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 - bloodbath - ***
Directed by Rados Navokovic, Michael Roy, Jack Hill, Stephanie Rothman. Starring William Campbell, Marissa Mathes, Linda Saunders, Sandra Knight, Jonathan Haze, Patrick Magee, Sid Haig,Mike Austin. USA / Yugoslavia 1963-1967 95 / 81 / 62 / 79 mins Certificate: 15
Out Now from Arrow Video.
It’s long been the case that movies with tortured production histories result in final products that prove less compelling than their own behind the scenes shenanigans. Arrow have collected and restored four different cuts of a movie that began as a Roger Corman investment, namely Dubrovnik-shot thriller OPERATION TITIAN starring William Campbell and the estimable Patrick Magee. With Francis Ford Coppola on board as story editor (having directed Magee and Campbell in DEMENTIA 13), it was intended to play internationally but Corman considered it insufficiently commercial and too touristy, so a recut version entitled PORTRAIT IN TERROR was crafted, with much local colour removed and jarring continuity issues courtesy of the integration of new footage. Jack Hill, fresh from directing the axe murders in DEMENTIA 13, was put in charge of transforming the movie(s) into a vampire picture, resulting in BLOODBATH, which only contains four minutes of TITIAN footage. The fourth incarnation, TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE, became a regular TV movie fixture, adding around 15 minutes of footage to BLOODBATH, including an eight minute chase scene of absurdly protracted proportions.
Alas, the film’s multiple versions and peculiar background make for more compelling viewing (in the form of Tim Lucas’ 80 minute visual essay “The Trouble With Titian Revisited”, based on his highly regarded “Video Watchdog” article) than the films themselves. PORTRAIT OF TERROR, OPERATION TITIAN and TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE have isolated moments of interest and often evocative use of the backdrop (with key scenes, images and moments appearing in all three) but they are each weighed down by pedestrian / erratic pacing and often dull performances. (Even the returning presence of the marvellous Patrick Magee in TRACK is marred by a peculiar dubbing job) The shortest and messiest, BLOODBATH, is the most reflective of Corman’s witty, proficient approach to genre filmmaking, a quality reflected by the briefest running time (just over an hour) and the casting of Jonathan Haze (Seymour Krelboyne in THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) as a Beatnik.
In fact, BLOODBATH’s most entertaining scenes offer a similar puncturing of the pompous Beatnik scene to that found in Corman’s glorious earlier A BUCKET OF BLOOD, with fabulous interludes at a pretentious gallery, where unhinged artist William Campbell hangs out with chums including a young Sid Haig (in Jack Hill’s SPIDER BABY around the same time) admiring works with titles like “Portrait of an Idiot”. Carl Schanzer is a particular hoot as the self-serious “Max”, who has perfected “Quantum Painting” and won’t let anyone forget it. Meanwhile, Campbell is busy luring women back to his ominous bell tower-adjacent abode, including beautiful student Marissa Mathes from the gallery hang-out, painting her in provocative poses, and ultimately dipping her in hot wax. Taking a lick from PSYCHO, there’s a jolting Hitchcock-infused murder scene and a narrative detour following the investigations of the victim’s sister.
Intended initially as the story of a contemporary artist possessed by a nefarious, executed past villain, BLOODBATH morphed into an awkward vampire picture, with the vampire in question played in re-shoots by an actor with no resemblance to (the unavailable) Campbell! The result is a total mishmash, but its eccentricities and tonal shifts make it by far the most intriguing of the three, with engaging longeurs involving peripheral offbeat characters, beautiful buxom women and effective use of the strange, moody coastal setting. Among the striking moments are the vampire’s encounter with costumed Mardi Gras musicians (“Wow, look at those fangs!”) and a striking climax oddly prefiguring the finale of William Lustig’s MANIAC, as the antagonist faces a surreal comeuppance courtesy of his wax-encased victims.
Arrow’s 2-disc release provides restored versions of all four of BLOODBATH’s incarnations, together for the first time. Lucas’ characteristically thorough and engaging feature length account of the film’s many lives is an outstanding piece in its own right and the highpoint of the entire set, though you also get brief interviews with Jack Hill and Sid Haig, alongside the usual attractively produced and illustrated booklet.