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.
BOOK REVIEW - CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (DEVIL’S ADVOCATES) *****
Written by Calum Waddell. RRP: £9.99 104pp
Out now from Auteur Publishing.
“Today people want sensationalism. The more you rape their sense, the happier they are…”
Although its experimentation with multiple layers of reality has become de rigueur in the found-footage era and its scenario has been appropriated by mainstream genre movies (WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, THE GREEN INFERNO), Ruggero Deodato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST endures as a harrowing, incendiary movie experience. Few horror films of any era have proved so divisive and so contentious – though, as Calum Waddell discusses throughout his exceptional monograph for “Devil’s Advocates”, its objectionable content by no means stops at the real animal cruelty for which it remains notorious. It’s one of the few films where DVD extras interviewing the cast and crew are just as fascinating as the movie. On the U.S. Grindhouse release of the film (on which Waddell was heavily involved), star Robert Kerman laments the downward spiral of his career after the film and jokingly fantasises about a film in which a mad animal lover kills Deodato. For the actor (and many viewers), the muskrat scene should be cut from release versions because it should never have been shot to begin with (he focuses on this animal rather than the others because it screams). Pondering over why the film is so renowned, Kerman concludes: “It’s a classic, why? Because it’s mean spirited? That’s a terrible reason…”
Actor Carl Yorke, in his equally honest foreword for Waddell’s book, offers recollections of the (chronological) shoot, summing up the experience as “Real violence to animals next to fake violence to humans” and talks of he and his co-stars discussing potential ways to stop the filming. He defends his participation in the film via his profession as an actor and the fact that he only saw the movie once (mostly on fast forward), and recounts the well documented story of his refusal to shoot the pig for the climactic sequence, much to Deodato’s consternation. Referring to the film as “a zombie…It never dies…”, he lauds Waddell’s study and sums up the author’s approach, accurately, as “You don’t have to agree with me, but fuck you if you don’t”.
Waddell has alternated his academic career with a considerable amount of smart, incisive interviews and articles for magazines like “The Dark Side” and scores of documentaries for British and American DVD releases – the stand-outs, appropriately enough, being his feature length studies of the 70’s exploitation scene, namely 42ND STREET MEMORIES and EATEN ALIVE! THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ITALIAN CANNBIAL FILM. This Devil’s Advocate is a very personal and highly passionate analysis of a film he admits to despising as a teenager, viewing its barbarity as unforgivable and only revising his all-encompassing dislike thanks to personal interaction with the film’s makers and, in particular, his evolving friendship with Deodato. He reflects on becoming fascinated by the notion of how intelligent people, humanitarians like Deodato, ended up slaughtering wildlife and exploiting native people for “art”.
Waddell packs a tremendous amount into CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST’s 100 pages. While placing the film into the context of the Italian cannibal cycle, he traces the lineage of a film viewed as the “Father” of the Found Footage horror film back to the early exploitation films of the 1930’s – with their pretence of authenticity and sincerity when dealing with contentious subjects – and the Mondo films of the 1960’s, from which Deodato borrowed a catalogue of “blood and bestiality” set to an ironically lush soundtrack by Riz Ortolani. Also highlighted are often overlooked 70’s precursors as contrasting as PUNISHMENT PARK (“a far more politically astute film”), THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK and the structurally and narratively identical EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS.
Waddell also finds precedents in Deodato’s (mis)representation of the country it showcases in much earlier documentaries happy to sensationalise the lifestyles of native people for dramatic effect. The filmmaker’s reinforcement of the casually racist stereotype of “savages” is viewed in stark contrast to the reality of outsiders (e.g., potentially disease-carrying Westerners) posing a far greater threat to natives than the other way round – reinforced by the considerable destruction of culture and environment in Colombia by (frequently American) international corporations. In the process, Waddell also busts significant myths surrounding the film, including the fallacy that real indigenous tribes played the cannibals. Although complicated by the film’s portrayal of the barbarity of the American film crew, Waddell convincingly conveys the film’s one-note portrayal of a post-colonial third world stuck in “loin cloths, animal cruelty and head hunting”, and its blurring of location and nation to reduce its world view to merely “us” and “them”.
Perhaps the most fascinating section of Waddell’s study offers a highly perceptive parallel between Deodato’s work, America’s intervention in Vietnam and, subsequently, the mass media’s depiction of the conflict. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is defined as “a story about war and the role of the camera lens in manipulating the complexities of Third World confrontation”. The author, in considering it “a pivotal Vietnam war film”, likens its protagonist’s journey to that of Martin Sheen in APOCALYPSE NOW, but also calls out Coppola’s beloved movie and the Oscar-adorned THE DEER HUNTER for deploying indigenous people as cannon fodder. He commends Deodato for using the format and narrative to criticise the protagonists, unlike the mainstream media’s Vietnam coverage, which sold the war to the American public as “an honourable battle of democracy and freedom”, reducing the lives of the Vietnamese to soundbites and justifying their destruction via judicious editing. In this typically balanced and intelligent discussion, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST comes off better than its critically worshipped peers : “at least [with Deodato] every image is brought to us under the guise of a perverted and immoral form of exploitative realism”.
The book highlights the inescapable contradictions abundant in Deodato’s film that have always made the film equally hard to adore or dismiss: from the portrayal of “White Man” as the villain (and yet representing the Third World as ghoulishly as possible), to the various ways in which the film becomes a part of what it condemns as it “embraces the heinous temptations of the camera lens”. Waddell offers a considered debate about the animal cruelty, deciding that its integration into the narrative has as much to do with the need to live up to the typically sensationalistic late 1970’s marketing as it does with crafting a harrowing “reality”, and noting how the presence of such scenes in the third-person sequences undermines the cruelty seen in the later “found-footage”, and thus distracts from the film’s overall power. It is not unexpected to see Waddell criticising Deodato’s various quoted responses to the animal cruelty (for example, likening himself to a documentarian following a slaughterhouse worker) but he does so in a way that is supported by substantial research (including the lack of evidence that Colombians actually eat monkeys…)
Waddell, who has never been shy of blowing his own trumpet, quite rightly singles out earlier analyses of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST as inadequately covering the film’s complexities, and his discussion goes far beyond the elements that have previously dominated discussions of the film. He concludes, for example, that the film is one of the most sexist genre films of its era via a chapter on Patriarchy that considers Deodato’s misogyny, and the crucial ways in which the movie differs from, for instance, American rape-revenge films, by lingering over various scenes of abuse, mutilation and violation of women – all of which go unpunished.
A stand-out entry in the Devil’s Advocates series, this truly does an endlessly fascinating and contentious movie justice. Waddell is clearly fighting an internal battle between both loathing and admiring CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST on many different levels, finding it overwhelmed by old racist and misogynist attitudes while being ahead of its time. He crucially doesn’t let us forget its exploitation roots (summed up beautifully by the line “Geek show ghoulishness and one-upmanship in terms of visual excess”). It’s no surprise, perhaps, that Waddell singles out Deodato as the “real cannibal” when it comes to cultural exploitation, and no one can convincingly defend what the author describes as “the massacre of a beautiful giant turtle, an awesome spectacle of nature” for the sake of cinema. However, Waddell’s highly accessible critique and painstakingly detailed appreciation of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST will only enhance any future viewing (however uncomfortable) of Deodato’s benchmark film.