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 – THE DARK TAPES – ***
Directed by Michael McQuown, Vincent J Gaustini. Starring David Rountree, Cortney Palm, Stephen Zimpel, Emilia Ares Zoryan, Brittany Underwood. Horror, USA, 98 mins.
Released on VOD on the 18th April, 2017.
THE DARK TAPES is an anthology of tenuously related horror stories linked by a separate arc that plays between them. "The Hunters And The Hunted" is probably the best of the three shorts, in which a team of dumb paranormal investigators are called to a supposedly haunted house, complete with strange noises and moving objects - but there's more to it than at first appears. It's genuinely creepy in places and scored highly through my personal method of judging scary movies by how long I can watch them before turning the lights up. This is followed by "Cam Girls", in which two girls on an adult website persuade one of their subscribers to cut himself on camera; it's more reminiscent of UNFRIENDED with its multiple webcam views and includes probably the grisliest moment of the film. The third segment, "Amanda's Revenge", in which a woman is plagued by demons every night but might have finally found a way to defeat them, is too long and is probably the weakest of the three.
Bridging all these is the wraparound section "To Catch A Demon", concerning the theory that the creatures responsible for night terrors actually exist in a much slower timeline than we do (and are therefore invisible to our relatively faster eyes, while we are practically stationary to them). This is a nice timey-wimey SF idea (see also "Wink Of An Eye" from the original Star Trek's third series) that traps the team within a time dilation bubble when things start to go wrong. Can they reverse the process before the night demon gets them? It's a pity that the creature is viewed for too long and too clearly, as its early fleeting, almost subliminal, appearances are much more spookily effective than subsequent views of an otherwise impressive monster design. There also appears to have been a fourth segment, "PsychoTherapy", according to the IMDb page, but that doesn't appear in the version I saw and may have been dropped on the grounds on length.
I jumped a few times, and I had to look away in places, which is more than most found footage films have ever done. The film has its moments and it has far more interesting ideas than, say, the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films, but there's always that sense that, were it not for the low budget, this could have been done as a regular movie (SOUTHBOUND is a recent example of a "proper film" horror anthology that also interlocks its stories better - there doesn't appear to be any connection between the individual tales in THE DARK TAPES).·Overall, it's probably one of the better films of its kind, though it could clearly have done with more money behind it.