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 – RUPTURE – ****
Directed by Steven Shainberg. Starring Noomi Rapace, Peter Stormare, Michael Chicklis, Kerry Bishe. Science Fiction/Horror, USA, 97 mins, cert 15.
Released on DVD in the UK by Signature on the 23rd December, 2016.
It's oddly pleasing to note that, while they still make movies in which women are abducted and subjected to sadistic torture, they have at least started to make those tortures non-sexual. Films of a generation ago where innocent women were imprisoned for little or no reason and victimised mercilessly - think any one of the hundreds of WIP exploitationers, from CHAINED HEAT to HUMAN EXPERIMENTS - were often little more than prurient exercises in sleazy sex and abuse, but in these slightly more enlightened times there's occasionally something more interesting going on instead. One recent example is MARTYRS (either version), where there's a solid reason for the shocking violence meted out on the unfortunate young women that has nothing to do with sex.
In RUPTURE, the first thing we learn about Noomi Rapace's thoroughly ordinary suburban single mother Renee is that she's scared of spiders - quite understandably when they're the six-inch tarantula hellbeast types that show up in her bathroom. The next things we learn are that her house has been fitted out with miniature hidden cameras, and that she has been specifically targeted for abduction by a well-drilled group of individuals. She is taken to a windowless facility hundreds of miles away, where she and several others are strapped to trolleys, probed and questioned repeatedly, and subjected to elaborate psychological tortures by a collection of clearly sinister scientists - but why? What could they possibly want with her?
Like 2014's THE SIGNAL, in which ordinary individuals are trapped in a secret, escape-proof facility for reasons they cannot comprehend, there is at least an unusual - and probably unguessable - rationale for these terrors, and it veers more towards science fiction than straight horror. Sadly, for a lot of people, Renee's terrors involve stonking great macro closeups of huge spiders crawling towards the camera lens and it's at those points that I covered my eyes and/or looked away from the screen (and when it played at FrightFest's Halloween event, I was not the only one). Memo to film-makers: there are a lot of arachnophobes out there, so please stop doing this!
Well worth taking a chance on, and (not that they have much in common) it's a lot better than SECRETARY, director Steven Shainberg's biggest hit so far. RUPTURE is great to look at, with striking use of colour (again, there is a narrative reason for the use of reds, purples and yellows) in what would normally have been a sterile grey and white environment in any other movie. And it's also nice to see Peter Stormare having fun and chewing the scenery as the head villain. Generally speaking, RUPTURE is pretty good stuff: a tight running time, a nicely ominous ending, a resourceful heroine who fights back, and some moments of proper look-away horribleness, and it's a pity that it didn't get much more than a token cinema release.