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 – EAT LOCALS ***
Directed by Jason Flemyng. Starring Billy Cook, Vincent Regan, Charlie Cox, Ruth Jones, Freema Agyeman, Annette Crosbie, Dexter Fletcher, Mackenzie Crook, Nick Moran, Eve Myles, Tony Curran. UK 2017 93 mins Certificate : 15
Released by Spirit Entertainment Limited on VOD, DVD and Blu-Ray on October 30th 2017
Crafted with a degree of wit by Danny King, the talented screenwriter behind WILD BILL, EAT LOCALS is the feature directing debut for one of the UK’s busiest actors. Jason Flemyng’s genre credits as a thesp range from the title role in the BBC’s live remake of THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT and Santa in SEED OF CHUCKY to prominent roles in underrated fare like THE BUNKER, BELOW and George Romero’s BRUISER. Equally prolific producer Jonathan Sothcott, who transitioned from DVD featurettes for vintage Brit horror titles, has birthed an assortment of indie horrors, though his track record with the classic monsters has not been sterling (c.f. STRIPPERS VS WEREWOLVES and DEAD CERT).
The central premise is engaging, with echoes of the fusty British-dominated “Watcher’s Council” in Joss Whedon’s BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Every 50 years, at a remote country farmhouse in Hertfordshire, Britain’s vampires meet to discuss pertinent points, from the contentious issue of territory ownership to the chastising of those guilty of over-feeding (e.g. preying on children) and to approve new members of the council. On the night that we drop in, they have to decide if naïve Essex lad Billy Cook – lured in to the fold by fanged femme fatale Eve Myles – is worthy of joining their ranks. They’re not alone, however: circling the lavish property are Special Forces vampire killers led by Colonel Robert Portal, whose expectations of a solitary vampire are vastly outstripped by the full-blown coven with which they are confronted.
Although critically lambasted by many on its brief theatrical release, this is arguably the most likeable film to date from Sothcott’s stable. There’s no denying it could have used more horror (dismayingly bloodless for a vampire picture), laughs and action, and the small budget sometimes shows – notably with fleeting, ill-advised use of CGI – but Flemyng displays a certain kinetic flair in the set pieces, notably an ambitious barn stand-off, partially conveyed via a bravura extended single take. If the movie references – a visual nod to the endlessly quoted “Here’s Johnny” scene in THE SHINING, and yet another reworking of CROCODILE DUNDEE’s “This is a knife” scene – are old hat, fans of ZULU will get a kick out of its relevance to the narrative. The film also confirms that no movie that uses the David Essex classic “Hold Me Close…” as a parting audio accompaniment can be without merit.
The biggest saving grace is an astonishingly talented cast of familiar TV and movie actors, many of whom are presumably chums of the director happy to take fun but under-written roles : Mackenzie Crook, Freema Agyeman and Eve Myles are notably under-nourished in the notable-moments department. James Moran’s COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES seems a prominent influence for the funniest scenes – which is no bad thing. Still remembered as Victor Meldrew’s long-suffering wife in ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE, veteran actress Annette Crosbie brings a sly smile and show-stopping line delivery to the role of the coven’s elder, a sweet-looking, perpetually knitting old lady who has time to offer her own views on everything from over-population (“…all those migrants coming, clinging to the undersides of vehicles…”) and technology (“I can work the video now!”). The movie’s highlight, inevitably, is Crosbie emerging from the house in slo-mo with a machine gun, hissing “Eat this, you sons of bitches…” as Our Cilla blasts out “Love’s Just A Broken Heart” on the soundtrack.
References to politics past and present also gain a chuckle, with one character named Mrs Thatcher, presumably to justify the inclusion of the line “It was Mrs Thatcher’s fault!” A nice touch is the naming of several characters after significant figures from vampire lore: Angel, Mina, Lucy…and, of course, Private Stoker. Dexter Fletcher, also a scene stealer in this year’s DOUBLE DATE (and King’s WILD BILL director), has a hilarious extended cameo – spending much of the film either bound to a chair or with a bucket on his head, scoring a splendid comic moment with a suspiciously stocked fridge and nabbing the best non-Crosbie lines (“I pay my taxes…most of them…most of the time…”)
EAT LOCALS is too ponderous for its own good, and we could also have done without the corpsing outtakes during the end credits, reminding us of what a great time everyone had on set. That said, it’s funnier and more endearing than most of its kind, with an unpretentious, eager-to-please ambience best summed up by Flemyng’s revival of the old sitcom standard “You have been watching…” to give the appealing cast on-screen curtain calls at the very end.