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.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
FILM REVIEW – 31 – ***
Directed by Rob Zombie. Starring Malcolm McDowell, Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Richard Brake, Meg Foster, Judy Geeson, Lew Temple, David Ury, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs. Horror, USA, 102 mins, cert 18.
Released in selected cinemas and on VOD in the UK by Vertigo Releasing on 23rd September 2016.
It’s been four years since Rob Zombie divided audiences with THE LORDS OF SALEM, a film that bore the standard Zombie trademarks of grime, gore and crass dialogue but with a semi-arthouse quality to the look and feel that separated it from his previous movies and looked towards broader genre influences such as Polanski and Argento. Straight off the bat it is worth saying that 31 does not continue down the road of nuanced exploration that his previous film did and sits more comfortably alongside his debut feature, 2003’s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, a movie that still provides a lot of discussion to this day for its haphazard narrative and obvious grindhouse tributes.
This movie opens with a character named Doom-Head (Richard Brake – HALLOWEEN II/BATMAN BEGINS) giving a monologue straight to camera about the nature of life and death and the fact that he isn’t a clown despite wearing greasepaint. It’s an intense and quite terrifying performance of a character that is possibly the greatest creation Rob Zombie has come up with since he introduced Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding back in HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. Brake’s delivery is perfectly controlled as he never breaks eye contact with the camera and you believe every word he is saying, despite it obviously being the ramblings of a madman, and he then follows up this gripping opening by swinging an axe to the priest he has tied up in a chair, giving us proof that Doom-Head is not all talk and is a character to be feared.
But after such a strong opening with a character that could probably carry the whole film Doom-Head disappears for a while and we are now in the company of a group of people travelling across country in a camper (haven’t we been here before?). Naturally Sheri Moon Zombie is among them, alongside Zombie regular Jeff Daniel Phillips, Meg Foster (THE LORDS OF SALEM/THEY LIVE) and various other actors that you most likely know from classic TV and B-movies, and after stopping at a slightly weird gas station (again, we’ve done this before) they get ambushed and forced to play a game by a rather strange character named Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell – HALLOWEEN/HALLOWEEN II) and his two equally strange female acquaintances. The game is called ‘31’ and involves the captives being able to survive for 12 hours inside the industrial complex they appear to be trapped in as they are stalked by a range of crazy characters, including a psychotic Nazi dwarf and a pair of chainsaw-wielding clowns, as the three observers place bets on who will win. Not really a show fit for prime time TV, it must be said.
What is great about 31 is the simplicity of the plot as it really is just like THE RUNNING MAN but a bastardised Rob Zombie version so there’s no cutting away from any of the violence (well, maybe just a little but the much-touted Director’s Cut will soon change that). And the brutal violence is also what you would expect from a filmmaker with Zombie’s penchant for the red stuff, and most – if not all – of it appears to be practical, which is to be commended as 31 is as close, if not closer, to apeing the proper grindhouse aesthetic of the movies Zombie loves since THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. It is also the purest Rob Zombie movie since THE DEVIL’S REJECTS as there are no obvious off-the-wall influences, it isn’t a remake based on someone else’s property and the director pretty much had free reign to do as he pleased.
Which, on the one hand, is a very good thing if you’re a fan of his previous works because 31 gives you everything you’ve seen and enjoyed in all of his films but ramped up to insane levels. On the other hand, though, Rob Zombie is a stubborn man and sometimes his insistence on certain choices threatens to dampen the impact that the film could make if he were to be a little more open to different things. The prime example is his overuse of shaky cam, which may have seemed innovative and effective 10 years ago but just feels like an annoyance now we’ve seen it done hundreds of times. To be fair, there are moments in the film when the shaky style does feel like the natural thing to do – such as the chainsaw fights with clowns Schizo-Head (David Ury – BREAKING BAD) and Psycho-Head (Lew Temple – THE DEVIL’S REJECTS/HALLOWEEN) – but Zombie uses it too much, making every fight scene into a rapid eye movement battle to try and make out what is happening when it really isn’t necessary and cheapens the film.
But with all the frenzy and madness going on you cannot say that 31 is a boring movie, and although the main characters are pretty throwaway and not exactly that endearing you do find yourself wanting them to move onto the next part of the game so we can see what it is all about, although for the most part it lacks the sense of intensity that the opening scene with Doom-Head had. That’s most probably deliberate though, because Zombie brings the character back in for the final chase and the film steps up a gear as it moves towards the climax, and although it’s a climax not too dissimilar to what Zombie has given us before it works and possibly points the way to a sequel, although hopefully a sequel that will be a little less obviously rushed and one that is given time to develop into something bit more substantial, like where he went with THE DEVIL’S REJECTS after HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES.
Overall, if you’re not a fan of Rob Zombie and his particular brand of carnival bloodshed then 31 is not for you as there is nothing here that could persuade you to overlook the colourful language, good-but-not-great performances from the bulk of the cast and the extreme violence that happens pretty much every few minutes, because that is what Rob Zombie does. If, however, you are a fan then 31 offers you up everything that you could want from a Rob Zombie movie with no frills or dressing it up as something other than what it is, which is a violent and gruesome grindhouse throwback. Unlike THE LORDS OF SALEM it won’t take a handful of viewings to really get to grips with what the director is going for and unlike his HALLOWEEN movies it doesn’t mess around with expectations; it is a Rob Zombie movie plain and simple, and although it won’t topple THE DEVIL’S REJECTS from its place as his greatest cinematic achievement it does make a fun companion piece to that film and HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. Now what we need is a Doom-Head/Captain Spaulding buddy road movie – you heard it here first, folks.