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.
BLU-RAY REVIEW – ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK – ***
Directed by Sergio Martino. Starring George Hilton, Edwige Fenech, Ivan Rassimov, George Rigaud, Julián Ugarte, Nieves Navarro, Tom Felleghy. Horror/Thriller, Italy/Spain, 91 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray by Shameless Screen Entertainment on 12th June 2017.
Despite the talent involved in 1972’s ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK it is quite surprising to find that it isn’t really a giallo-style thriller but a proper satanic orgy of sleazy ‘70s Euro-horror, along similar lines to VIRGIN WITCH, BLOOD SABBATH, NUDE FOR SATAN or any variant on those titles with ‘Satan’ in the title, and also a huge dollop of ROSEMARY’S BABY-esque madness to fill in the gaps between nude and black mass scenes.
It stars Italian genre royalty Edwige Fenech (STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER/TOP SENSATION) as Jane, a troubled young woman who lives in London with her boyfriend Richard (George Hilton – THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS). Jane recently suffered a miscarriage and also lost her mother at an early age, and now she suffers from terrible nightmares and hallucinations where a blue-eyed man is stalking her with a knife. Whilst Richard seems to think that Jane just needs a bit of pepping up with vitamin pills, her sister Barbara (DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT) thinks it is deeper rooted and recommends Jane sees a psychiatrist but a new neighbour has moved in next door and quickly befriends Jane, suggesting that one of her cult’s black mass rituals may help to relieve Jane’s anxieties but once Jane agrees to take part it transpires that what she thought was in her head may just turn out to be real.
Which is a plot that echoes ROSEMARY’S BABY in lots of ways but without a lot of the menace and creeping dread that films has, instead opening on a hallucination featuring a naked pregnant woman and a murder, indicating that there will be few surprises along the way as director Sergio Martino (THE MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD/TORSO) is more than keen to throw you straight into the action, and this being a 1970s Italian genre movie it isn’t too long before Edwige Fenech is naked and screaming. So far, so good but the sex and horror elements are slowed down and spread out as Martino goes for atmosphere, creating a psychedelic mindwarp of imagery and suggestion that is backed up by a script that is very keen to have a lot of chases to help create a feeling of panic. This is all helped by a fantastically vulnerable performance by the stunning Edwige Fenech, who plays the fragile victim a lot better than many of her contemporaries and adds a lot of character to a role that doesn’t really demand anything more than stripping off or running away from somebody, and her presence along with Martino’s direction and photography is what really carries the film because, in typical Italian fashion and the reason this film often gets mistaken for a giallo, the plot goes off in various directions and ends on a slightly baffling note that feels a tad underwhelming.
However, when the film does deviate from the atmospherics and goes for visual thrills then it does so with relish as Italian genre stalwart Ivan Rassimov (SPASMO/MAN FROM DEEP RIVER) takes centre stage as the leader of the cult, inciting the gang rape of Jane and generally oozing mystical insanity as the levels of hysteria heighten and everything goes really fuzzy for a few brief moments. It isn’t especially graphic but it is unnerving and adds the edge that the film needs as there are only so many chase scenes you can watch before the repetition becomes a little tedious, and that is where ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK falls slightly short of being a great occult chiller as there is very little to link all of the scenes and set pieces together, resulting in a stylish movie with character and heart but not a lot of depth. Still, the Blu-ray transfer is pretty stunning, the score by Bruno Nicolai (COUNT DRACULA/THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE) is suitably effective for this type of horror film, and the disorienting nature of the story comes across thanks to some typically uneven Italian filmmaking but that is all part of the charm after all and ALL COLOURS OF THE DARK does have more charm than a lot of other sexy Euro-horrors. It’s just a shame it doesn’t quite have the storytelling punch to match it.