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 – CAT PEOPLE – *****
Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Elizabeth Russell, Jane Randolph. USA 1942 73 mins. Certificate: PG
Released by Criterion Collection on 26th Speptember 2016.
An unforgettable Simone Simon, whose extraordinary kitten face and other-worldly disposition marks her as one of cinema history’s most perfect casting choices, is at the centre of the first in producer Val Lewton’s much admired wartime horror cycle for RKO. Working with peerless filmmakers like Mark Robson, Robert Wise and Jacques Tourneur, Lewton oversaw a rarely matched sequence of restrained, suggestive exercises in the macabre that still seem ageless. CAT PEOPLE might be the best known, while I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE BODY SNATCHER have obtained almost equal classic status over the years, though Lewton productions that were once regarded with less enthusiasm (CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, THE LEOPARD MAN, the remarkable THE SEVENTH VICTIM) have only grown in stature.
Simon is a peculiar, lonely, indefinably sexy Serbian fashion designer with some very curious personality quirks: she likes the dark, has an affinity with lions, scares cats and causes the animals to go mental when she visits a pet store. At a time when the horror genre was not known for the challenging, progressive roles it afforded to actresses, Simon represents an uncommonly powerful presence, and the first in a series of fascinating female roles in Lewton’s 40’s chillers. We first meet her in a light yet oddly ominous romantic comedy-style opening in which she meets a “good, proud Americano” (read: dull) played by Kent Smith at Central Park zoo, who is swift to dismiss her talk of the “cat people” in her old village as “fairy tales”. Simon, however, is all too aware that something evil lies dormant within her: as a result of this knowledge, her subsequent marriage remains unconsummated, and Smith’s (implied) sexual frustration is just one of the subtle adult touches in Lewton’s mature genre productions.
Representing the rise of sophisticated psychological horror set in modern America (here, a beautifully eerie, wintry New York City), CAT PEOPLE offers a haunting variation on Curt Siodmak’s WOLFMAN concept, though director Tourneur isn’t interested in employing his “monster” as a potentially hokey, carnival-esque figure of fear: the gratuitous shots of a panther during one key scene were studio-imposed, just like the eponymous monster in his later NIGHT OF THE DEMON. The focus is on character and quiet ways in which to unsettle us.
For a character named Oliver Reed, Smith is ineffectual and bland by design, so it’s the women that shine. Elizabeth Russell (incredible in the later, wonderful CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE) has a uniquely strange presence as the feline woman who appears in a solitary scene, while Jane Randolph - who sports many bizarre fashionable hats and has a suggested affair with Smith - is the kind of independent, sexually liberated female character seldom seen in films of this period in any genre. Simon, of course, haunts the soul as the doomed central character, her fate reinforced by the first of Lewton’s literary quotations (John Donne: “My world, both parts, and both parts must die…”) and the tragic inevitability of the resolution captured throughout by the actress’ multi-layered interpretation of the role itself and the poignant dialogue (“I love loneliness…”).
It’s a movie of easily overlooked subtleties and ingenuity. Even an apparently innocuous early scene featuring Simone and Smith enjoying a light-hearted union cannily signposts what lies ahead: exemplary cinematographer Nicolas Musuraca shoots it so both characters are “imprisoned” by shadow-crafted bars to convey Smith being lured into a trap of his own making. Hidden lights capture scenes from below to further destabilise the audience, while rippling shadows on the walls and ceilings of the extraordinary swimming pool sequence establish a stunningly evocative visual aesthetic.
Simon’s transformations are, of course, achieved entirely by suggestion (a set of bloody paw prints at Central Park Zoo gradually become high heel prints) and the film’s chief legacy has been its enduring, suspenseful set pieces. The most famous is perhaps the first of several insidiously creepy nocturnal walks in the Lewton cycle, as Randolph is apparently stalked by Simon through the park in an intense interlude with no musical accompaniment and largely natural sound until the sudden hiss of an unexpected city bus breaks the sustained anxiety.
This legendary false scare would, ironically enough, be recycled countless times in modern horror films with cats replacing the bus, usually hurled into frame by an unseen stage hand. These days, no Hollywood horror feature seems capable of avoiding what Mark Kermode calls the “quiet, quiet, bang…!” approach, a cruder interpretation of Tourneur’s innovation in which the audience is tricked via abrasive audio jolts into thinking what they’re seeing has scared them, rather than just made them jump. It matters not, because CAT PEOPLE - now well into the senior citizen stage of its life - has not been diluted by age or imitation: like Simon’s performance, it stands alone.
A typically comprehensive Criterion release, CAT PEOPLE is afforded a gorgeous high-definition transfer which is worth the upgrade alone. Features are imported from earlier releases, notably “Out of the Shadows”, an absorbing feature length documentary about Lewton’s life and career. Among the hitherto unseen extras are an enlightening interview with cinematographer John Bailey, who celebrates the film’s most famous visual sequences, and Musuraca’s constantly inventive use of shapes and forms, blocks of light and dark. He also expresses how he paid homage to these moments (and subverted them) when serving as director of photography for Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake, a fascinating film in its own right.