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 DAMIEN POWER
Damien Power’s directorial feature debut KILLING GROUND is a disquieting vision of terror, mixing cruel violence with a mystery and suspense that creates a palpable anxiety.
Arriving at an isolated camping spot in the bush, young couple Ian and Sam discover someone has already pitched a tent and seemingly abandoned it. As time passes by and its owners don’t return, the newcomers start to suspect the worst, before finding themselves embroiled in an horrific ordeal of violence.
Beneath this palpable anxiety, Power crafts a film with a thematic interest in cyclic violence, asking not only questions of the fate of the missing couple, but how we as humans cultivate cycles of violence to scar the land. It is a work that does not exploit violence as the filmmaker demonstrates a subtlety, yet neither does he shy away from KILLING GROUND’S horror, while delivering a subversive film that challenges the traditions of the genre and more broadly storytelling.
In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, Power reflected on the process of challenging genre conventions and offering audiences a unique take on a familiar tale. He also discussed the tradition of the hero’s journey, the desire to create terror out of realism and how the journey from the seed of the idea evolved the personal resonance of the violence.
What was the genesis of KILLING GROUND and how did the expectations of your directorial feature debut compare to the realities of the experience?
The idea occurred to me as an image of the orange tent in the middle of the bush with nobody around, and I started thinking to myself: Well, where are the campers? What happened to them? That was the very early seed of an idea. I started thinking what's the worst thing that could have happened to them, and then I started thinking about the antagonists. Of course someone has to find the tent, and that's the protagonists. From that point I had a very loose idea of this interesting situation, but it wasn't quite a story yet, but it seemed to me to be a survival thriller. So I started thinking about those classic films from the seventies such as STRAW DOGS and DELIVERANCE, or more recently FUNNY GAMES because as a film goer I was always drawn towards very smart thrillers. I then started thinking about the story in that genre, putting myself in the place of those characters, particularly the protagonists. It was a lot of my own fears in this film - would I be able to protect my family if we were under threat? What would I do in this situation? And that was the question I constantly asked myself while writing it - what would I do? We've all seen those films where people go into the woods and bad things happen. Taking that genre story and trying to think about what would happen in that situation, I tried to make it as real as possible. So that's the genesis of the story, and I don't know if short films can ever prepare you for the marathon that is making a feature film. You are doing the same things, but making a feature is this all consuming beast. It was the hardest thing I think I've ever done in my life [laughs]. I hope the next one's easier.·
Storytelling sometimes becomes lost in the romanticisation of the hero’s journey, which we can trace back to ancient myths. KILLING GROUND taps into the realism of the situation, where instinct and impulse override the romanticisation of the heroic?
I think that's fair. For starts, some of those Greek myths are very bloody, but they're not the ones we very often tell. We see so many films that were written around the hero’s journey - Joseph Campbell’s HERO OF A THOUSAND FACES, and then there is the three act structure. Even if you are not a filmmaker, you understand that structure because you see it so often. So I wanted to challenge the idea, and to try to find ways to subvert it.
One of those things I could do a little bit different was to make it more realistic in every area. It’s not only the treatment of the material, but it's also about the characters. The protagonists seem real. The antagonists seem real - they're not cartoon monsters. Everything that happens is something that could possibly happen, which to me is much more frightening. And the protagonists reactions are realistic. Maybe they don't always make the right choices, or the heroic choices under pressure, but that makes a more interesting story outcome. This story is going to go off in a direction you don't expect, or you haven't been taught to expect by that three act hero’s journey.·
The split timeline taps into the cyclic nature of violence which is a central theme. It is not only a structural narrative choice, but one that sees narrative structure compliment the thematic narrative?
There were two things that I tried to do differently to films in this genre. One we talked about was to make it feel real, the second was the structure. These films are usually linear, with good reason. You want to sow the audience into that characters journey so you're walking in their shoes, and feeling all their fear. But what I wanted was the use of a split timeline, at least in the beginning so that I was able to spend a bit of time with the protagonists, the antagonists and the family, so that the family weren’t just victims one, two, three – we knew a little bit about them. Also we saw the villains before truly understanding how terrifying they could be and so we humanised them. And of course we see the protagonists, Sam and Ian before everything turns bad. So I wanted to use that device to spend a bit of time with each of them, but it does also have the thematic resonance that you are talking about, because yes, the film is about cyclic survival, about Australia's history of violence. It is the idea this violence was happening two hundred years ago, last week, today, right now, and it’s going to happen again tomorrow. So the structure also gives you that, and I’m aware with a fractured timeline you do sacrifice some of the bonding with the characters. But what I was hoping was the first part of the film would play out as this mystery, and essentially the first part of the film is the characters and the audience wanting to answer what happened to the campers? Everything in that first part of the film leads you into the scene that answers those questions, that to me should feel like the eye of the storm - this calm, dead awful place that you get thrown out the other side of. And structurally I hoped that as it went on people would realise: Oh hang on, they're not there at the same time, this is a different time line. There is then this waiting for those timelines to meet, and as they wind together more tightly, people feel increasingly anxious. So yeah, it performed both a thematic function, but also had an effect on the audience.·
Speaking with Carol Morley for·The Falling, she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience, by bringing themselves, their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film, is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
Everybody in a way has their own version of this film, and I think you're right that the audience completes a film. You make a film to be seen and I've loved watching KILLING GROUND with many different audiences. I’ve seen it in the States, here in Australia and I've enjoyed seeing the reaction we've had at festivals in the UK, and other countries. What has been so gratifying for me is that it has been received in the way I intended. Yes, it puts people on the edge of their seats. Yes, it scares them and leaves them wrung out like the protagonists, where they feel like they've been on this incredible ride. But at the same time it has left them with something to think and to talk about.
Interviewing filmmaker·Christoph Behl, he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
I had an interesting experience here. It was probably eleven years from the germ of the idea to actually stepping out onto set to make the film. When I stepped out onto set I remember thinking that I felt like I was a different person than I had been when I started writing the film. Back then I was already with Rachel my wife, but we didn't have kids. Then by the time we stepped out on set we had two kids, and we had become a family that goes camping. Just having had kids brings a different perspective and feeling to the material, and that was interesting. Of course, when you dealing with material like this, it is one thing to write the violence, but it is quite another to film it and to make it real. So I was very much aware of that throughout the process. I don't know that making the film has changed me as a person, perhaps it has made me more confident in my abilities, and it has certainly launched my career as a filmmaker. So it has been six months of incredible changes, but I'm not sure it has changed me so much as a person.
KILLING GROUND is released in cinemas and on VOD on Friday 29 September by Vertigo Releasing.