Teen sibling tearaways Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) and Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) travel back to the orphanage they ran away from as children in the hope of learning more of their furtive family history and the vampire-like curse that has plagued them since birth.
Arriving with a swathe of other Nordic noir dramas, this Danish supernatural series churns with an incessant sense of mystery and foreboding. As well as instilling an icy unease, Heartless flaunts punchy drama and unique sub-genre components which go some way to bolster its wavering second act. Yet, despite latter half flaws, Heartless remains constantly entertaining through its entire eight episodes but without ever being totally scary or exhilarating. The intriguing central concept and captivating cast are imperative to the character’s conflicts, adorning trite and contrived moments with a sleek and elegant edge. This augments the rustic drama, but some of the twists and plot devices are a tad too superficial and seem even more unnatural when relayed within the unique chemical Goth design.
We first meet the sibling protagonists strung out and starving in an industrial rock club car park with Sebastian overwhelmed by a crippling need to feast: a process which involves placing his mouth over the victim’s then literally sucking the life out of them. Inhale for too long and they will burst into flames but a shorter suck will simply render them unconscious. Sebastian’s sister Sofie is more fearless, determined and stronger than her brother, despite being gratingly competitive and vain. The two trace their family history back to the Ottman’s Boarding School: a haughty institute/ orphanage for the privileged yet corrupt, then enrol in the hope of learning more of their legacy and to hopefully find a cure for their supernatural ailment.
The pair form a choppy relationship with three officious prefects while tenuous friendships/ love triangles are fashioned amongst students, room-mates, teachers and staff. These liaisons fire the story with requisite conflict and angst-ridden snags then spawn subplot strands which (despite the aforementioned hiccups) coalesce nicely into a fitting finale, with the exception of one character’s story which remains mysteriously unresolved. Sebastian develops a fondness for Josephine, a school janitor he cares for enough not to suck from/ into flames, while fending off (yet feasting on) his sister’s room-mate Nadja; utilising her doe-eyed crush to quash his hunger. Meanwhile, Sofie meets Emelie: the rebellious daughter of Ottman’s headmaster, and their friendship flowers into a fervent affair that threatens the already precarious school status-quo.
Deaths occur, mysteries unfurl and plot twists jerk the story into shifty teen soap territory. Flashbacks to the Ottman manor in 1666 dot the series at several points then bud into significance when required, but Heartless reverberates less as it progresses. Its shimmering air of mystery fades into a banal teenage love triangle, the type of which can be found in any generic humdrum soap. At times, Heartless seems solely powered by the relationships and less about the quest to find a cure for the curse; cue the arrival of an amulet/ Macguffin for additional narrative drive. But when Sofie and Sebastian target the talisman, their quest is clumsily structured around personal crisis’ and muddies the sleekness evoked by the striking visual style, excellent performances, strong, complex characters and captivating nucleus.
Ultimately, story and structure serve as the foundation upon which all other film components should be based, and Heartless dithers into the realm of the hackneyed throughout latter episodes, veering via superficial set-pieces and even introducing a perfunctory character who is all too quickly and conveniently disposed of after serving an unnecessary purpose. These facets ultimately hinder the latter half but lead the series to its fitting finale. Decent dirty emo punk adorns the backdrop and fashions the style but Heartless still seems to sometimes segue into a marketable off-cut of the Twilight saga, while a True Detective-like opening credit sequence elegantly teases scenes from the season and instils a haunted air.
Even though the sometimes trite drama does frequently threaten to tiptoe into Twilight terrain, Heartless’ characters are much more complex than the constantly constipated looking Bella and her sparkle-bodied moping drip of a vampire cry wank, Edward. For its most part, Heartless is unique with arresting depth/ character substance and a scalpel sharp visual edge. It’s creatures’ feeding methods are more familiar to the space vampires’ of Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce than the twinkling twits of the Twilight saga but the melding of many other horror sub-genre facets make this Danish series fascinating: ghosts, witches and Satanic-like rituals all enter the foray while its eerie blue hue irks and bewilders but never unnerves.
Jessen and Zangenberg soar as Sebastian and Sofie along with stellar support from Frederikke Dahl Hansen as Nadja and Northwest’s Gustav Dyekjaer Giese as obnoxious prefect Ditlev. Some squiffy CGI slightly blunts its edge but the performances and odd supernatural sequences make Heartless a predominantly enthralling, phantasmagorical teen thriller melding witchcraft, vampirism and pyro/ telekinesis. Heartless will probably appeal to those more partial to the Twilight/ Emo/ Goth subculture than old ardent gore enthusiasts from the VHS era who prefer the vampires gnarly, latex and caked in gunk, but with a vast array of sub-genre facets, excellent performances and a punchy but lumbering plot, Heartless should entertain most horror fans. No extras.
Words: Daniel Goodwin (@privateutopias)