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 – BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB ****
Directed by Seth Holt. Starring Valerie Leon, Andrew Keir, James Villiers, Hugh Burden, Mark Edwards, Rosalie Crutchley, Aubrey Morris, Tamara Ustinov, James Cossins, David Jackson. UK 1971 94 mins Certificate: 15
Out now on Blu-Ray Double Play from Studio Canal
Hammer Films’ final MUMMY picture saw Christopher Wicking (who subsequently wrote the vastly underrated DEMONS OF THE MIND and the flawed TO THE DEVIL A DUAGHTER for the studio) adapt Bram Stoker’s post-Dracula novel “Jewel of the Seven Stars” for the big screen. Set in modern London and deliberately avoiding the standard shambling-Mummy threat in favour of a more ambiguous evil force, it nonetheless follows a predictable structure, as those involved in a tomb violation are bumped off in a gruesome fashion at regular intervals. Like other impressive late-period Hammer films, this deserves more credit than it usually receives. It flirts with gaudy horrors (notably a crawling severed hand seemingly on loan from their rival Amicus) and in-jokes (a “To Let” sign boasts the familiar names Neame & Skeggs, the young hero is named “Tod Browning”), but shapes up as an intelligent contemporary Gothic with a pervasive underlying creepiness.
For a generation of randy adolescent boys raised on late night horror double bills in the 1970s and 1980s, this movie is perhaps destined to be remembered as a prominent showcase for one of Hammer’s most astonishing looking female leads. The statuesque, raven-haired beauty Valerie Leon (whose voice, like many a Hammer starlet, was dubbed in post-production) is breath-taking with her clear-blue eyes, knee-high boots and gravity-defying night-wear – though, for connoisseurs of a certain disposition, it’s worth noting that her fleeting nude scene was body-doubled.
Leon’s heroine suffers a series of nightmares / flashbacks to an identical-looking, malevolent Egyptian priestess who had her hand severed and thrown to wild dogs in a failed bid to cast out the evil – but ended up massacring those responsible. As she comes of age, Leon is gifted an over-sized scarlet ring that her Dad (Andrew Keir) took from the priestess’ tomb during a recent expedition. She comes to realise that her birth coincided with this act of desecration, thus ensuring her emergence in the image of the priestess and retaining her predecessor’s fondness for wreaking the kind of havoc that usually ends in gory close-up throat wounds.
Director Seth Holt was responsible for two of Hammer’s most impressively restrained and suspenseful pictures: the post-PSYCHO psychological thriller SCREAM OF FEAR and the outstanding Bette Davis vehicle THE NANNY, both shot in oppressive monochrome and both lacking the obvious overriding elements audience would associate with the brand “Hammer Horror”. He dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 47 just days before the end of filming BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB, but this film is admirably sincere, with a bleak sensibility reinforced by one of Hammer’s uncharacteristically ambiguous early 70’s endings for the nihilistic post-Romero horror film.
Certain aspects jar in the context of the movie’s attempt to set its old-school horrors in a recognisable contemporary world. The oddly misplaced asylum sequences present James Cossins and David Jackson as a pair of gloatingly sadistic attendants and suggests that modern care for the mentally ill has not progressed since examples provided in Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN series. Meanwhile, the wonderful Aubrey Morris contributes marvellously suggestive and camp line delivery as a Doctor (even his glasses are unsettling) that veer toward the broader side of Hammer’s repertoire. Nonetheless, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB endures as an impressively downbeat modernisation, with a still-chilling punchline.
Studio Canal’s new Blu-Ray presents the movie in a handsome HD format, even if it’s not the most visually impressive of Hammer’s films: their earlier period pieces were more convincing at concealing their low budgets, and this story is limited to a few basic sets. The film is accompanied by Marcus Hearn’s excellent 18-minute featurette, pithily presenting an insight into its production. The seemingly jinxed production has always been a topic for conversation: Holt’s tragic death left certain peculiar sequences – notably an awkwardly cut car crash – that seem an obvious result of the scramble to finish the movie with Michael Carreras as replacement director. The well told story of Peter Cushing leaving the production after a day due to his beloved wife’s terminal illness is still heart-breaking. Joining Hammer experts Jonathan Rigby and Alan Barnes are a funny, charming Valerie Leon – previously a CARRY ON girl, latterly a Bond girl – who still looks tremendous and contributes lovely anecdotal memories.