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
DVD REVIEW - INTRUDERS - ***
Directed by Adam Schindler. Starring Beth Riesgraf, Jack Kesy, Martin Starr, Rory Culkin. USA, Horror/Thriller, 91 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD and BluRay by Icon on the 6th June, 2016.
It's a pity that the poster artwork, whose floating house design looks so similar to that of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS and countless other cheapies on the supermarket shelves, misrepresents INTRUDERS as some kind of mishmash of violent torture thriller (most of the weapons depicted aren't even in the film) and supernatural fantasy, as promised by the strapline "From the executive producer of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS". In reality, Steven Schneider is just one of thirteen variously titled producers on INTRUDERS and the film has no supernatural elements whatsoever: more of a home invasion thriller in which the horror is as much psychological as it is visceral, and it's a film which doesn't need to be missold by the DVD box.
Screened at FrightFest 2015, this was originally entitled SHUT IN but it's now been given a new and incredibly generic title, albeit an admittedly accurate one. INTRUDERS has three loathsome burglars (Jack Kesy, Martin Starr, Joshua Mikel) ill-advisedly breaking into the Rook house looking for easy loot, and since it's the afternoon of Conrad Rook's funeral they figure the house will be empty. But what they don't know is that his sister Anna Rook (Beth Riesgraf) is so cripplingly agoraphobic that she physically cannot leave the house, even for a funeral; indeed she hasn't set foot outside in ten years and her only contact with the world has been with Dan (Rory Culkin) who brings her daily deliveries of ready meals. Worse, she has a series of secret rooms in the basement from which, once they're down there, the crooks will not escape....
Slightly reminiscent of Wes Craven's THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, INTRUDERS eventually traps its evildoers in the basement but thankfully doesn't go down the Saw route of gleeful self-mutilation. That said, it's still pleasantly nasty fun with enough sadistic violence dished out to a group of people who frankly deserve it: whatever Anna's problems and motivations are (and you do find out; she's not just a bog-standard nutter), you're certainly on her side right from the start. The trouble is that Anna's victims are all so hard to like or empathise with that there's little room for any surprises with them, as they're simply getting what's coming to them and no jury in the land would convict her. At least it (mostly) avoids making the horror sexual: its scumbags are merely greedy and violent. They're also fairly incompetent: it surely wouldn't have been difficult to ensure the place was empty before breaking in.
Still, it's enjoyable enough, it's well acted and decently put together on a small scale (just eight speaking parts and one location). It's got a simple enough story, a strong female lead and a satisfying conclusion. It doesn't have very much more than that, it doesn't have a huge amount of depth or substance, but it's certainly a decent evening's entertainment.