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
DVD REVIEW - EVEN LAMBS HAVE TEETH - ***
Directed by Terry Miles. Starring Kirsten Prout, Tiera Skovbye, Christian Sloane, Michael Kari Richards. Canada / France 2015 75 mins Certificate: 18
Out June 13th on DVD / Digital from Solo Media / Matchbox Films.
Straight-talking, horny Kirsten Prout and her somewhat more homely friend (Tiera Skovbye) are BFF students heading for a month’s worth of work at an organic farm in order to raise enough cash for a weekend of shopping in New York City. Skovbye’s FBI-detective uncle watches over them as much as he can while her mum is away, but proves ineffectual (in needless cutaways) when the pair are lured back to the country residence of two handsome young brothers and swiftly find themselves drugged by their mom’s homemade apple pie. Chained up in their underwear and at the mercy of a redneck sex-trafficking ring referred to as “Deliverance fucktards”, the girls are abused and molested by a succession of deviants – notably a mysterious pig-masked weirdo – before their day of retribution arrives.
Writer-director Terry Miles’ film errs thematically close to the I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE remake franchise, complete with a complicit Sheriff character and a discreetly messy sequence that continues the 21st century horror trend for brutal male anal violation. In contrary to the I SPIT series and the film’s infamous 1970’s predecessors, EVEN LAMBS HAVE TEETH mutes the humiliation and sexual assaults meted out to the female protagonists, preferring to keep the abuse off-camera rather than staging an explicit, protracted endurance test for the audience. Miles clearly pitches this rendition of the rape-revenge sub-genre at the teen market, and it consequently has a far lighter tone than most of its ilk, with the climactic retribution delivering the bloody goods while not revelling in the post-SAW sadism of the first I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE reboot.
The brief running time and reduction of screen time devoted to the girls’ ordeal makes it a surprisingly breezy watch as Miles swiftly contrives an all-too-easy escape and transforms the heroines into proficient, smirking, wisecracking avenging angels via an inevitable hardware store montage. The vengeance that follows – involving spiked tennis balls and other useful tools – is enjoyable to watch, and the spunky performances from Prout and Skovbye help a lot, even if their on-screen nods to DELIVERANCE and THE DEER HUNTER seem unlikely reference points for two teenage girls in 2016.
It may be lacking in shocks and surprises and notably slight compared to the trend-setters of this format, but if the intention was to craft a slick, digestible alternative to a sub-genre that has traditionally (and deliberately) proved tough-going as entertainment, then consider it a modest success.