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 – THE HARVESTING – ****
Directed by Ivan Kraljevic. Starring Elena Caruso, Chris Conner, Jennifer Gareis, Greg Wood, Noah Headley. USA 2015 92 mins Certificate: 15
Released on DVD / Digital Download from 18th July 2016 from Solo Media / Matchbox Films
Commendably restrained in terms of gore and clichéd shock effects, THE HARVESTING is a flawed though often interesting indie horror marking the directorial debut of Ivan Kraljevic. We’re in familiar territory narrative-wise, as a crumbling family unit ups stakes from the city to the picturesque rural heart of America, finding much more threatening forces at work. The execution, however, is effectively understated, and Kraljevic sustains a beguiling sense of unease, finding a simmering malevolence even within the most visually idyllic frame.
There’s an echo of (among others) AMITYVILLE HORROR’s Lutz family within the fragile Nuclear family at the heart of the picture. Chris Conner and Elena Caruso have drifted apart and marriage therapy prompts them to spend a summer with their two young kids far away from the pressures of Philadelphia, travelling to Amish country on the eve of the Summer solstice. They soon find, however, signs of an evil presence within the community intent on exploiting their vulnerabilities / existing tensions, and apparently driving them to violent self-destruction. Behavioural changes in both the children and Conner signify that something very powerful is at work.
For a modest indie production, it’s a very well-shot, good-looking picture – the widescreen format enhancing the drip-feed menace. Kraljevic avoids conventional jolts and visceral frights, though isn’t above offering a fleeting, chilling glimpse of an axe-wielding stranger lurking in the kids’ room at night. The climax is characteristically muted, though does reflect the film’s willingness to take the material into genuinely dark territory.
Certain elements keep THE HARVESTING from being truly arresting. Although the cast are largely above average for this budget level, sporadically overwrought performances drain the impact of crucial scenes. The pacing teeters on the brink of ponderous, not always pulling off the challenge facing all slow-burn genre features, though kudos for effort. Kraljevic might yet be a filmmaker to watch.