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.
DVD REVIEW – 78/52 ***
Directed by Alexandre O Philippe. Starring Peter Bogdanovich, Leigh Whannell, Marli Renfro, Eli Roth, Jamie Lee Curtis. Documentary, USA, 91 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD and VOD by Dogwoof on the 11th December, 2017.
With the exception of the infamous Zapruder footage, is there any single piece of celluloid in the world that has been so thoroughly pored over, analysed, dissected and rigorously examined frame by frame than the legendary shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO? It's probably the most iconic sequence from an iconic film (from an iconic director), and over the subsequent half a century every shot, every cut, every angle and every sound has been scientifically studied until a point is reached where there's surely nothing left to say about it.
78/52·(claimed to be the number of camera set-ups and the number of edits, though that doesn't appear to make any logical sense) is a talking-heads documentary which collates a great deal of this analysis, putting the film in the context of American history, American cinema and Hitchcock's own career (he'd just come off the glossy, frothy NORTH BY NORTHWEST), and then narrowing the focus further down to putting the sequence in context with the film itself, and the individual shots in context within the sequence. Attention is paid by a range of directors, writers, actors and others including Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo Del Toro, Neal Marshall, Jamie Lee Curtis (perhaps inevitably), Eli Roth and Richard Stanley to such issues as the MPAA's part in proceedings, Bernard Herrmann's legendary score (talked about by Danny Elfman), and even the relative brevity of the murder sequence in Robert Bloch's original novel.
Shot entirely in black and white (except for the clips from colour films), including unnecessary opening scenes which look as though they're from a direct-to-video Psycho ripoff rather than actual recreations of the original film, 78/52 is mostly delivered straight to camera (or through voiceover), although Elijah Wood and his Spectrevision partners appear to just be kicking back and chatting over the whole movie. This doesn't mention the sequels and TV spin-offs, though time is devoted to Gus Van Sant's much-derided shot-for-shot remake, which finally managed to include the one more relatively explicit shot that even Hitchcock couldn't get away with in 1960.
Curiously, what you never get a straight, uninterrupted presentation of the shower scene itself in its entirety: it's as hacked around as Marion herself. Sometimes its overlaid with graphics (counting the split-second cuts), sometimes it's frozen, to better expound upon a particular shot or focus, sometimes moments are presented from what appears to be a scratchy, discoloured print (that might well be the very same 8mm version displayed by Sam Raimi's editor Bob Murawski). Some of it is perhaps on the abstruse side, such as the significance of the specific painting behind which Norman Bates has his peephole (Suzanne And The Elders by Frans Van Mieris Le Vieux, if you're interested), or the fact that a showerhead is visible behind Janet Leigh in an early scene - foreshadowing or coincidence?
78/52 is interesting enough, less about the actual shooting of the scene (the only featured person who was actually there on set is Janet Leigh’s body double Marli Renfro, so it probably doesn't tell the hardcore Hitch buffs anything they don't already know) than its cultural and historical importance. Certainly what you definitely get the sense that the shower scene was a watershed (sorry) in film, breaking all the assumed rules such as killing off the female lead less than halfway through, pushing at the censorial boundaries, and possibly the point at which audiences could no longer feel entirely safe in the cinema. With movie documentaries there's little worse than one which doesn't instil any desire to watch the subject itself, be it the works of Roger Corman or Weng Weng, but do you really need any nudge to watch Psycho again?