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 – SHARK LAKE – **
Directed by Jerry Dugan. Starring Dolph Lundgren, Sara Malakul Lane, Lily Brooks O’Briant, Jamkes Chalke, Michael Aaron Milligan. Horror/Thriller, USA, 92 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD by Soda Pictures on 1st August 2016.
SHARK LAKE is – surprise, surprise – a shark movie that stars action legend Dolph Lundgren (ROCKY IV/THE EXPENDABLES); just say that back quietly to yourself and picture the carnage as the Swedish man-mountain dives in and wrestles a shark with his bare hands. Well, he does sort of do that (briefly) but unfortunately SHARK LAKE lacks the necessary substance to put it anywhere near whatever film you are imagining in your head and instead prefers to set its sights at knocking off SHARKNADO, something which it does quite well, to be fair.
But ripping off a movie that is universally acknowledged to be something of a bad joke is hardly anything to be proud of and SHARK LAKE, for all of its faults (and there are many) is nothing if not fun. Dolph plays Clint Gray, a career criminal involved in selling black market exotic animals who inadvertently lets a bull shark loose into a lake during a police chase. Once Clint is safely inside prison his young daughter is adopted by arresting officer Meredith Hernandez (Sara Malakul Lane – SHARKTOPUS) and for five years everything is sweet, that is until Clint is released and he rolls back into town looking to see his daughter. The shark he dropped off five years previously also shows up and devours one of the locals, then the documentary crew hoping to capture some footage and, along with her two pups, anybody else who dares to enter the lake, which includes Clint Gray, looking to try and capture the beast to pay off the local crime lord.
Unbelievably, for a low-budget CGI-fest creature feature SHARK LAKE does actually try and tell a story, and Dolph, for all of his Clint Eastwood-esque 1000-yard stares and gravelly-voiced threats, does lend a huge amount of charisma to the film, ensuring that the scenes in which he is on the screen are magnetic and when he’s not, well the story is strong enough to carry the film along without it getting boring. However, this is where the good stuff ends because SHARK LAKE suffers from some of the worst CGI effects seen outside of a Playstation 1 game and, apart from Dolph, every character in this film is horrible, especially the infuriating ‘strong female’ caricature Hernandez who spends most of the film being unreasonable with every man she encounters just because they are men and does nothing of any use throughout. Couple her with nerdy biologist Peter Mayes (Michael Aaron Milligan – V/H/S VIRAL), who just happens to be in town on the day of the first shark attack (which happened five years after the shark was first put in the lake, so presumably nobody went in the lake during that time despite it being a hotbed of activity now), and you have a pretty ineffectual pair of characters with nothing of any interest about them taking up screen time when all we really want to see is Dolph letting rip on the cartoonish creations.
And when he does it’s a tidal wave of CGI blood, CGI underwater effects (check out the almost criminal way the filmmakers superimpose two documentary divers into an underwater shot, complete with CGI bubbles) and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it underwater kick to the snout for the paper mache creature during one of the few practical effect shots there is, although for all of the crap creature effects the prize for worst use of CGI comes when a shark smashes a porthole on Dolph’s boat and it starts to fill up with computer enhanced water effects so terrible they look like somebody actually drew it onto the film… with Tippex.
So it looks rubbish and has some unlikeable characters but SHARK LAKE just about manages to get by on Dolph’s performance, an attempt at a story and some truly gorgeous aerial shots that open and close the film. Granted, it’s not much but given how bland and contrived the SHARKNADO movies are this makes a slightly better alternative for some late night, brain-off movie watching; it even trumps the last two JAWS sequels just by not being boring so overall, SHARK LAKE - not a great film but not a totally bad time was had watching it.