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 - BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR ***
Directed by Brian Yuzna. Starring Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Kathleen Kinmont, David Gale, Claude Earl Jones, Fabiana Udenio. USA, Horror, 97 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD and BluRay by Arrow Films on the 11th April, 2016.
Maybe I'm just getting old but it sometimes seems the BBFC are getting absurdly lenient these days, to the extent that almost every release feels a category too low. Only last week there was BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, boasting a level of physical violence and CGI monster horror that was clearly unsuitable for twelve-year-olds (or indeed anyone else); a few days later a reissue of Brian Yuzna's gore- and offal-drenched first RE-ANIMATOR sequel drops through the door and incredibly it's been downgraded to a 15. Sadly that's the biggest surprise on offer: for all the monster mayhem and wild zombie action BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR is ultimately as big a mess and a disappointment as it was back in 1990. Where Stuart Gordon's original was a tightly focussed, stripped down exploitation movie, this follow up veers wildly all over the place and doesn't actually make very much sense.
After the events of the first film, square-jawed Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) and definitive mad scientist Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) have legged it to Peru where they've served as medics for the revolutionary army. For Cain it's presumably a chance to forget his beloved Meg and atone for his part in the Miskatonic Massacre, for West it's easy access to unlimited body parts and fresh corpses for his continuing experiments into life after death. Somehow they manage not just to get back to Arkham but to get staff jobs at the same hospital: West wastes no time in setting up a new laboratory in the basement of the former gravedigger's house at the local cemetery, Cain falls in love with a terminal patient (Kathleen Kinmont) and a local police lieutenant with a personal grudge (Claude Earl Jones) continues to sniff around the case...
The name of the Diodati Cemetery is the big shout-out to Mary Shelley fans: no longer is West merely concerned with bringing the dead back to life, but creating a new (female) life out of assorted body parts bolted together. It's towards the second half of the film that everything goes completely out of control, as the severed head of Dr Hill (David Gale) returns to telepathically control a trio of zombies, this time flapping around with a bat's wings stitched to his temples, and West's mismatched monsters break out of the crypt next door.
No less than six special effects houses contributed gloopy, albeit spectacular, make-up and animatronic effects here including Screaming Mad George, KNB and John Buechler. The key image is Kinmont's rejected Bride ripping her rejected heart from her chest and offering it to Cain: it's a visually terrific moment but it's rather lost in the climactic chaos. The absence of a music budget also reduces Richard Band's score (which retains its "adaptation" of Bernard Herrmann's PSYCHO theme) to cheap-sounding synthesisers and samples rather than live musicians.
In addition to the usual selection of behind-the-scenes featurettes, Arrow's 2-disc BluRay set offers both the R-rated and unrated versions of the film, which run for exactly the same length although a cursory comparison suggests the R tones down some of the more outre splatter moments and replaces it with cutaway shots. (Given the choice, why would you watch the milder cut anyway?) While it doesn't match up to the classic original, BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR (which was pointlessly retitled RE-ANIMATOR 2 on its UK video release back in the days of VHS) is still good fun in its gory, surreal craziness, and Combs' utterly demented Herbert West is a delight. Should still be an 18 though!