Warning: This contains spoilers. For our spoiler-free look at the first few episodes of Heartless, click here.What is Walter Presents? Click here for everything you need to know about All 4’s new VOD service.
When Denmark’s modern horror series, Heartless, first hit our screens, courtesy of Walter Presents, it was hard to know what to make of it. A combination of Scandi-noir and True Blood, the show managed to weave together many supernatural and mythical elements – from witchcraft and family curses to soul-sucking and plain old psychopathy, all within the context of coming-of-age, teenage drama and everything that entails – unrequited love, school rivalries and family loyalties.
The programme introduced us to orphan twins Sebastian and Sofie (Sebastian Jessen and Julie Zangenberg), who suffer from a condition which means they can only survive by sucking the life force from other people. This can go badly wrong, as we found from the outset – if they are unable to stop feeding, their victim will go up in flames, although they can survive without killing by knowing their limits, receiving just enough nourishment and stopping before the sucking reaches that flammable stage.
Like the viewer, the twins understood little of their condition. They didn’t know where it came from, or how to live with it. They didn’t know if it was curable or if it was a lifelong affliction. They knew little, even, of their own genealogy, their father an absent figure, their mother having died in their infancy. There were, in other words, many mysteries for the twins to solve, many unanswered questions, and we were no less baffled.
Now that the first, eight-episode season is over, many of these questions have been answered. The search for an explanation led the twins to Ottman Manor, a centuries-old estate in the middle of an ancient forest. Now a prep school, the Manor turned out to be the key that unlocked the mysteries, and headmaster Henrik Just (Nicolaj Kopernikus) and his daughters were integral to the plot.
Much of the all-encompassing, darkly Gothic atmosphere came from the flashbacks to 1666, where the story of the Just and Ottman families originates. One of the early Ottman family members impregnates his lover, who is then accused of witchcraft, tortured, and eventually burned at the stake on the orders of Ottman’s own pregnant wife. As the community watches on, the flames taking her, she screams a curse on their family; after the flames have subdued and the ‘witch’ is dead, her unborn baby is found to have miraculously survived.
The Just family are the ancestors of this miracle child. Modern-day witches, they possess the ability to move objects, kill ravens stone dead just through the power of their gaze, while bringing other small animals back to life. Sophie and Sebastian, meanwhile, are the ancestors of the Ottman family, and have suffered the curse of the original Just witch: everything they love will die. Over the course of the season, these two families, warring for generations, are brought together.
In amongst all this noir is, of course, romance. Sofie falls for the headmaster’s daughter, Emilie Just (Julie Christiansen), and they begin a love affair, a kind of supernatural Romeo and Juliet (Mercurio’s curse of “A plague o’ both your houses!” seems particularly apt). They will, eventually, be asked either to save each other’s lives or destroy them. Sebastian, meanwhile, falls for a maid at the school, but can never kiss her, for fear of outing himself as a ‘freak’. Like many a young man, he turns instead to a willing schoolmate to act out his needs upon, despite being romantically uninterested in her.
But real danger is also in the air, as the twins find out that they are not the only descendants with the curse. Many ‘black-eyes’ (so-called because their eyes turn black when their energy-sucking needs are met) before them have also found their way to the Ottman estate, only to have been uncovered and killed by Henrik Just before they could reach their goal – a necklace which may or may not be the secret to their cure. There is, too, something in the Ottman water that seems to induce real psychopathy, with young men at the school exhibiting dangerous and, latterly, murderous behaviour.
Much of the success of Heartless can be laid at the feet of the performances. Sebastian Jessen and Julie Zangenberg breathe real life into their characters, and they are supported by a no less impressive supporting cast. Even as ever more preposterous things were happening, everything is played very straight – no Buffy-like ironic humour here, more the serious melancholy and earnestness of the Twilight saga, with an accompanying emo soundtrack. While there are some issues with the writing, and what seems like cut scenes, the actors play it so straight that we are forced to take their ever-more preposterous scenarios seriously.
The season has been a success on the More4 channel, the second most downloaded (after Deutschland ’83), despite its 18 rating. A second run has not yet been commissioned, although the actors have expressed interest in a follow-up, and the ending leaves it open to continue exploring supernatural themes. Whether our appetite for more will ever be sated remains to be seen.
All episodes of Heartless are available for free on Walter Presents, the new, free VOD channel on All 4. For more information on the other foreign-language shows available, see our Walter Presents TV preview guide.