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
BOX SET REVIEW – DEATH WALKS TWICE: TWO FILMS BY LUCIANO ERCOLI – ****
Directed by Luciano Ercoli. Starring Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Pietro Martellanza, Frank Wolff, Carlo Gentili, Luciano Rossi. Thriller/Mystery, Italy/Spain, 208 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK as a Dual Format Blu-ray/DVD Box Set by Arrow Video on 28th March 2016.
Continuing a run of excellent box set packages, Arrow Video have bundled together two thrillers from the golden era of the giallo directed by the late Italian filmmaker Luciano Ercoli in a rather splendid limited edition Blu-ray set.
DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS (****)
The more serious and straightforward of the two films, DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS stars Nieves Navarro (a.k.a. Susan Scott, a.k.a. Mrs. Luciano Ercoli) as Nicole Rochard, a Paris nightclub dancer who, after the death of her jewel thief father, begins to receive death threats from a mysterious caller wanting to know the whereabouts of some missing diamonds. Afraid for her life Nicole runs away to England with infatuated fan Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff) in the hopes of escaping her tormenter but it seems that her stalker isn’t too far away.
Featuring some very tastefully done nudity and an underlying air of sleaze, DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS bubbles away at a pretty brisk pace and throws in several red herrings to try and throw you off the scent as to who the gloved killer is, including Nicole’s ex-boyfriend Michel (BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR’s Simón Andreu) who just happens to turn up in the UK (of course), Matthews’ one-handed caretaker Hallory (Luciano Rossi) and even Matthews himself. Nieves Navarro looks simply stunning here and delivers a very capable and convincing performance as the terrified Nicole, although the second half of the film suffers a little by not featuring her quite so much – there is a good reason why - and focusing on the police investigation of what is going on.
As characters come and go and everyone is under suspicion the film maintains the mystery and intrigue of a top-drawer thriller, and although it does dip into traditional giallo territory here and there it feels like director Luciano Ercoli is aiming higher than many of his contemporaries. The climax of the film wraps things up in a satisfactory way that will have you guessing right up until the very end who the stalker is, making DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS a rather unique film in an often repetitive genre. It doesn’t have the high gore content of Argento’s works or the overly-stylised look of Mario Bava’s but it hits the ground running and keeps you enthralled until the final reveal, and coupled with a very sexy aura without being overly explicit only adds to the playfulness. Great fun and a worthy addition to any giallo collection.
DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT (****)
Originally released a year later in 1972, DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT stars Nieves Navarro (again credited as Susan Scott) as Valentina, a beautiful fashion model who has agreed to be a guinea pig for an experimental mind-bending drug called HDS. During her head-trip Valentina has a vision of a young woman being murdered by a man wearing shades and using a spiked metal glove to punch holes in her head but puts it down to the effects of the drug. However, the journalist covering the experiment reveals her identity in his article and soon Valentina is being stalked by the killer from her vision, having discovered that the murder she saw actually happened.
A pretty typical giallo setup, DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT does feature most of the trappings of the genre but feels a little more accessible than the often bizarre take on the format employed by Bava, Argento or Fulci, and while director Luciano Ercoli may not have as definitive a style as any of those filmmakers his fluid and unfussy direction is quite refreshing, makeing the film very easy to watch. But as nice looking and jaunty as the film is it is Nieves Navarro that carries it, being in near enough every scene and filling the screen with her spirited performance as the feisty Valentina, who screams and slaps her way to finding out the truth about who she sees following her all the time.
Again featuring Simón Andreu – who spends most of his screen time asking for a match - DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT boasts a solid cast and does the usual giallo thing of introducing, and usually forgetting, several characters that act as red herrings and help boost the sense of mystery and paranoia. As giallos go it’s lacking in the nudity and violence that normally comes with these types of films – there are only a handful of properly gory sequences - but it makes up for it with eye candy of another kind as the film is wonderfully shot and features a lot of colourful imagery, especially in the psychedelic opening sequence. With a memorably upbeat score to match the visuals, DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT is a fun and entertaining giallo that goes more for substance over style, which is a novelty in itself, and for once doesn’t leave you left with more questions than you had at the beginning once the whole plot is explained for you at the end, although you do need to pay attention.
Both films are 2K restorations from the original camera negatives that look pretty impressive and come packaged with some informative extras, including audio commentaries by critic Tim Lucas, interviews with director Luciano Ercoli, actress Nieves Navarro, writer Ernesto Gastaldi and composer Stelvio Cipriani and optional Italian or English versions of the films. The box set is limited to 3000 copies and also comes with a 60-page booklet containing writings on both films from several giallo authorities so you certainly get your money’s worth if you’re a collector, and the two films here will provide you with a few hours’ worth of quality giallo goodness that is still worth revisiting even when you know whodunnit.