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
BOX SET Review - BASKET CASE: THE TRILOGY ****
Directed by Frank Henenlotter, Starring: Kevin Van Hentenryck, Beverly Bonner, Annie Ross. Horror, US, 1982/1990/1991, 259mins, Cert 18.
Re-released in the UK in a 3-disc Blu-ray set on 14th March 2016 by Second Sight.
Dedicated to gore pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis, Frank Henenlotter’s modest little gritty 16mm creature feature made an indelible mark when it debuted back in 1982. Famed as much for how it captured the seediness of the Big Apple and Times Square back then as it was for its gruesome basket-dwelling monster, it helped propel Henenlotter into a career of memorable gore and exploitation classics such as BRAIN DAMAGE, FRANKENHOOKER and BAD BIOLOGY as well as 2 sequels to the original BASKET CASE.
BASKET CASE (****)
“What’s in the basket?”
Originally blown up from its 16mm origins, the first instalment of the Bradley Brothers trials and tribulations is presented here in its original 1.33:11 ratio (and looks all the better for it). Duane Bradley checks into the sleazy Hotel Broslin in New York carrying a wicker basket containing his former Siamese twin Belial. Having been separated from his brother at a young age via a crude backstreet operation – the siblings are on a revenge mission to track down those original surgeons and return the favour by wreaking their own form of butchery upon them at the clawed hands of Belial.
Even director Henenlotter freely admits the whole premise was a preposterous one, and no one was more surprised than him when it became an overnight hit. Yet in hindsight it’s not hard to see why it struck a chord with horror and sleaze connoisseurs. The vivid and rich depiction of the seediness of Times Square, populated with a garishly memorable rogues gallery of sassy prostitutes, peeping toms, drug dealers, dodgy medical quacks and drunks is enough to draw you in alone, even before you eventually find out exactly what is in that basket. Kevin Van Hentenryck is the sympathetic ‘normal’ big brother, and Van Hentenryck’s ‘Duane’ delivers a nicely judged combination of fresh faced innocence and psychotic obsession. The lumpen blob of twisted flesh that is Belial is crudely brought to life by low-budget puppetry and stop-motion – but the rawness just adds to its charm. The gory attacks on the doctors are gleefully brutal and rightly earned it valuable coverage in the pages of ‘Fangoria’. I remember showing it to my long-suffering mum when we got a video recorder back in the 80’s – she never forgot the film and would often quote: “What’s in the basket?” whenever she was reminded of those times.
BASKET CASE 2 (***)
“I understand your pain, Belial, but ripping the faces off people may not be in your best interest”.
Picking up right where the original left off – with the Bradley Brothers dangling from the neon sign of the Hotel Broslin before plunging to the sidewalk in an apparently fatal impact – it turns out that both survived the fall and are recovering in the city hospital. The subject of tabloid notoriety, they are rescued and taken in by their aunt, Granny Ruth who runs a commune on Staten island for ‘unique individuals’. Nicknamed ‘Dr Freak’ Granny Ruth (the wonderful veteran actress Annie Ross) provides safe haven for a veritable smorgasbord of freaks with her daughter Susan. Love is very much in the air for both brothers – Duane with Susan – with whom he hopes to escape into the sunset with – and Belial, who finds his soul mate in ‘Eve’. But those pesky reporters are hot on the infamous Bradley twin’s heels – and a bloodied showdown is guaranteed.
Made some 8 years after the original – it was always going to be a tough ask for Henenlotter to just pick up the narrative with such a chronological gap. Apart from Duane having an overnight haircut, the film itself is slicker and technically more proficient, but it’s softer edge, particularly the shift in relocating to Staten Island – is jarring if you approach it straight after its grimy predecessor.
Gabe Bartalos’ creature make-ups are fabulous, and Annie Ross’ Granny Ruth steals the film. The standout scene features a photographer stumbling upon the attic full of ‘unique individuals’ who are lit by the flashes from his camera. Whilst the whole film is clearly a homage to Tod Browning’s FREAKS, this scene in particular conjures up the nightmarish sequence in the thunderstorm when the ‘freaks’ crawl and stalk through the rain and mud whilst periodically lit by bursts of lightening.
BASKET CASE 3 (***)
“We’re ruling out a caesarean – we can’t open her up coz we’re not certain how she’s put together”.
Opening with the last 5 minutes from BASKET CASE 2 (so the opening shot is of Belial and Eve copulating) this third instalment shifts locations again as we head out to Georgia so that heavily pregnant Eve can give birth to multiple offspring under the supervision of Uncle Hal and ‘Little Hal’. Unfortunately a couple of rookie deputy sheriffs kidnap Belial’s mini brood of monsters resulting in a police station massacre as daddy comes a calling.
More whimsical than part 2, with the violence more cartoon-like in its execution, the conclusion to the trilogy is played more for humour, and whilst it’s scattergun approach is a bit hit and miss, there’s still an undeniable sense of fun to be had watching Belial twist and tear off the faces of the local law enforcement. This scene is the standout moment, although the sequence where Eve gives birth to multiple baby Belials is also worthy of mention.
This is overall a hugely enjoyable trilogy, with the original 16mm instalment undoubtedly the jewel in its crown. Director Frank Henenlotter delivers three consistently entertaining films which deserve the nostalgic affection they’ve garnered from genre fans. But then again, as with all of his films, I’ve never felt short-changed with any of Henenlotter’s offerings, and anyone picking up this 3 disc set won’t either.
Extras: 'What's In The Basket?' – A look at the making of the trilogy, an interview with poster artist Graham Humphreys'; audio commentary on Basket Case, with outtakes/behind-the-scenes, radio spots, photo gallery: behind-the-scenes, promotional material and stills.