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 - GOODNIGHT MOMMY ****
Directed by Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz. Starring Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz, Susanne Wuest. Austria, Thriller, 99 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Vertigo on the 4th March, 2016.
One of the problems with writing about, or even talking about, movies is the avoidance of spoilers. It's not enough to keep the big plot twist a secret: these days it's bad form to even suggest there is a big plot twist. In this post-Shyamalan era we've become so used to the idea of there being a major reveal that we end up watching every movie trying to figure what that reveal might be, even when there isn't one. So it's very difficult to discuss a film like GOODNIGHT MOMMY (original title ICH SEH ICH SEH) without at least hinting at the presence of a Rosebud or a Keyser Soze moment. In any case it's definitely one of those films where the less you know, the better, and going in totally cold is the ideal.
For the most part it's a three-hander with a simple set-up: during an idyllic summer in the countryside, twin brothers Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) gradually come to suspect that the bandaged woman claiming to be their mother (Susanne Wuest) may be an impostor. If so, where's their real mother? Is she really their mother who's just come away from plastic surgery (either as a result of cosmetic procedures to enhance her TV career, or reconstruction following an accident)? Or - potential spoilers ahoy - is there something much darker and more sinister going on?
The film morphs from "what's wrong with Mommy?" to "what's wrong with those kids?", but it does it so neatly and so smartly that you don't initially realise the whole movie has shifted a whole 180 degrees on its axis. Even if you do guess what's actually going on - as I did eventually, and probably a long time after most people cottoned on - it doesn't matter too much as directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz turn the thriller screws pretty tight in the second half, occasionally offsetting the tension with some odd comedy asides (such as the unexpected arrival of a pair of Red Cross collectors who casually wander around the house looking for donations).
It looks wonderful ("shot in glorious 35mm", according to the last line of the end credit crawl), building the tension superbly and opting for an unsettling tone rather than outright violence; the BBFC have given it a 15 certificate and their warning notes "strong violence" and "scenes of torture", but it's hardly a gorefest. Aside from a few painful moments (particularly one involving superglue), it's more interested in the personal and emotional rather than the visually visceral. And it works: I enjoyed GOODNIGHT MOMMY far more than I was expecting and, barring a few wonky moments around the ending, it's one of the best releases of the year so far. Such a pity we've had to wait so long for it.