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 – MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD ****
Directed by Christopher Speeth. Starring Janine Carazo, Jerome Dempsey, Daniel Dietrich, Lenny Baker, Herve Villechaize, William Preston, Tom Markus. USA 1973 74 mins Certificate: 18
Out February 22nd from Arrow Video.
Arrow Video’s “American Horror Project” is the first of a mooted series of box sets devoted to overlooked, esoteric independent American horror films – in the case of volume one, a trio of oddities from the 1970’s. The ongoing project was inspired by Stephen Thrower’s outstanding study of the form, “Nightmare USA”, inarguably one of the most intelligent (and affectionate) books about the genre from any era. This movie is joined by THE PREMONITION and THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA alongside a typically excellent accompanying booklet co-written by Thrower and Kim Newman.
MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD has a free-wheeling narrative built on a conventional murder-mystery plot hook that proves to be fairly irrelevant. Paul Hostetler and Betsy Henn are a couple who join a carnival with their daughter (Janine Carazo) as a ruse to search for their missing son, who apparently vanished while also in the carnival’s employ. They are given a guided tour at the outset by the vampiric Mr Blood (Jerome Dempsey), a marvellously ominous throwback to old school horror complete with cane, red-lined cape and a peculiar metabolism. Chuckling, murderous, boss-eyed caretaker William Preston, strange hand-less mute Tom Markus, transvestite tarot reader Lenny Baker and Mexican midget Herve Villechaize (a year before his role in LIVE AND LET DIE) are among the misfits and bystanders who figure in the unfolding carnage.
“The world’s only living two-headed giraffe…he won’t be alive for much longer…” Punctuated by some highly effective individual shots and images, Christopher Speeth’s only feature directing credit is a genuinely mesmerising cinematic nightmare appropriately dominated in its many dialogue-free sequences by a pulsing, discordant electronic sound-scape that adds to the unrelentingly off-kilter ambience.
The movie, emerging in the middle of a benchmark period of modern American horror, provides a unique bridge between different eras of the genre. The unnerving set design highlights posters of Universal’s FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, while disquieting sequences of the cannibalistic carny workers watching the Lon Chaney PHANTOM OF THE OPERA on celluloid provide a visual nod to an even earlier period of horror filmmaking. Prototypical slasher movie imagery (a bra-less Carazo running through woodland from an unknown threat) alternates with the gaudy, bright red spurting blood of the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis. In its recurring scenes of the slowly encroaching, clamouring carny workers indulging in feeding frenzies (and, notably, assaulting the family’s trailer), the film has strong echoes of Romero’s seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The credits refer to these marauding figures, like Romero’s, as simply “Ghouls”. Someone comments: “No one has ever told them eating people is wrong…”
This dislocated, subversive little picture is not for all tastes, such will be the case for all the movies falling under the “American Horror Project” banner, but it is certainly worthy of the fine exposure afforded to it here. The interview-based extras include director Speeth discussing the uniquely abrasive sound design and his battles with the MPAA, while the screenwriter notes the Sawney Bean influence and the assignation of key roles for his eclectic cast members. As with all three of the AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT films, Stephen Thrower provides an enthusiastic introduction.