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.
FILM REVIEW – TRAIN TO BUSAN– *****
Directed by Yeon Sang-ho. Starring Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-seok, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Eui-sung. South Korea, Horror, 118 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by StudioCanal on the 28th October, 2016.
In recent years, the concept of a full-on zombie apocalypse has lost its edge. Just as vampires stopped being pathetic monsters of the night and turned into sparkly, emotionally tortured teen dreamboats, so the shambling undead became no scarier or more threatening than shambling film reviewers. They've morphed over the years from nightmarish figures of cold, eternal dread to bumbling comedy figures or videogame shoot-em-up fodder: sure, some of them can be fun (as in COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES or DANCE OF THE DEAD), and I do enjoy the escalating lunacy of the RESIDENT EVIL saga, but the idea of the unstoppable ambulant hordes wanting to eat you has been lost in all the knockabout. Once they've been reduced to Britney Spears jokes with SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, then maybe it's time to let the genre lie fallow for a few years.
But somehow, out of nowhere, South Korea suddenly has managed the unthinkable with TRAIN TO BUSAN, breathing wonderful new life into a near-dead concept. Already a box-office smash in its home territory, this is probably the best entry in undead cinema since George Romero's Day Of The Dead back in 1985. Given that DAY OF THE DEAD was the best zombie film since Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD seven years before that, and (for me anyway) DAWN is the best zombie film since the beginning of time itself, it's thrilling to find anything approaching that level of quality.
Among the assorted passengers on the morning bullet train from Seoul to Busan: workaholic fund manager Seok-woo and his young daughter Su-an, a high school baseball team, two bickering elderly sisters, a married couple expecting their first child, a vagrant constantly muttering that "everyone's dead", and the most brilliantly boo-hiss movie villain of the year in a ruthless CEO. But there's been some kind of outbreak - possibly starting at a biotech company - and one single zombie has managed to get on board: from her first attack the infection spreads throughout the train. When the train stops for a disastrous attempt at quarantine, the survivors become separated at opposite ends, with one group having to work their way through all the infested carriages in between without being zombified on the way...
TRAIN TO BUSAN doesn’t drop the ball once. It does absolutely nothing wrong and absolutely everything right: the characters are all given the right amount of backstory with the minimum of exposition, the zombs (fast variety) are a genuine threat, and the action and suspense setpieces are superbly staged and supremely gripping. As well as ditching the easy jump scares of many recent movies, it also avoids the easy laughs from movie references and winks to the camera, playing everything straight and serious. Okay, maybe you can quibble here and there: the infection seems to work on different people at different speeds according to the needs of the drama, with some victims turning immediately and others taking time to succumb. So? That final moment of loss of humanity makes for one of the most affecting and effective scenes in the film.
If there's a message in the movie, it's the virtue of looking out for other people: Seok-woo is too hung up in his investment job to take more than a cursory interest in his child, and one of the old dears laments that her sister always cared more about others than about herself, while at the other end of the train the second group have locked themselves in and aren't going to risk their own safety letting any other survivors in. But TRAIN TO BUSAN isn't really a message film, it's a wildly exciting, inventive and - yes! - emotionally engaging apocalypse horror that does convey something of that sense of The End Of Everything. Brilliantly staged - the aborted quarantine stop at Daejeon and the race to get back on the train is just astonishingly tense - and with (some, at least) characters you can actually like and care about, this is the zombie movie as it should be. I've now seen it twice and I absolutely loved it both times. Instant classic.