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 - BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA ****
Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Starring Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Robert Webber, Gig Young, Kris Kristofferson. USA, Drama/Thriller, 110 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on BluRay by Arrow on the 23rd January, 2017.
Bloody Sam Peckinpah's 1974 film BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA boasts one of those brilliantly unforgettable movie titles which has been adopted into everything from 90s Britcoms (...OF MAVIS DAVIS) to forgotten Graham Norton panel shows (...OF LIGHT ENTERTAINMENT) and an endless running pun on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue: making it feel like a title more famous than the film it comes from. According to the IMDb it's included in both "1001 Movies To See Before You Die" and Michael Medved's "Fifty Worst Films Of All Time", so it's a divisive one if nothing else.
Personally I'm on the pro- side: I only managed to catch up with it a few years ago on DVD, and concluded it was alright but wasn't overly thrilled by it. Rewatching it on the new Blu release last night I concluded that while I still don't think it's a classic film, I did like it a lot more. It has a wonderfully seedy, miserable atmosphere with a wonderfully seedy, miserable hero in forever loser Bennie (Warren Oates), a Mexico City bar owner and piano-player for whom the million-dollar bounty on Alfredo Garcia represents a shot at a better life: the head is wanted by a vengeful landowner whose young daughter Garcia had impregnated. Finding the man's final resting place isn't difficult, but there are others on the trail as well...
It's not so much about the acquisition of the head itself, which "merely" involves the desecration of a fresh grave, more about the incalculable cost to a man's soul when he has to kill repeatedly to win the game (especially when he doesn't seem to have that much of a soul to begin with). Is it all worth it? There are occasional eruptions of the slow-motion violence you've come to associate from Peckinpah, although it's nothing like the carnage of the final reels of THE WILD BUNCH, and the film probably retains its 18 certificate as much for a deeply uncomfortable sequence halfway through in which Bennie and his girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) are confronted by two bikers who take an aggressive interest in Elita - uncomfortable because of both Bennie's and Elita's responses to the situation - as for the gunfights.
Apparently the only film of Peckinpah's that he was able to make without studio executive interference and to exercise total creative control over, it's a pretty bleak movie: a downbeat, grim and humourless vision of a world with little hope for the future. And in its last third, with the head retrieved, it's increasingly dark. It's also a male-driven movie in which the women get very little to do and are treated pretty badly for it: Elita is the only female character with any actual dramatic meat to her.
As you'd expect these days, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA looks great on Blu-ray and comes with an array of extras including two commentaries and the BBC's 1993 feature-length documentary SAM PECKINPAH: MAN OF IRON, with a string of substantially extended interviews included on the second disc. It's not a perfect film, and it's not a film for everyone, but very few films are. Recommended nonetheless.