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.
BLU-RAY REVIEW – DEMONS OF THE MIND ***
Directed by Paul Sykes. Starring Robert Hardy, Shane Briant, Patrick Magee. 1972, UK, 89 mins., horror.
Released in the UK by Studiocanal on DVD and Blu-Ray on 30th October
To celebrate 60 years of the famed Hammer Horror collection, studiocanal have released on doubleplay eight of their classic titles. Amongst them is DEMONS OF THE MIND, a unique psychological thriller with more than an air of the brothers Grimm about it.
The setting is Bavaria in the 19th century and this is where its influences in fairy-tales come to the fore. There are two children locked in a castle by their deranged father, Baron Zorn (Robert Hardy), a townsfolk kept at arms-length and deep-seated family history. Zorn believes his imprisoned children are likely to succumb to hereditary madness, hence the reason for them being locked away. He calls upon Professor Falkenberg (Patrick Magee), a psychiatrist who has ‘taken a tumble from credibitility’ to unlock the family secrets and mysteries that involve suicide, incest and much more besides. Meanwhile, the townsfolk have other ideas of ridding the village of its problems.
The superb restoration highlights the magnificent gothic undertones and architecture of the sets which really emphasise the atmosphere of proceedings.
The film however is sadly is quite fragmented at times in its structure. There are on occasion too many characters and sub-plots during the set-up, although from that director Paul Sykes does manage to bring it all together as the film progresses.
The horror comes from within as characters inner-demons manifest themselves externally – or is it perhaps the other way around?
It’s certainly got a degree of depth to it in that regard to go along with the expected gore and deep, dark themes. It’s a film that has held up well and a must for all Hammer completists.