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 – STAKELAND II – **
Directed by Dan Berk, Robert Olsen. Starring Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Laura Abramsen, Kristina Hughes, Bonnie Dennison, Steven Williams, Larry Fessenden. USA 2016 81 mins Certificate: 15
Released on DVD on 3rd April 2017 by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.
STAKELAND (2010) was one of the stronger American independent horror films of the past decade. A collaboration between screenwriter Nick Damici and director Jim Mickle, who brought a similar mordant wit and sustained intensity to the excellent COLD IN JULY, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE and MULBERRY STREET, it offered a nuanced and absorbing hybrid of two seemingly played-out sub-genres : the modern vampire film and the post-apocalyptic horror movie. Key influences were the earlier works of George Romero and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, though it established a sombre mood all of its own, its unforgiving tone set by the slaughter of a baby in the first few minutes.
Damici’s talent as a writer is not in doubt, and his performance in LATE PHASES helped make it the finest U.S. werewolf movie in three decades, though, as solo screenwriter and returning cast member of STAKELAND II (awkwardly titled THE STAKELANDER in America), he fails to rescue the movie from the curse of disappointing-sequel fatigue. The absence of key collaborators Mickle and composer Jeff Grace (who provided the beautifully evocative soundscape of STAKELAND) is all too apparent. Although chapter two also opens with the harsh killing of a child, overall it lacks impact, emotional or otherwise.
Following the events of STAKELAND, returning boyish hero Martin (Connor Paolo) is first seen here relating his earlier adventures to his young daughter as a bedtime story, elevating his vampire-killing, older, wiser sidekick Mister (Damici) to mythical status. When his wife and child are slaughtered by “The Brotherhood” – now overseen by all-powerful “She-vamp” “Mother” (a striking but underused Kristina Hughes) – Martin hits the desolate, post-apocalyptic road in search of the elusive Mister. As well as wandering through WALKING DEAD-style encounters with knife-edge families and communities, he locates Mister at a kind of End of Days Fight Club and the two set about defeating the malevolent vamps.
STAKELAND II revives the impressively feral vampiric antagonists of its predecessor and is enlivened by its action set pieces, but lacks the first film’s potent sense of impending doom and resonance. Damici’s script reduces his own character to a one note figure dispensing trite one-liners (“You’re alive –act like it…” and, regrettably, “I hate vampires!”), while Paolo’s downbeat voiceover is a vapid imitation of the original’s haunting narration. Paolo struggles to carry the movie as a whole, and the standard-issue final scenes all too predictably (and optimistically) nudge the STAKELAND concept towards routine vampire-hunting franchise territory.
Damici’s presence remains charismatic and compelling, and it’s always great to see producer Larry Fessenden in an on-screen cameo, while erstwhile X FILES conspirator Steven Williams is good value as a medic who, when not saving lives, dresses and acts like he’s in a 1980’s Fred Williamson action flick. Williams, in fact, is a key factor in the film’s most commendable – if incidental – element: a non-judgemental, non-stereotypical portrayal of a middle-aged gay male couple.