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 SURVIVALIST - ****
Directed by Stephen Fingleton. Starring Martin McCann, Mia Goth, Olwen Fouere. UK 2015 104 mins Certificate: 18
Released April 18th 2016 from Bulldog Films
The feature debut from writer-director Stephen Fingleton, THE SURVIVALIST is a deceptively muted post-apocalyptic drama that refuses to give any of the gratification typically expected of the sub-genre. Society has long since broken down at the point at which we join the title character in his wilderness retreat. The only indication we have of the fate of civilisation as we know it comes in the form of a simple, opening graphic that tracks the rise of the world’s population in proportion to oil production, with alarming results. If you stripped away the vehicular mayhem and charismatic grotesques of the MAD MAX movies to focus entirely on the pervasive banality and loneliness of surviving as part of the final frontier of human existence, you might find something similar to THE SURVIVALIST.
“The Survivalist” is an unnamed man (Martin McCann) who has lived in a cabin in the woods for seven years, and spent the time alone since his brother’s death. He grows his own crops and leads a humble existence with just a handful of possessions, including photos of an earlier, conventional existence and a mouth organ. The film is 17 minutes old before any dialogue, and even then it is relatively sparse as he uneasily interacts with a starving woman (Olwen Fouere) and what appears to be her equally desperate teenage daughter (Mia Goth). They all have to come to terms with the practical fact that collectively they represent three mouths “on a farm fit for one”.
With eerie use of heightened natural sound, no music score to speak of and authentic performances from a tiny cast, this is an absorbing example of the Cinema of Discomfort. McCann is physically and emotionally exposed in a remarkably intense and convincing central portrayal and our own uneasy human instincts and weaknesses are reflected by his compelling presence. Equally brave are the relatively unsympathetic turns from the striking Fouere and Goth in a movie that has no truck with sentimentality or conventional audience manipulation.
Fingleton doesn’t flinch from gruelling images of infected wounds, harsh violence and a particularly startling D.I.Y. abortion sequence, but the film isn’t about shock tactics or overt action. Instead, prepare yourself for all too credible glimpse into one possible post-apocalyptic reality where hope has long since died and everyone seems past the point of despair even before the film begins.