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
blu-ray REVIEW – 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON - ***
Directed by Mario Bava. Starring William Berger, Edwige Fenech, Justine Gall, Renato Rossini. Italy, Horror/Thriller, 78 mins, cert 15.
Released on DVD and BluRay in the UK by Arrow on the 1st February, 2016
The overdue exhumation of the films of Mario Bava continues with this light giallo that mostly dispenses with horror and suspense and piles on the eye-popping production design and costumes. Less of a traditional giallo like, say, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (probably my favourite Bava film) and more a colourful whodunnit in which everyone seems surprisingly unconcerned about a homicidal maniac on the loose and the rising body count, its appeals are mostly visual and certainly not narrative.
Beginning with Piero Umiliani's horrible Hammond score that's probably the most annoying example of giallo's fixation with dramatically inappropriate easy listening/lounge music, 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON focusses on an obnoxious bunch of decadents having an extended holiday in a frankly gorgeous beach house on a private island. The house is owned by a rich industrialist who's trying to persuade a scientist to sell his revolutionary new formula for some kind of synthetic resin. Meanwhile the wives lounge around looking wonderful until someone starts bumping people off. The launch has gone, the supply yacht isn't due, the radio doesn't work - oh well, put on another colourful outfit and have another drink, and try not to worry about all the corpses hung up in the freezer....
It's light enough to get away with a 15 certificate - there are no black-gloved psychopaths on view and the fairly ordinary motives are a far cry from the genre's usual revenge and sex - but with no real suspense and no threat to the characters, there's not much reason why we should feel involved, and not much reason why we should try and work out who the killer is. In the end it doesn't really matter anyway: the final scene reveals all but you've rather lost track of it by that point. But who cares? It all looks fabulous. Bright colours, skimpy clothing, sunlight, interior decor: everything looks like a fashion spread for a glossy magazine and not like a multiple crime scene in which men and women are casually murdered with equanimity.
The Blu, of course, looks wonderful, with the option to watch in Italian with subtitles or the English language dub. I chose the latter: I usually go for original language but in the case of Euro horror and Hong Kong martial arts movies dubbing can give it a peculiar charm. There's also a commentary track by Bava expert Tim Lucas and an option to watch the film with just the music and sound effects in case you really can't get enough of that Hammond organ. Also included is the hour-long documentary "Mario Bava: Maestro Of The Macabre" from 2000, narrated by Mark Kermode and including rather too much footage from the genuinely terrifying "Drop Of Water" segment from BLACK SABBATH. Maybe that all bunks the package up to an essential purchase; personally I'd be more excited about a release for PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES but it's still definitely worth picking up.