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 Colin Minihan
Colin Minihan tells us about the creation of his ‘zombie love story’, the challenges of shooting in Death Valley and his new movie ‘Still/Born’.
Are The Vicious Brothers still an entity? You’ve only co-directed ‘Grave Encounters’ under that moniker – ‘Extraterrestrial’ and ‘It Stains The Sands Red’ carry your separate credits. That’s the way you want it from now on?
Our roles were just less defined when we made ‘Grave Encounters’ because we were both very young. If we make a film together and feel like it's a Vicious Brothers film, then I think we’d use it again...But then again there are far too many “brothers” right now – it starts to feel a bit gimmicky.
It Stains The Sands Red’ is such a terrific and deceptively simple idea, where did the inspiration come for the story?
A combination of things. The main one was that I had just moved to LA and was eager to find an idea befitting of the desert – which I’ve always found to be extremely cinematic but never had a good idea for. I think after watching ‘World War Z’, I jokingly asked Stuart what hadn’t been done with zombies and could be done on a low budget… He responded something like, “I don’t know… One Zombie?” -- It was a light bulb moment for me, like, “that’s it! ONE ZOMBIE!”
Did the overall arc of the story change in the writing process? Molly’s zombie pursuer would always become her best friend, then confessor, and finally saviour?
The lead character changed throughout the writing process. The first drafts were actually written for a male protagonist who was a struggling alcoholic and had abandoned his son in the city. After rejecting that idea, we wrote this other script called ‘The Last Stakeout’, which I’d like to make someday, but then finally I pitched the new take on the story for ISTSR to Stu – which would follow Molly, a troubled Las Vegas stripper on her journey through the desert with and against the Zombie – who she would name Smalls. This version really clicked fast while writing… it wasn’t like pounding away at the idea by force. It came out relatively quickly, which is always nice and usually means it’s flowing well. It also felt more do able on a low budget as the flashbacks were extremely minimal and most of the shoot would be just two actors on screen, albeit one is in full prosthetics.
You play with zombie clichés brilliantly, and upturn them like an expert. It makes the movie a constant surprise as a result?
We tried to just let Molly’s character arc guild the end result of the script. We knew we needed to break her down throughout and get there in an organic way – it was very challenging to write this film because she is talking to someone who can’t talk back. So she is giving exposition but it can never feel forced – it has to be earned. Which is very challenging in this case.
Brittany Allen carries the movie superbly. She’s a Scream Queen favourite and you cast her in ‘Extraterrestrial’ too. Was it written for her?
When the script was re-written for a female lead… We knew right away that it had to be Brittany. There was never anyone else. She is a character actor who has been acting since she was a child and is completely transformative in many of the rolls that she’s played… I hope people see how insanely talented she is with this film. It’s definitely her film. I also want to mention my pal Juan Riedinger (who is in ‘Grave Encounters’ as well). He brought a ton of depth to the role of Smalls and without his absolute commitment to the role, and his patience, this movie would not exist. He is both horrifying and lovable.
The way Molly grows as a person from vacuous party girl to committed mother is superbly handled in the script by Brittany. That was always the core, the most engaging and surprising aspect of the movie?
ISTSR was always a character journey through the desert. We were more inspired by Gus Van Sant's ‘Jerry’ more than anything while writing.
Talk about the filming rigours; where was the location (the Valley of Fire in Nevada?), how long was the schedule, and it looks a really difficult shoot?
It was probably the most difficult shoot I’ve ever been a part of. We kind of knew that going into it as when scouting Death Valley as a possible location we had a close call, almost passing out from the intense sun on top of a dune. This film is as indie as it gets. I didn’t even have an AD or Script Supervisor on set – and those are two of the main people a director leans on while making a film. We had no money so we had to be as economic and guerrilla as possible in order to pull off this sweeping story.
It was a rag tag group of like 10 people on set on any given day and the make-up crew was in a blood covered RV trying to get Juan camera ready. -- At one point, Juan even slept in his zombie make up for three days straight because the application was so time consuming, never mind the time it took taking it off.
Because of what happened in Death Valley in the summer (heatstroke), we aimed for the Las Vegas’ desert in November and December in hopes it would be mild and maybe a bit colder at night. Unfortunately it ended up being freezing cold most of the time, even during the day. If you watch the film it is actually taking everything in Brittany to pretend to be hot when really she is freezing.
What can you reveal about your next project HAUNTED TEMPLE?
‘Haunted Temple’, aka ‘Temple’ is no more. Let’s skip this question. ha!
So finally, If not ‘Temple’, what is next?
COLIN: I have a new film that I am very excited about called ‘Still/Born’. It is in the final stages of post-production. It’s about a young mother trying to protect her new-born baby from a supernatural entity. It’s probably the scariest film I’ve been a part of. I co-wrote it and produced it and it should premier very soon.
IT STAINS THE SANDS RED is showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Fri 24 Feb, 4.00pm as part of Horror Channel FrightFest Glasgow 2017.