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.
BOOK Review – GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY: volume 2 ***
Original stories by M.R. James, adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion. 80pp. RRP £9.99
Out now from Self Made Hero.·www.selfmadehero.com
As Halloween and Christmas creep nearer, the work of legendary horror writer M.R. James once more emerges via the latest graphic novel from publishers Self Made Hero.
A year after four of James’ short horror stories were adapted by husband and wife team Leah Moore and John Reppion and left fans wanting more, more is exactly what we now have in the guise of Volume Two. It’s every bit as rewarding and enjoyable as its predecessor, and the perfect accompaniment for a dark and stormy winter’s evening.
Of the four short stories adapted here, each is illustrated by a different artist giving them their own unique look and feel, despite them obviously having thematic undertones of ancient European history and mythology, and a central character unearthing that which should well be left alone.
The weakest story is the first as Number 13 tells the tale of a mysterious room and its occupant in a Danish hotel. Its influence on horror writing and in particular Stephen King (see The Shining and 1408) is clear, but while it builds well, it offers little by way of conflict or resolution. There are perhaps not enough questions for the ambiguity to resonate in a positive way, despite many good ideas and a smart set-up.
Count Magnus tells the tale of Mr Wraxall – a travel writer who looks to uncover the secrets of the titular characters mausoleum. It builds slowly to something very chilling and effective, utilising its setting amidst graveyards to maximum effect. Having the lead character writing elements of the story as we read (‘It was not twenty minutes ago…’) creates a real sense of immediacy to proceedings that ratchet up the tension, feeding brilliantly into the unsettling open ending.
The third story, Oh, Whistle and I will come to you, my lad is a well-known tale that has been adapted for television, which is hardly surprising given it lends itself to a visual narrative. Subsequently Al Davison’s illustrations are what really stand out here as it works with the texts to create a real adult nightmare. It plays brilliantly on the concept of trick of the mind and interpretation, as crumpled bedsheets may or may not result in something real and dangerous – but undoubtedly something terrifying for the central professor.
The collection finishes with The Treasure of Abbot Thomas an adventure story in the mould of Indiana Jones although with obvious horror undertones as our two lead characters go in search of cursed gold. The most intricately plotted story in this edition, the rich red colours in the artwork within create a sense of a near literal descent into hell.
While many of the stories here may have familiar themes and motifs, this is down to the influence James has had on horror writing and fiction, a timely reminder of the origin of many great stories that are revisited at this time of year.
Smartly packaged and adapted into a new format for a new audience, it’s once again essential for lovers of good horror in the graphic novel format and beyond.
Next stop, volume three.