Walter Presents TV review: Heartless (Episodes 1 and 2)
Debt to Buffy7
Helen Archer | On 06, Jan 2016
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Vampires remain one of our most enduring fictional monsters, their lineage stretching all the way back to 19th century Transylvania, and it doesn’t take a genius to understand their popularity. Vampires, while being, you know, vampires, are also a whole lot of fun. The Lost Boys nailed it with their Venice Beach squad motto: “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die.” Who wouldn’t want to hang with these totally awesome creatures of the night?
That combination of hedonistic fun with a splash of danger is part of the reason why they tend to be a favourite of teenagers, and lend themselves so well to the high school drama. Vampires are all about breaking the rules, upsetting the norms, just not giving a toss about anything. Perfect for the young adult market, in other words. Joss Whedon’s Buffy is, of course, the standard against which all other teen vamp series should measure themselves, though sadly none of what followed – from TV’s True Blood and the Vampire Diaries to the big screen’s Twilight saga and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive – has ever lived up to that early 21st century staple.
The newest entry to this already bulging canon comes in the shape of Danish drama Heartless, although the vampires it portrays feed not on blood but on the invisible energy of their victims. The protagonists, 20-year-old twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen), understand little about their affliction when we first meet them – they only know they need to feed. But while Sofie can control her appetite, stopping the energy sucking before her victim is dead, Sebastian tends to overindulge, stopping only when his snack has burst into flames, leaving behind a charred mess on the floor.
Seeking to understand why they are what they are, and how they should live their lives, the twins return to the orphanage where they were abandoned when two weeks old. This visit gives them a couple of strong leads to their origin story, as they find out that not only did their mother have a distinctive tattoo, she also left a clue in the form of a bag containing the address of a centuries-old estate in rural Denmark. The estate has since been turned into some sort of weird, elite prep school, and without much ado, they are enrolled as students there. But this 270-year-old seat of academia seems to be hiding its own secrets, and Sofie and Sebastian may not be the only monsters it harbours.
In this way, Heartless merges the life of the prep school students with two gothy vampires, non-conformists who find themselves having to conform. It doesn’t help that the school itself is somewhat fascistic, with weird initiation ceremonies, pupils who are obsessed with weapons and violence, strict rules (they must be in their segregated dorms by 9pm, with lights out at 11pm), and the wearing of knickers with the estate’s coat of arms embroidered on them.
With a trace of The Virgin Suicides, a group of girls (the principal’s daughters) also attend the school. Dubbed The Untouchables by the other students, they bathe in the fountain of the playground and are forbidden from talking to their contemporaries. The Gothic atmosphere surrounding the school is further enhanced by flashbacks to the Estate in the year 1666, when women were burned at the stake as witches for their transgressions.
Co-directed by Natasha Arthy, who previously worked on The Killing, and with writers from The Bridge, the production values are as high as you would expect. Unlike those other Danish dramas, this is a high-concept noir, dark fantasy as opposed to realism, a contemporary supernatural horror referencing everything from Sissy Spacek’s Carrie to Winona Ryder’s Veronica Sawyer. It still may not be up to the standards of Buffy, but Heartless is a confident and intriguing offering, even as it is essentially bloodless.
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.