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 John Shackleton
As social media horror feature PANIC BUTTON gets a remastered DVD & Download release, writer and producer John Shackleton reflects on the film’s inspirational journey.
To start at the beginning, what was the genesis or the seed of the idea for PANIC BUTTON?
JS: The model of how to make a film actually came before the concept. I’d made a short film with a group of trainees using a bunch of self-imposed restrictions for practicalities sake, to make sure we completed and delivered within the three-week timeframe of the training scheme, who were my employers. The rules were quite simple – no more than five minutes walk from the office (we couldn’t afford a van), no dialogue (we didn’t have any pro sound equipment), maximum of two characters (we had to pay professional actors) maximum 12 hours filming time split over two days (it was January), exterior locations only.
The film worked out great and the model inspired the motivation for a feature to be made in the same way. I teamed up with David Shillitoe who was a trainee on the scheme at the time, and we decided to experiment and see if we could find a feature to work up. The actual story inspiration arrived swiftly afterwards in the form of a dream. Alone on a plane at night with a laptop computer and sinister shapes moving in the shadows, I was agonising over whether to click send an email. When I finally did – I was devastated, realising it was going viral and that there was nothing I could do to stop it. The repercussions were going to be catastrophic. I told David, and he instantly agreed that there was indeed something very sinister about the world of Facebook, and the writing began from there!
How do you look back on the experience of the writing and the making of the film? With hindsight, do you remember the experience differently than you recall the experience at the time?
JS: We found that when in doubt – sticking to the rules always led to a creative solution. We also realised quite quickly that real-world social media horror stories were far more twisted and deprived than anything we could cook up between us, so we started taking inspiration from news stories in the media at the time. We found that we were working on an intense pot-boiler of a storyline and we had great fun working hard to keep bubbling along. We locked in on a treatment, and Frazer Lee came onboard to write the first few drafts of the screenplay. David and I wrote more, and when director Chris Crow came onboard, he too had his pass on the story, adding several new elements and drafts.
Production was intense but largely pleasurable from my perspective as it was such an exciting and ambitious thing to try and pull off. I remember investor’s faces upon telling them that we were going to build a private jet inside a church in Cardiff Bay. That concept alone was enough to get people going, and when they could see that we were deadly serious, they began to get more heavily involved. Once momentum finally kicked-in, there was no stopping us. The production took off and the excitement was palpable.
Is PANIC BUTTON an example of cinema’s foresight or anticipatory ability?
JS: I loved that the concept for Panic Button was an inspired and timely one, that’s what attracted people to the project and ultimately is the reason why it’s back on the shelves now. It was a gift that felt almost too good to be true, like all we had to do was hold up a mirror to all of our current online behaviour and take a step back – surely it had been done before, we thought. But finding few similarities in the indie film world, we really felt like we were at the forefront of something very exciting. It was pretty clear that social media and social networking was on the rise, but obviously none of us had any real idea of just how big it would become. We just took what we could see in plain sight and pushed it as hard and far as we could. So I really think it was just a case of right time, right place with the concept, I’m not claiming great foresight - I just think we got lucky!
An interesting aspect of the film is the claustrophobic nightmare of the characters when you consider that social media is about connecting people, and opening up the world. It’s a strange contradiction that could be seen as a reflection of the invasive and oppressive force on our way of life that social media has proven itself to be. Your thoughts on this reading of the film?
JS: Some early feedback on the script suggested that we should take the film away from the interior of a jet plane. To us, that was the joy of it – the characters were being confronted with their online behaviour with nowhere to run and no avatar (or emoji) to hide behind. It was claustrophobic and horrible and a real uncomfortable seat squirmer, and this had to be the point - in stark contrast to the unaccountability of the world wide web.
From then to now, how do you think the film plays for the contemporary audience compared to the audience on its release?
JS: I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the film with a cinema audience since 2011, so I’ve no real idea of how it plays out. The film is not without its flaws and criticisms but I’d like to think that its core ideas and strengths are still just as poignant today as they were then.
From writing PANIC BUTTON to now, do you feel a different writer-producer than you did back then?
JS: To this day I’m still very proud of the accomplishment that is Panic Button. Capturing that zeitgeisty lightening-in-a-bottle idea and seeing it all the way through to the big screen and beyond, remains one of the best things I have ever done. We all improve with experience, but I’d like to think I could still replicate that passion and energy for a great movie concept, the next time such timely inspiration strikes!
Following on from the previous question, filmmakers often see the imperfections in their films. If you were to remake PANIC BUTTON, would you change anything, or would any changes be a product of the person you are today?
JS: It’s not a personal story by any stretch, but I think I would probably work harder at certain elements of the script and I’m fairly confident I could make it a much tighter thrill-ride now that I’m a more experienced writer and filmmaker. There’s definitely scope for a modern retelling of this story, which could be a lot of fun to do!
What does this remastered edition of the film offer the audience and in regards to DVD, do you see it as an interactive format where you can communicate and share the film in different ways through the special features?
There’s a whole bunch of new extras including a commentary with David Shillitoe, Frazer Lee and myself which might be quite illuminating to some… there’s also more interviews and featurette type materials in there, walking through our journey of how we made the film. Hopefully it’s a great educational resource for budding filmmakers, keen to make the leap into their features.
Panic Button, courtesy of Trinity Film, is avaliable now.
Download purchase link:·https://itunes.apple.com/gb/movie/panic-button-2011/id1199572815
DVD purchase link -·https://store.hmv.com/film-tv/dvd/panic-button