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.
DVD REVIEW – WOLVES AT THE DOOR *
Directed by John R Leonetti. Starring Katie Cassidy, Elizabeth Henstridge, Adam Campbell, Miles Fisher. Thriller, USA, 69 mins, cert 15.
Released by Warner Home Entertainment on VOD on the 10th July, 2017 and on DVD on the 24th July, 2017.
There's a central problem at the heart of John R Leonetti's real-life home invasion thriller, and it's the choice of tone. There's absolutely nothing wrong with making movies about True Crime: films have been made about Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, Henry Lee Lucas and Dennis Nilsen, but generally (and quite rightly) they've tended to the nasty and disturbing rather than the glossy and superficial. This one goes completely the other way, opting for easy horror movie thrills with little hint of reality. And it feels uncomfortable watching a recreation of the last hours and brutal deaths of real people crafted as a mainstream multiplex slasher.
In this instance it's the Sharon Tate murders (no mention is made of the LaBianca killings the following night) by four members of the Manson Family in August 1969. And·WOLVES AT THE DOOR·makes no secret of the Manson connection: it bills it on the front of the DVD, it boasts "Based on a true story" in the opening captions in that typewriter font that screams True Story! at you, it uses the victims' real names, and it even closes the film with TV news footage of the aftermath and an actual clip of Manson himself. Sharon, Abigail, Wojciech and Jay are relentlessly terrorised by the four unnamed, wordless killings, escalating their sadistic·games from noises off and knocking on the door to violence and murder.
To paraphrase, "Entertainment equals tragedy plus time". Where (or when) is the historical line to be drawn? Maybe we feel easier about making glossy, pulpy horror movies about Jack The Ripper (FROM HELL) because the actual events happened so long ago, while any producer taking the same cheery exploitation tone about more recent cases would be accused of grotesque bad taste. That's what they've done here: it's still too soon. Even though for the modern (younger) audience the Manson Family are further away from them historically·than the Second World War is from me, it still feels like tacky exploitation of the most tasteless and most badly judged kind.
The killers are barely seen, out of focus, in shadow or silhouette or otherwise unrecognisable as individuals (they're not even billed in the end credits), behaving like horror movie monsters with a sometimes illogical ability to be in just the right place to leap out at someone they couldn't possibly have known would be there, or ghosting up behind them for no good reason beyond the thrill for the audience. John R·Leonetti·knows how to time a jolt and assemble this stuff together efficiently enough, with several decent horror movies on his CV as either director or cinematographer, but he's misjudged the tone completely here.
It's a pity because they could so easily have made pretty much the exact same film in pretty much the exact same way, just changing everyone's names, moving it forward a couple of years (so you can still have the same fashions, decor, hairstyles and music) and ditching any reference to Manson. And the result would have been far more palatable: a standard home invasion thriller with nostalgic period detail for the popcorn multiplex audience. On that level, were it a piece of fiction, it would be a conventional, solidly mounted Own Brand suspense movie that's over and done with in less than 70 minutes. But when you so clearly and unashamedly base it on real people, you have a duty of respect to those people and their horrific experiences, and WOLVES AT THE DOOR absolutely abrogates that duty. Made (or at least copyrighted) in 2015 and only now getting a UK release.