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 – ALMOST HUMAN - ****
Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Starring Tomas Milian, Henry Silva, Laura Belli, Ray Lovelock, Gino Santercole, Mario Piave, Anita Strindberg, Pippo Starnazza. Crime Thriller, Italy, 101 minutes, cert 18.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray by Shameless Screen Entertainment on 1st May 2017.
A few minutes into Umberto Lenzi’s ALMOST HUMAN brings about the realisation that Liam Gallagher must have seen this film because you could be mistaken for thinking that lead actor Tomas Milian (DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING) is the template for the Mancunian oaf in all of his ‘90s glory, such is the swagger and air of obnoxiousness that the actor brings to the role of Giulio Sacchi, a psychopathic street hoodlum looking to make that one big score that will set him up for life. It is likely that Rob Zombie and Brian De Palma have also seen this movie as there are more than a few plot and character similarities with THE DEVIL’S REJECTS and SCARFACE that may or may not be intentional but are undeniably there.
After a botched bank robbery where getaway driver Sacchi was a bit too keen and shot an inquisitive traffic cop before the job was done, an act that earned him a good kicking from the gang that hired him, the charismatic loser sets about setting up a job of his own. Whilst picking up his girlfriend Ione (Anita Strindberg – LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN) from her work he comes up with the idea of kidnapping Ione’s boss’ daughter Marilù (Laura Belli – THE ENFORCERS) and forcing her rich father to pay a huge ransom. Although Ione thinks he is joking and talks him down, Giulio and two of his friends set about abducting the young woman, unaware that the dogged Commissario Walter Grandi (Henry Silva – ABOVE THE LAW/ALLIGATOR) is in hot pursuit as Giulio has already been making a name for himself with senseless, spur-of-the-moment killings all over the city.
Despite Umberto Lenzi being better known amongst genre fans for horror offerings such as CANNIBAL FEROX, NIGHTMARE CITY and EATEN ALIVE, he made his name in the late 1960s and early ’70 with several notable giallo movies including SPASMO, SEVEN BLOOD-STAINED ORCHIDS and more uncomplicated crime thrillers like SYNDICATE SADISTS and ALMOST HUMAN. And whilst the story for ALMOST HUMAN is relatively straightforward for an Italian action thriller it does have its fair share of brutal and horrific moments, the centrepiece of it all being when Giulio and his gang burst into the house of innocent partygoers and proceed to torture and humiliate them before the adrenaline inevitably get the better of the armed madmen and much blood is shed. Very similar in both tone and action to the motel scene in THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, it makes for a disturbing few minutes that hold a couple of surprises and lets you know how far Giulio will go to achieve his goal, and also that there is now no turning back for him or his initially reluctant henchmen, one of whom is played by Italian cinema stalwart Ray Lovelock (THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE).
Aside from the violence that remains pretty constant throughout the film, ALMOST HUMAN has two standout lead performances from veteran character actor Henry Silva and the aforementioned Tomas Milian. Silva will be a familiar face to most thanks to his dozens of action movie and TV appearances and he is nothing short of magnetic in his steely-eyed portrayal of the grizzled detective who will stop at nothing to get his man, but it is Tomas Milian who, much like Sid Haig and Bill Moseley in THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, really shines by being a total scumbag and also just a little bit charming, that is until a certain act in that torture scene pushes him past the point of redemption. It is a brilliant performance that grabs you from the off and keeps you engaged throughout the whole movie, which is needed because the film does begin to run out of steam a little towards the end and is probably about 10 minutes too long. Nevertheless, Giulio’s love-to-hate-him sub-Tony Montana character and Milian’s erratic portrayal are worthy of your attention and Umberto Lenzi’s unfussy direction means you’re not bogged down too much with unnecessary plot details, although the rigidly choreographed car chase near the beginning of the movie does feel a little comedic and incongruous compared to the dark places the movie goes later on.
Presented with both English and Italian audio this release marks the first time ALMOST HUMAN has hit Blu-ray and whilst the colours might be a little more striking and a few of the edges sharpened up, the picture quality is still quite grainy for the most part so if you already own the Shameless DVD release you may want to compare the image before going for the upgrade. Extras include a brand new interview with Umberto Lenzi, archive interviews with Lenzi, Ray Lovelock and writer Ernesto Gastaldi plus an interview with Tomas Milian, who unfortunately passed away this year. Overall, ALMOST HUMAN is a hugely entertaining and influential crime thriller anchored by two excellent lead performances and featuring all of the usual tropes of ‘70s Italian cinema, and while it may go on a little longer than is necessary it does feature several moments of extreme intensity and brutality that easily put it up there with the best genre movies of the era.