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 – SUBURRA – ****
Directed by Stefano Sollima.Starring Pierfrancesco Favino, Elio Germano, Greta Scarano, Alessandro Borghi, Claudio Amendola. Italy 2015 132 mins Certificate: 18
Released on 5th September 2016 by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment digitally and on DVD / Blu-Ray
SUBURRA is an incendiary, stylised crime epic crystallising the rise to prominence of director Stefano Sollima, hitherto best known for his work on the TV series’ “Romanzo Criminale” and “Gomorrah”, and soon to be thrust into the Hollywood spotlight as the helmsman of SOLDADO, the 2017 sequel to SICARIO. Co-scripted by Italian journalist Carlo Bonino and crime writer Giancarlo De Cataldo (adapting their hard-hitting novel), it’s a visual and audio feast indebted to the urban thrillers of Michael Mann and offering a vivid depiction of the harsh realities of contemporary Rome.
A series of intertitles offer an ominous ticking clock, leading up to a promised “Apocalypse” over a seven day period. The story unfolds in Rome in 2011, and we immediately get the sense of a country staring into the abyss. The streets are overwhelmed with violence. The Pope is on the brink of stepping down. The government is collapsing. Record rainfall threatens the flooding of the River Tiber. Corrupt politician Pierfrancesco Favino has barely been introduced when we see him cheating on his wife with two expensive prostitutes, one of them evidently underage. When the minor suffers a fatal overdose, he flees from the scene, and this characteristic act of cowardice gets him in the cross-hairs of local mob bosses, themselves eager to exploit the current political situation in their mission to turn the Rome waterfront into an Italian Vegas.
Sollima captures a marvellously bleak, rain-soaked, seedy ambience from the outset of SUBURRA, immersing us in the corruption, sleaze and drug-fuelled world in which our largely doomed protagonists operate, and making it all look perversely hypnotic and sexy. He doesn’t flinch from explicit sex or shocking, axe-whacking violence, while the intense execution of keynote set pieces (an incredible supermarket shootout, a queasy home invasion) make it easy to understand why Sollima has been courted by Tinsel Town. The performances are strong (Favino is among this year’s most odious politicians, real or fictional), though it’s worth noting just how rotten the female roles are: we’re in a world where actresses get the diverse choice of “Hooker”, “Trusting Wife” and “Secretary”.
Perhaps the movie’s strongest asset is the beautiful, haunting score by M83, the French electronic band whose gorgeous audio backdrop to the disappointing sci-fi epic OBLIVION signalled an impressive segue into the realm of mainstream movie soundtracks.