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 – THE PREMONITION ***
Directed by Robert Allen Schnitzer. Starring Sharon Farrell, Edward Bell, Danielle Brisebois, Ellen Barber, Jeff Corey, Richard Lynch. USA 1976 94 mins Certificate: 15
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 accompanied by MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD and THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA alongside a typically excellent accompanying booklet co-written by Thrower and Kim Newman.
Horror was fascinated with extra-sensory powers in the 1970’s, with Stephen King’s CARRIE inspiring a wave of movies in which the protagonists employed their “gifts” to various ends. King himself continued to explore the concept, notably via THE DEAD ZONE, while CARRIE director Brian De Palma took it to its visceral zenith with THE FURY, and other oft-forgotten minor films like JENNIFER jumped on the bandwagon.
THE PREMONITION is a true oddity, an understated and quite absorbing drama that flirts with the thriller and horror genres without committing to either. It borders on pretentiousness at times (reflected by some of the extras on Arrow’s disc), and disarmingly opens with a peculiar Fellini-inspired sequence of veteran screen antagonist Richard Lynch, in high-waisted trousers, dancing for your viewing pleasure. Who knows why. Does there need to be a reason for an extended skit in which Richard Lynch dances in high-waisted trousers?
Carny Lynch and his beautiful but disturbed girlfriend (Ellen Barber) keep a close watch on Barber’s biological six year old daughter (Danielle Brisebois), who is under the wing of her adopted parents (Sharon Farrell, Edward Bell). Farrell keeps having disturbing visions of the two kidnappers, which lead her and her husband to a parapsychology clinic where debate persists about whether or not the visions are normal, emotional responses reflective of the mother’s anxious mental state. Ultimately, Lynch and Barber invade the family home, their kidnapping plan initially averted, but merely the start of a campaign of terror.
Farrell, memorable as the monster baby’s mum in Larry Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE, delivers another credible performance as the crumbling mother facing the imminent abduction of her daughter. The interesting cast, with reliable players like Lynch and Jeff Corey in support, assist the movie through some of its more pedestrian TV-movie like stretches. Despite the muted approach and the over-emphatic baroque classical score, the film captures disturbing scenes of everyday madness. More distressing than many an overt 1970’s gore scene is the moment in which birth mother Brisebois dissolves into hysteria as Lynch rips the head off a doll they stole during their home invasion / botched kidnapping of her daughter.