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.
DVD REVIEW – Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex – ****
Directed by Gilles Penso, Alexandre Poncet, Starring: Steve Johnson, Rick Baker, Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, John Landis, Phil Tippett. Documentary 2016, 102mins, Cert 12.
Released in the UK on DVD on 3rd October 2016 by Studiocanal.
"It's kind of godlike to create something that never existed before." (Steve Johnson).
"The happiest I can be is when the monster walks into a set and I feel for a moment my life is complete." (Guillermo Del Toro).
About an hour into this interview-heavy documentary chronicling the evolution of creature effects designers throughout motion picture history, the celebratory mood darkens and becomes a more sombre reflective memoriam tinged with bitter sadness.
Up to this point a joyously spinning carousel of practical creature designers and film-makers line-up to expound on the joy and unmistakable pride (deservedly so) they have for their work bringing monsters to life with their bare hands (often aided by tons of latex and wires).
The practical pioneers are all name-checked with suitable reverence, from Lon Chaney Snr’s ability to transform and contort his face into such memorable roles as THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) to Jack Pierce’s iconic Universal creations turning Boris Karloff into FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and Lon Chaney’s son into the hair-raising WOLFMAN (1941). From facial make-up to stop motion animation originator Willis O’Brien (KING KONG, 1933) to his onetime apprentice the legendary Ray Harryhausen; about whom Guillermo Del Toro pays the ultimate compliment by declaring: “he created actors not monsters”.
Alec Gillis describes Dick Smith as "The grandfather of the modern era of make-up effects” most notably for his groundbreaking work on THE EXORCIST (1973). Dick Smith in turn inspired a generation of artists, the Fangoria pin-ups or ‘rock stars’ of 80’s special make-up effects such as Rick Baker (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON), Chris Walas (GREMLINS, THE FLY) - both interviewed here - and Rob Bottin (THE HOWLING, THE THING) who sadly appears to have retreated into solitude since his unsurpassable work on films such as John Carpenter’s classic creature-feature.
Why? Well, it all seems to be traceable back to James Cameron’s deep sea alien encounter THE ABYSS. A single CGI effect within the film had such an impact on audiences and commentators alike that Steve Johnson’s substantial bioluminescent underwater creature effects were completely overlooked: “Everybody in the special effects team got an Oscar except for me because of that goddamn water tentacle!”
Then Cameron followed this up with TERMINATOR 2 which was, according to Stan Winston’s son Matt, “the seminal film that launched CGI”, despite the fact that “the majority of the shots in that film were handled with practical effects”.
And so here’s where the documentary begins to shift in tone. Although the film doesn’t set out to portray CGI as the bad-guy per se, it’s nigh on impossible for someone like me who grew up in the golden era of practical effects not to feel an overwhelming sense of loss. And this is borne out by the way the digital age affected artists such as stop-motion designer Phil Tippett: “my whole world just kind of disappeared" when computers were allowed to largely stomp all over his work on JURASSIC PARK, an experience which left him both physically and "emotionally devastated." (Thankfully Phil rallied and his animation skills adapted to the new technology). Then there was Rick Baker’s creature work on MEN
IN BLACK being unceremoniously rejected in favour of pixels, and a general loss of respect seemed to seep into the film-making business for these practical pioneers of their craft.
Then we come onto the CGI saturated present day where, as Del Toro comments: “if everything's possible, nothing's impressive: and we're there right now". Joe Dante quotes Rick Baker who, whilst viewing an UNDERWORLD sequel whispered: “just because you can have 100 werewolves running across the ceiling doesn't mean you should”. In defence of CGI, director John Landis counters this by suggesting that those who say “old-school make-up is better: Bullshit. What I do see is an over reliance on post."
If, like me, you prefer the rubber shark in JAWS and the hand-puppet of ‘Yoda’ then you’ll find yourself wistfully saddened by the way the film industry so rapidly and ruthlessly turned away from those truly hands-on artists whose craftsmanship and creativity gave life to so many beautifully creatures for our pleasure and terror. But at least there’s documentaries like CREATURE DESIGNERS to chronicle their unforgettable achievements upon which our beloved genre is grounded.
Extras: Soundtrack, designing the opening credits, a conversation with John Landis & Joe Dante, a conversation with Steve Johnson & John Vulich, stills gallery, Guillermo del Toro master class.