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 – BRAIN DAMAGE ****
Directed by Frank Henenlotter. Starring Rick Herbst, Gordon MacDonald, Jennifer Lowry, Theo Barnes, Lucille Saint-Peter, Vicki Darnell, John Zacherle. USA 1988 85 mins Certificate: 18
Released on Blu-Ray by Arrow Video on 8th May 2017
Writer-director Frank Henenlotter’s second professional feature – following the breakout success of his Herschell Gordon Lewis homage BASKET CASE – was this inventive, witty addiction parable for the “This is your brain on drugs” decade. UK fans of a certain age would have most likely experienced this via its censored Palace Video release, but it is now the latest 80’s cult horror item to be gifted with a 21st century restoration courtesy of Arrow Video.
In a marvellously off-kilter opening, an elderly couple (Theo Barnes, Lucille Saint-Peter) discover to their horror that Aylmer, their pet phallic brain-eating parasite (voiced by legendary U.S. horror host Zacherle) has disappeared from his bath tub home. The ageing junkies have been keeping Aylmer alive but relatively weak by feeding him animal brains in exchange for hallucinogenic highs he gives them via injecting blue goo into the back of their necks. Runaway Aylmer finds a new home with young Brian (Rick Herbst) who enjoys euphoric pleasures after initial sickness and is promised further highs in exchange for regular feeds. Soon, Brian is taking Aylmer out on the town to in search of disposable human victims, including a night-watchman (“Is he ok?” / “A bit under-done”). Appalled by his inadvertent murder spree, Brian becomes dependent on Aylmer’s fluid, suffering hideous withdrawal symptoms whenever he attempts cold turkey.
“When it comes to blood in my underwear, I wanna know how it got there”
Although the premise can’t quite sustain itself seamlessly to feature length – a truly satisfying punchline is lacking – this is perhaps Henenlotter’s most consistently successful film. The tonal juggling helps to create a genuinely unnerving mood, shifting unpredictably between downbeat social drama (Brian, unable to wean himself off his addiction, ends up killing his lonely, unfaithful girlfriend), graphic splatter and playful black comedy. Aylmer, afforded Zacherle’s endearing dulcet tones and crafted to look like a grotesque penis with eyes and teeth (plus a probably intended resemblance to SHIVERS’ STD parasites), is an unforgettable, even charming creation. His scenes with the appealing, convincing Herbst are the best in the movie, notably a spontaneous performance of “Elmer’s Tune” in a sink. In an inspired pastiche of THE MALTESE FALCON, Aylmer is given a deliberately outlandish and absurd backstory tracing his existence back to the Crusades, travelling around Europe throughout the centuries and even becoming a symbol of worship for an African tribe.
Henenlotter’s growing abilities as a filmmaker are reflected by stylishly surrealistic, hallucinatory set pieces, the most gruesome of which involves Brian pulling his brains out his ear like a gored up rendition of the old magician’s handkerchief trick; another has the declining hero imagining a bizarre threesome scenario between him, his brother and his girlfriend, one that ends inevitably with brain-munching. The stand-out, of course is the legendary sequence (cut by the BBFC until the 2004 DVD release) in which Brian picks up a girl (a bravura turn from Vicki Darnell) from a night club called Hell, and she discovers too late (“feels like you’ve got a real monster in there!”) that Aylmer is waiting in his pants, ready to pounce. The ensuing nightmare blow-job is simultaneously funny and disturbing, perhaps one of the boldest sequences in 80’s American horror. Typical of the film’s oscillating mood, the outrageousness of this moment is immediately followed by a disarmingly low key moment of personal horror, as Brian finds considerable blood in his underwear, with no memory of its origins. In its more serious moments, BRAIN DAMAGE flirts with the disease metaphors of Cronenbergian body horror cinema.
“He needs my brain, I need his juice”
In a virtually impossible role to play, Herbst delivers an impressive physical and emotional performance, depicting his character’s rapid descent with some skill and conviction. He grounds the movie in a recognisable reality in both the interactions with Aylmer and the straight dramatic sequences, notably the despairing sight of him listening to his brother getting it on with his neglected girlfriend in the next room. Henenlotter gives us a genuinely sympathetic protagonist, while also careful to position the potentially disposable roles for Jennifer Lowry (as the girlfriend) and Gordon MacDonald (as his brother). It’s a rare 80’s American horror film in which the main characters are credible young adults, and the two leads are handsome men in their early twenties.
More than any other movie in his career, Henenlotter pulls off a balancing act with the requisite grue (with excellent, grisly Gabe Bartalos make-up effects holding up in the HD spotlight) not jarring with the emotional core or even the occasional indulgence with schoolboy visual jokes (at one point, Aylmer’s presence under the duvet takes on the inevitable appearance of an unwanted erection). The climactic subway sequence, in which an animated Aylmer repeatedly leaps out of Herbst’s mouth whenever Lowry’s back is turned, starts off as playful physical comedy and ends with grim irony, as the typical N.Y.C. passengers fail to bat an eyelid as Lowry is gruesomely killed in front of them.
“Could you juice me again, the colours are starting to fade”
If BASKET CASE was a loving homage to Henenlotter’s hero Herschell, BRAIN DAMAGE plays out like a modernised extension of Roger Corman’s beloved B movies THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and A BUCKET OF BLOOD. The morbid humour and considerable empathy shown toward Brian echoes the plight of Corman’s hapless shmucks, lured into unlikely murder sprees due, in the case of LITTLE SHOP, to the feeding demands of a monster that provides short-term happiness in return. Beyond the crunchy violence and delicious Aylmer, it’s a film full of amusing incidental skits : two key players from BASKET CASE (Beverly Bonner, Kevin Van Hentenryck) have knowing cameos, and a glance at the bookshelf of Aylmer’s previous owners reveals a colourful collection of tomes with names like “Sodom Today” and “Liquid Pain”.
Arrow Video’s release provides a strikingly beautiful new transfer of this low budget, 30 year old feature. Henenlotter is oddly lacking from the barrage of extra features (with the exception of a new commentary), though the major bonus, “Listen to the Light” is an affectionate and insightful 55 minute retrospective rounding up several other key players. Gabe Bartalos is particularly enthusiastic about his FX gig, recalling Henenlotter’s desire for Aylmer to resemble a black dildo. A well preserved Rick Herbst – who renamed himself Rick Hearst and enjoyed an Emmy-winning later career as a daytime TV soap star – shares some anecdotes about the tough shoot, and others recall guerrilla filmmaking on the streets of New York. There is a suitably gross insight into the infamous blow job sequence – would you want it any other way?