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
FILM REVIEW – THE WAVE – ****
Directed by Roar Uthaug. Starring Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro. Norway, Disaster/Thriller, 105 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by StudioCanal on the 12th August, 2016, and on DVD and BluRay on the 15th August, 2016.
Alexander Walker once wrote of AIRPORT that "for sheer contentment there is nothing to beat the sight of constant catastrophe happening to others", and that has always been one of the pleasures of the disaster movie. Whether it's the assorted perils of the all-star blockbusters of the genre's Golden Age (mainly the AIRPORTs, and the Irwin Allen colossi that dribbled to a close with the hilarious volcano nonsense of WHEN TIME RAN OUT) or Roland Emmerich’s more recent CGI spectaculars like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, there's potentially a lot of fun to be had with watching Nature, the weather, or the Earth itself striking back against mankind.
THE WAVE is Norwegian, but aside from that there's really very little to tell it apart from the traditional Hollywood disaster film. Kristian is a geologist, on his last day monitoring the mountain before leaving for a more comfortable city job. Even as he's clearing his desk, the alarms start to sound: the mountain is shifting, suggesting an imminent rockslide which will cause an unstoppable tsunami when it hits the waters below - and at the far end of those waters is a defenceless town. A town where his wife works in the hotel, where his son is staying pending the family's relocation. It's not his job any more, but he still has to convince his (former) co-workers that the long-overdue catastrophe is already starting.... It's only when they actually get up in the remote crevices that they realise he's right, but is it already too late to evacuate the town below?
Just as Roar Uthaug's earlier COLD PREY (and its first sequel, which he scripted) stuck firmly to the slasher movie template, so THE WAVE adheres equally firmly to the disaster formula to the extent you can tick most of the standard expected tropes off on a checklist. But, as with COLD PREY, it may not be doing anything that new or innovative, but it dances those old familiar steps well. It keeps the tension up nicely in the early stages until the inevitable Big Destruction Set Pieces kick in: not just the initial rockslide but the resultant wave's impact on the town (also providing extra suspense with a ten minute countdown for the wave to travel the length of the valley). And the opening and closing captions both state that this has happened before and will inevitably happen again.
It's a lot of fun, maybe not as eye-poppingly spectacular as recent mega-budget Hollywood quake-based blockbuster SAN ANDREAS, but more enjoyable and better put together (even if that's simply down to not being a shameless hero-worship vehicle for Dwayne Johnson to be unfeasibly mighty and marvellous in). Well mounted, very old-fashioned and highly entertaining.