATCH endures as both a smart, involving stand-alone thriller and an effective footnote to the series.