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 CURSE OF SLEEPING BEAUTy – **
Directed by Pearry Reginald Teo. Starring Ethan Peck, India Eisley, Natalie Hall, Bruce Davison, Zach Ward. USA 2016 85 mins Certificate: 15
Released by Lionsgate Home Entertainment On-Demand on 17th October 2016 and on DVD October 24th 2016
Adapted from the Brothers Grimm-inspired revisionist comic book by Everette Hartsoe, this is a plodding attempt to ride the coattails of a cycle of post-TWILIGHT teen-pitched fantasy on both the big screen (MALEFICENT) and the small (GRIMM, ONCE UPON A TIME, et al).
Ethan Peck – the buff grandson of Hollywood legend Gregory Peck, fact fans – is an artist experiencing recurring, disorientating dreams about the eponymous slumbering hottie (India Eisley) and, as a result, is in talks with his third therapist in three years. Upon inheriting an enigmatic ancestral mansion from an uncle he has never met, Peck hears ominous rumblings about the fate of his male ancestors as a result of a curse dating back to the Crusades. A series of “rules” are enforced (including that familiar one about not entering the hidden, secret rooms in the basement), and he hooks up with a young woman obsessed with the house (Natalie Hall) and a paranormal Basil Exposition figure (Bruce Davison) who explains all about “Briar Rose”, the sleeping beauty awaiting for true love’s kiss.
Punctuated by fleeting visceral horrors (Clive Barker-lite faceless demons, living mannequins), CURSE is a one-note, self-serious picture torpedoed by a cumbersome script and oddly lacking in urgency. Peck is a bland hero, lacking the charisma of his famous elder, while Eisley certainly looks the part (somewhere between the late 90’s Avril Lavigne and her strikingly beautiful actress-mother Olivia Hussey) but figures sparsely in a narrative built around her character. Quirky veteran Davison and one-time Uwe Boll regular Zach Ward are always fun to watch, but also fight a losing battle with under-written roles.
At the very end, this laboured CURSE delivers an impressively sour sting in the tale that seems to belong in a more interesting movie – or, most likely, is designed to set up a more interesting sequel. Either way, it’s too little too late for a film that will struggle to ingratiate with even the most forgiving of its target audience.