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.
Blu-ray REVIEW – UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS **
Directed by Anna Foerster. Starring Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Lara Pulver, Tobias Menzies, Bradley James, Charles dance, James Faulkner. USA 2016 91 mins Certificate: 15
Out May 29th 2017 on 4k Ultra HD / Blu-Ray, Blu-Ray 3-D and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Fourteen years since it began, Screen Gems’ UNDERWORLD franchise continues apace, with international profits still substantial enough to prompt the arrival of the fifth entry, BLOOD WARS. Its immediate predecessor, THE AWAKENING (2012), which restored iconically costumed star Kate Beckinsale to satiate the fanbase (she largely sat out the third chapter), enjoyed the biggest worldwide gross of the series by a significant margin. Anna Foerster, graduating from TV’s OUTLANDER, makes her feature directorial debut with BLOOD WARS, though is enslaved to the established style of the series, while screenwriter Cory Goodman’s C.V. incorporates a couple of movies that were at least partially influenced by the franchise, THE LAST WITCH HUNTER and PRIEST.
The prologue offers a “Previously On Underworld”-style recap for those who haven’t been keeping up, though it’s fair to say that anyone joining the franchise at this point will be fairly perplexed regardless of the punchy reminder. Selene (Beckinsale) is now an outcast hunted by Vampires and Lycans alike, having lost her lover and her daughter Eve in the previous outing; she is also much sought after by those eager to get hold of Eve, the first “pure” hybrid whose blood could end the long-standing war between the species. While the Lycans have become ever more powerful and sophisticated, Vampire royalty Charles Dance is all too aware of the limitations of his own stagnating race, so, in spite of past betrayals, employs Selene to bring her Lycan knowledge and battle experience to the task of training new Death Dealers.
If you’re a dedicated fan of this series, BLOOD WARS reliably delivers more of the same. Foerster replicates the virtually monochrome visual palette of the preceding four films, alongside the fast-cut, sometimes nearly incoherent action set pieces, the rapid, cartoonish CGI werewolf transformations and occasional spine ripping gore. With its portentous Selene narration and po-faced tone, BLOOD WARS is characteristically short on humour and long on expositional interludes in which double-crosses, council meetings and shifting loyalties mark time in between battles. As always, to accompany the heavy handed Shakespearean overtones, a bunch of familiar British actors fill out the supporting cast though, with Dance wisely taking an early exit, the loss of lively past UNDERWORLD players like Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy is felt more strongly than ever before.
Selene’s role in this movie takes a conventional franchise passing-of-the-torch journey, much like the function of Buffy Summers in the final series of Joss Whedon’s TV series (still a prominent narrative influence on movies like this), becoming the leader of for the next generation and effectively allowing Beckinsale to either check out of the franchise completely or retain a more secondary “Elder” role in future adventures. In truth, there’s little of note for Beckinsale to do: she’s clearly an actress with more to offer than this series has ever showcased. This efficient but undistinguished sequel requires her to merely turn up, and it will doubtless prove interchangeable with earlier entries for all but the most devout followers. In one format or another, you can expect the franchise to continue indefinitely: the most alarming moment in the entire film warns, ominously, “There is no beginning…there is no end…”