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.

Steven West

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INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS

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BLU-RAY REVIEW – CRIMES OF PASSION – *****

Directed by Ken Russell. Starring Kathleen Turner, Anthony Perkins, John Laughlin, Bruce Davison. USA 1984 107 mins / 112 mins Certificate: 18

Out now from Arrow Video.

Ken Russell’s fleeting foray with mainstream Hollywood in the early eighties began with resulted a miserable experience on ALTERED STATES that pivoted around a contentious relationship with writer Paddy Chayefsky, who was quick to disown the movie. A self-enforced hiatus followed, with the legendary British filmmaker returning to the business four years later via a suitably outrageous script by Barry Sandler that became CRIMES OF PASSION and provoked inevitable controversy on both sides of the Atlantic amidst multiple censorship issues. Perfectly suited to Russell’s own mischievous style, CRIMES OF PASSION sets out to misbehave from the outset, opening with a crude Adam & Eve fish joke followed by a suitably cynical sex therapy session: “You’re giving alright- you gave half the city the clap!”

Kathleen Turner, fresh from star-making turns in BODY HEAT and THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, is fashion designer Joanna Crane during the day, a persona that dovetails with her nocturnal incarnation as prostitute “China Blue”. The first time we see her, she has her legs spread, is wearing an ironic “Miss Liberty” costume and being eaten out while saluting her forefathers. When we meet self-styled saviour / Preacher Anthony Perkins, he is carrying around a bag of sex toys – including a vibrator accurately likened to a Cruz missile – and frantically reading scripture after relishing a peepshow visit, during which he fantasised about the dancer dying on the floor. Perkins follows China around to an obsessive degree on his misguided mission to “save” her. “Shall we keep on fucking and pissing in each other’s faces?!”

Handsome family man John Laughlin is suffering with a frigid wife (“I don’t know whether to embrace her or embalm her…”) and takes the job at Turner’s fashion studio in order to fund his lady’s home furnishing needs. He ends up embroiled with her alter-ego, while Russell playfully experiments with different formats and the script veers from outright viciousness (Perkins, on Turner, “I’ll cut off her little tits…”) to old school British seaside innuendo (“I caught him by the organ…”). The plot detours unpredictably into rape fantasies, psycho-sexual horror, child abuse and even a hilariously bizarre faux cable TV ad featuring Russell’s own daughters.

Perkins is absolutely astonishing in a movie that, like several others, contradicts the commonplace dismissal of much of his later career following his PSYCHO typecasting – though it simultaneously revels in the actor’s life long association with Norman Bates. Early on he watches Turner fuck through a peephole a la PSYCHO; subsequently he commits a bloody, frenzied stabbing (of an inflatable doll) and assumes the voyeur role again during an extraordinary sequence in which he peeps on Turner in an ultraviolent roleplay sex scene with a cop. This oft-censored sequence, tellingly, is cut with the same kind of jarring, rapid rhythm as the infamous shower scene but replaces Mother’s phallic knife with images of stiletto penetration and, most memorably, anal violation with a nightstick.

The scenes that Turner and Perkins share represent some of the actors’ finest movie work. Turner, alternatively sympathetic and predatory, was arguably never better than in this movie, and it’s certainly the only time she dressed as a nun to trill “Onward Christian Soldiers”. The live-wire Perkins, however, arguably steals it in a fearless turn that ranges from uber-manic to surprisingly moving, particularly during the tense psycho-killer climax in which he bursts into an impromptu, crazed rendition of “Get Happy” – one of the maddest moments of this movie’s decade. The finale offers the biggest nod to the Hitchcock movie, as Perkins perishes on a dildo while wielding scissors in full drag-mode, dressed as China Blue.

Full of explicit visual and verbal representations of sexuality unusual for an American film – and clearly in response to earlier boundary pushing movies such as DRESSED TO KILL and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE– Russell’s film captures his love-hate relationship with America more than anything he ever did. It’s one of the most visually stunning movies of the 80’s, with an outstanding neon beauty captured by cinematographer Dick Bush, and it makes haunting / satirical use of Rick Wakeman’s gorgeous music. The dialogue is frequently razor-sharp and laugh out loud funny (“He makes up in diction what he lacks in dick”) and Russell’s broad, sweeping satire of American family life, marriage and its cultural hypocrisy extends to the portrayal of grown American men relentlessly acting like frat boys (“The human penis!!!”).

Extras

Arrow’s handsome Blu-ray gives CRIMES OF PASSION its greatest home-video incarnation to date. Two versions of the film are included: the “Director’s Cut” familiar to fans from the Criterion laserdisc release and an “Unrated Version”, and both offer vivid confirmation of just how neutered the censored theatrical editions were. A carryover from the earlier release is the marvellous commentary by Ken Russell and Barry Sandler. Russell is wonderfully sarcastic about the studio (New World Picture) from the very beginning, and later dismisses them as “morons” for freaking out at a finished film that simply reflected the script they happily greenlit in the first place. Consistently smutty and caustic, Russell belittles the MPAA’s cuts, hilariously introduces his two main stars (On Turner: “She loved opening her legs” / on Perkins: “There he is…PSYCHO 17…”) and departs the commentary prematurely to catch a plane (!).

Elsewhere on the disc, the two new featurettes offer strong insight into a fascinating anomaly in 1980’s American cinema. Writer Barry Sandler discusses his career path to CRIMES OF PASSION, highlighting brave steps taken by Hollywood brass along the way, and his own fascination with sexual liberation and male / female attitudes toward sexual conquest in pre-AIDS America. Rick Wakeman has a bunch of engaging anecdotes about working with Russell, starting with their pairing on LISZTOMANIA. He recalls Russell’s annoyance at finding out Hovis had nicked the music he desired for their ads, hilariously remembers Perkins bringing his own sex toys to the set and offers a genuinely sad recollection of Russell’s frustration and alienation from the industry at the end of his career.

Steven West

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