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.
IN CONVERSATION WITH Hendrik Faller
“We submitted MOUNTAIN FEVER on the very last day before applications closed, so our hopes were low” remembers writer-director Hendrik Faller. “Then, about a month later we got the selection email… I couldn't believe it!” The experience for the filmmaker has thus far been an upward trajectory, from tempered expectations to jubilation as his feature debut screens as part of this year’s First Blood strand. Now with the reality of the World Premiere playing to an exclusive genre crowd, the excitement seems to be ratcheting up. “It's what makes FrightFest and genre cinema so awesome. If a crowd is really into a film they can elevate it – everyone laughs and screams louder! The Prince Charles Cinema already attracts real cinema lovers and to combine that with FrightFest's ecstatic crowd, I think it's going to burn down the house. This is an audience that's hungry to discover new films.”
When a fatal flu virus devastates Europe, city boy Jack takes refuge in the Alps, but he’s ill-equipped to survive the harsh winter. Things only get worse when renegade Kara (Anya Korzun) breaks into his house and commandeers his dwindling food supplies. His plan to get rid of her disintegrates when outsiders invade, turning Kara into his only ally. But as a siege ensues, Jack must choose a side if he hopes to survive. “I watched a ton of film's in preparation, but the film that was the inspiration was APOCALYPSE NOW. That film is a journey up a river of dread and insanity, and it gets worse at every turn. Our film is the same except that it's not a river, but a freezing mountain. And it's definitely not 3 hours long!” Beneath the cinematic influence of Coppola’s revered adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel is a specific interest in human drama, that offsets influence with a personal thematic exploration. “Our film looks at how different people fare as the situation gets worse” Faller explains. “I've always been interested in human behaviour in times of crisis and this was my way to explore that. We also knew we had a location in the French Alps, plus I love snow. It's the most cinematic thing on the planet!” Although he admits that the intent was simpler than he has let on. “I wanted people on the edge of their seats, never being able to guess what's happening next! That's it!” His desire to evoke an extreme reaction from audience amidst confusion, was an experience shared by the films cast. While Faller enthuses: “I love my actors!” He admits: “I try to make their experiences as gruelling as possible and then just capture them as they deal with it.” And his approach saw an unexpected moment of emotional expression amidst the intense struggle to survival for his leading actress. “Kara spends most of the film kicking men in the face, but there is one scene where she cries. That wasn't planned! That was real pain at the end of a sub zero twenty hour shooting day. Instead of telling me to go screw myself, she let us capture it. Actors are the reason I’m a filmmaker and nothing gets me more than a great performance.”
Faller’s transition from short to feature filmmaking has not been a clean transition, the two remaining inextricably linked. “For me shorts were always a place to experiment. How do I do action? How do I do suspense? Can I handle a sex scene? Then once I had enough practice, I made a feature” he explains. “I wrote MOUNTAIN FEVER as nine short films and just stitched them together until it was feature length. I figure if I shoot them all at once I can increase my output over time. I think they call it economy of scale.” Of the lessons learned from this, his first feature step in an “economy of scale” he suggests: “What I have learned is how much work there is to do when the film is finished. It's like making a whole other film. I just started my next one and I'm using everything I've learned to make sure the thrills and chills only get bigger and better.” And to other aspiring filmmakers, Faller warns against the obvious advice and the inevitable heartbreak of the journey. “Learn about how and why films are bought and how they are being consumed. The advice I usually hear is that people should just go and make their film, no matter what. But that's the part you shouldn't need to be told. Learn the stuff that doesn't come to you naturally, and get good at rejection - it's a part of the process. Anyone who has ever made it anywhere has been rejected a gazillion times on the way.”
The conversation is ultimately brought full circle, as the filmmaker concludes with a final thought on the festival stage which his film will soon be playing. “I think festivals are important because films are meant to be enjoyed with an audience, and festival goers are people who love that collective viewing experience and they keep it alive.”
MOUNTAIN FEVER screens Saturday 26 August 2017 at 11am at The Prince Charles Cinema, Splice Media Discovery 1.