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 – BLACK CHRISTMAS ****
Directed by Bob Clark. Starring Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Art Hindle, James Edmond, Lynne Griffin, Douglas McGrath. Horror/Thriller, Canada/USA, 98 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on Dual-Format Blu-ray/DVD by 101 Films on 20th November 2017.
Surprisingly, this edition of Bob Clark’s classic proto-slasher BLACK CHRISTMAS is the films UK Blu-ray debut; surprising because, for the last two decades at least, BLACK CHRISTMAS has been namechecked by fans and critics alike as not only the starting point for what we now term the slasher movie but also as a seminal seasonal horror film that does for the festive period what John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN did for trick or treating.
And HALLOWEEN is a fitting reference point as that movie has retrospectively cast a shadow over BLACK CHRISTMAS despite the fact that Bob Clark got in there four years previously with POV shots, deliberate pacing and creating a sense of dread as young women are stalked by a mysterious killer. So while HALLOWEEN may be the more iconic movie and the one that put all of the pieces together to give the slasher movie form, it is also true to say that John Carpenter was heavily influenced by BLACK CHRISTMAS (and if you listen to Bob Clark’s archive interview in the special features, he claims that his idea for a proposed BLACK CHRISTMAS sequel would have taken place the following year in the autumn and would have been called HALLOWEEN but it appears somebody beat him to it...) and with the horror community getting all excited for a new Michael Myers movie planned for next year then now is a good time to bring BLACK CHRISTMAS back to remind audiences where a substantial amount of those familiar slasher tropes came from.
What often gets overlooked in BLACK CHRISTMAS is how transgressive it is compared to the endless cycles of teenagers-in-peril movies that came in its wake, especially post-FRIDAY THE 13TH. Here the characters are clearly defined, with Bob Clark taking the time to build them up from when we first meet them in their sorority house getting ready for the Christmas break. The main female characters of Jess (Olivia Hussey – PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING) and Barb (Margot Kidder – THE AMITYVILLE HORROR) in any other horror movie would be among the first to be slaughtered, especially Barb as she is the mouthpiece of the group, usually drunk and the first with a quip or two whenever the telephone rings and the manic voice of their psychotic stalker is rasping out his threats and insults. However, far from being fodder for a deranged maniac both characters are given stories and situations away from what the crank caller is putting them through, more so in the case of Jess who has issues she needs to put straight with her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea – 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY), who himself becomes a suspect once the bodies start to pile up and the sorority house becomes the scene of several murders by the unknown assailant.
Looking at the film now with over 40 years of imitators and homages, BLACK CHRISTMAS does show its age when put up against modern standards. Of course, if this were made now – we’ll ignore the awful 2006 remake, although it does fall into this trap – then half of the running time would be made up looking into the background of the killer so we can be sure of our loyalties when it came to the inevitable bloodbath climax and can be behind the poorly-written protagonists because we’ve seen how awful the antagonist can be. Perhaps that’s a bit of a generalisation but what makes BLACK CHRISTMAS work is that is does none of that, instead keeping exposure of the killer to a minimum, keeping the gore level suitably low – it really doesn’t need to be any more graphic than it is - and fleshing out all of the characters. Even the police officers that are always a couple of steps behind the action are more than just your typical bumbling cops, with John Saxon (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) and Douglas McGrath (PALE RIDER) providing some gravitas and the occasional light relief in roles that were really fairly thankless given the input the characters actually have but come off much better thanks to clever writing and solid performances.
The 2K print of the film is still grainy but the contrast between the blacks and whites is more noticeable, as it the effect of red Christmas lights on dark backgrounds, and with extras including interviews with actors Art Hindle and Lynne Griffin, footage of the 2014 Fan Expo 40th anniversary reunion, an informative 40-minute documentary about the legacy of the film plus a poster and reversible sleeve this is a package worth picking up both for long-time fans and curious newcomers alike. BLACK CHRISTMAS is very much a slow-burner and a film that takes a couple of viewings to really sink in, especially if you go into it expecting wall-to-wall blood and guts or something a bit more camp like a killer Santa. But if you put it on, turn down the lights, soak up the atmosphere and appreciate the craft that has gone into making it then it does hold up as a slightly more intellectual horror thriller than the films it inspired (with the one obvious exception but that is a discussion for another day). And despite the relative lack of gore and nudity, BLACK CHRISTMAS still has some effective scares so putting it on when the family are gathered around the TV on Christmas Day may not be the wisest move.