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 – the canterville ghost ***
Directed by Syd Macartney. Starring Neve Campbell, Patrick Stewart, Joan Sims, Donald Sinden, Cherie Lunghi. UK 1996 87 mins Certificate : U
Released by Second Sight on DVD and Blu-Ray on October 30th 2017
Shortly before she dabbled in witchcraft in THE CRAFT and became the target of the many killers in the SCREAM films, Neve Campbell starred in an altogether more family-friendly horror film in the shape of THE CANTERVILLE GHOST.
Based on a novell by Oscar Wilde, Campbell stars alongside Patrick Stewart, Joan Sims and Lesley Phillips in the T.V. film from 1996 which is out now on blu-ray and DVD.
It tells the tale of an American family who move into an old English stately home. Campbell plays Ginny, a typically stroppy teenager who is fearful of a life of boredom with little to do besides cope with her two hyperactive younger brothers. However, the house itself appears to be harbouring a history and secrets within. These seem centred around the ghost of Sir Simon De Canterville (Stewart) who, in typical horror movie tradition, can only be seen by the younger members of the family.
It is a fairly standard horror movie set-up to a story set in a good old-fashioned haunted house full of cobwebbed secret passages, ancient curses and things that go bump in the night. However, there is some humour along the way and a tone that gives the film a gentler, more family orientated feel.
The televisual origins do result in the film feeling somewhat dated (as do a few of the effects) and this isn’t helped by the occasionally mannered acting from the supporting players. Campbell though is well cast, playing a role that develops from stalked teen to strong heroine – potential that she would go on to fulfil in the aforementioned slasher series. Stewart is as reliable as always in the titular role, with Sir Simon’s relationship with Ginny pivotal to the unravelling of the plot.
Proceedings do wrap up quite neatly, with an overly melodramatic romantic sub-plot engineered to give characters a satisfactory ending that feels a little forced.
Yet there is enough here for it to remain an entertaining and passable horror film. The fact that it serves the whole family (even if it may be too much for the very young) also make it a rare beast in film and horror these days.
Extras: New interviews with director Syd Macartney and producer Robert Benedetti.