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.
DVD REVIEW – Ouija: Origin of Evil – ***
Directed by Mike Flanagan, Starring: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson. Horror, US, 2016, 95mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on digital download on 13th February 2017, and Blu-ray, DVD and on demand on February 27th 2017 by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.
(Alice) “The basement...Lina: wait outside.”
(Lina) “No. No way, no, that’s my sister. This is my house, and I’m going with you...Besides, splitting up sounds like the stupidest idea in the world”
Taking over the reins from Stiles White, director/co-writer Mike Flanagan delivers a retro-tinted character-driven prequel to the 2014 box-office hit OUIJA. We rewind back to a 1967 suburban neighbourhood in Los Angeles. Widowed mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), together with teen daughter Lina (Annalise Basso) and younger daughter Doris (Lulu Wilson), run a home based séance scam business. The act is getting stale until Alice purchases a Ouija board as a prop to enhance their deception. The board game comes with three rules:
1. Never play alone.
2. Never play in a graveyard.
3. Always say goodbye.
Unfortunately, Alice’s blasé attitude as a spiritual charlatan leads to fatal complacency and she promptly breaks rule 1 and 3 (and unknowingly, rule 2 in the bargain). You see the Zander’s seemingly quiet suburban house harbours a dark gruesome secret buried behind its walls, and an evil entity which doesn’t need a second invitation once the Ouija board is opened to find a human host to give it a voice.
The problem with prequels is no matter how radical a tangent you set out your stall, you’re duty bound to eventually converge plot points in order to join up with the original narrative. No more so is this evident than in ORIGIN OF EVIL. That’s not to say director Flanagan doesn’t lead us on a merrily entertaining and determinedly nostalgic visual dance beforehand - at least until the final reel that is. Although shot digitally, Flanagan works hard to achieve (with some degree of success) a 70’s/early 80’s vibe. Utilising the classic Universal Studios logo and a retro-styled title card for starters, we are also treated to reel change cigarette burns, and DP Michael Fimognari’s camera zestily zooming in and out with an antique set of lenses which infuse candle light and sunset with a warm hazy palette mostly absent from current genre offerings.
There is also further warmth generated by a trio of fine performances from the three female leads. Lulu Wilson in particular is a revelation as little Doris, who undergoes a startling character transformation courtesy of Doug Jones’ demonic ghoul with chilling effect.
Director Flanagan admirably holds out for close on 40 minutes before unleashing his first big sting jump scare sound effect – a notable achievement given today’s multiplex template - instead wisely opting for ambient sound design and judicious scoring to achieve sustainable unease. Of course given the PG-13 brief of the franchise, he is somewhat hampered as to how far to push the scares and physical threat when necessity dictates in the final reel. And it’s here where the film stumbles when the inevitable haunted house/possession clichés are rolled out stage left, right, along the walls and up on the ceiling. Think a mishmash of elements from POLTERGEIST and THE EXORCIST filtered through a PG-13 gauze, with ET’s Henry Thomas wearing the white collar of the heroic priest. (And yes that is an intentional nod to THE EXORCIST’s iconic poster image when he pauses outside the Zander house).
If you’ve seen OUIJA (2014) you’ll already know the respective fates of the three Zander women. (I watched the original on Netflix by way of prior homework the night before). There are still some loose ends which don’t quite tie-up when you review the events of the first film, and the final jump scare before the credit roll rings hollow (even if it just might be a homage to THE EXORCIST III). Oh yes, and if you reading the end-credits and begin wondering where was Lin Shaye, she turns up in a very brief post-credit coda which does link up nicely with the first instalment and proves just what a good sport she is.
Extras: Deleted scenes, x3 making of featurettes, director commentary.