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 – DONNIE DARKO– *****
Directed by Richard Kelly. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, James Duval, Daveigh Chase, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Katharine Ross, Noah Wyle. 113 mins / 133 mins (Director’s Cut) Certificate: 15
Released by Arrow Video on 12th December 2016 (Box Set Edition)
“Donnie Darko? What kind of name is that? It’s like you’re some sort of superhero…”
“What makes you think I’m not?”
Richard Kelly’s feature debut is now 15 years old. A commercial failure on its unfortunately timed release, thanks partly to the inability of marketing executives to successfully position it in a specific genre category, it has only gained in stature and reputation in the intervening years. At the time of its release (and subsequent DVD rebirth), the movie was a breath of fresh air for anyone worn down by the abundance of American high school movies that, depending on the genre label, were either full of cum and erection gags (latter-day PORKYS teen sex comedies) or annoyingly smug about the slasher movie clichés they were lazily retreading (post-SCREAM slasher cycle).
Kelly prefigured the 21st century wave of 80’s pastiche movies by setting his movie in and around a Virginian high school in October of 1988. The filmmaker’s obvious nostalgia for the decade is reflected by the dialogue references (notably BACK TO THE FUTURE), the on-screen appearance of Stephen King’s epic novel “It”, the political backdrop of the Dukakis / Bush Presidential race and the casting of prominent 80’s icons Drew Barrymore and Patrick Swayze in against-type roles. And, of course, there’s the soundtrack: Echo and the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears, Joy Division – and, if you’re watching the Director’s Cut, the evergreen INXS track “Never Tear Us Apart” accompanying young Donnie’s opening bike ride through small town U.S.A. Kelly’s influences are many and various: the aforementioned glide through deceptively homely American suburbia owes an obvious debt to the unforgettably subversive intro of David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET. It’s arguable that some of the authentic teenage boy-talk (notably a discussion of a Smurf gangbang) was inspired by the wittily profane adolescent exchanges of STAND BY ME.
“Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”
For the unconverted, Donnie (a breakthrough performance from Jake Gyllenhaal) is an intelligent teenager with a history of delinquency and a family whose only answer to his troubles is to send him to a shrink (iconic 60’s actress Katharine Ross, retrieved from retirement for the role). While a new wave of contentious, younger teachers (hippie English prof Barrymore, science teacher Noah Wyle) clash with the old guard at Donnie’s school (represented by God-fearing, book-banning prude Beth Grant), Donnie’s quirks attract pretty new girl Jena Malone. His life transforms when he experiences a series of visitations from a 6 foot tall talking bunny, initially warning him that the world will end in just over 28 days. The bunny, “Frank”, leads Donnie into a sequence of increasingly extreme actions before its significance becomes tragically clear.
Like M Night Shyamalan’s still-undervalued UNBREAKABLE, DONNIE DARKO could be read as a revisionist super-hero picture, complete with the protagonist’s alliterative name, the double life he starts to lead and the world-saving machinations he appears to spearhead. The movie is just as valid and absorbing, however, as an unusually perceptive and inventive study of late-adolescent angst, with the need for escapism balanced against the repressive influence of would-be mentors like Grant and Swayze’s superbly played local “motivational” guru / neighbourhood paedophile. The script’s more overtly satirical sub-plots peak with the marvellously queasy “Sparkle Motion” routine, set to Duran Duran’s “Notorious” and brilliantly juxtaposed with the torching of Swayze’s house as his grim secret becomes apparent. The movie’s genius is how successfully it works as a character-based genre movie about time travel and worm holes, while capturing an involving portrait of an alienated young man whose discovery of his true purpose in life leads him on an inexorable path to his own untimely death.
Kelly’s literary references (particularly Graeme Greene and “Watership Down”) are given as much weight as his cinematic reference points, the latter culminating with an extraordinary cinema sequence set at a Halloween double feature of Sam Raimi’s THE EVIL DEAD (a series no stranger to portals itself) and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (!). Kelly’s visual style is remarkably assured for a first timer, displaying an ingratiating fondness for music video montage and making highly effective, well-judged use of fleeting digital FX evolved from the ground-breaking ILM work on THE ABYSS. The charisma and multi-layers Gyllenhaal demonstrates here would be fulfilled by key movies later in his career, while the over-exposure of one-time Christmas Number One “Mad World” – as covered by Gary Jules and score composer Michael Andrews – has done nothing to reduce its power in the film’s unforgettable final montage – still one of the great, creepy / haunting fade-outs of 21st century cinema.
DONNIE DARKO’s DVD releases often showcased a barrage of deleted scenes, one of which was rightly excised from any version (a glimpse of Donnie’s fatal impaling), and many of which showed up in the “Director’s Cut” release. That longer version has been given a beautiful HD spruce-up along with the theatrical, and it is worth a look, offering a greater narrative presence for “The Philosophy of Time Travel” excerpts and a clearer explanation of the narrative itself than was truly needed. The soundtrack is also reworked to suit Kelly’s original, budget-restricted intentions. The highlight of the extended version is, arguably, a beautifully played and touching sequence between Donnie and his dad (a stand-out turn from Holmes Osborne).
All the extras from the earlier editions show up on Arrow’s lavish rerelease, alongside a terrific new feature length documentary. This offers a treasure trove of trivia and insight, particularly for those without the time to listen to the commentaries. We learn of Kelly’s TWILIGHT ZONE inspiration (echoed again by his later movie THE BOX), the creation of the show-stopping Stedicam school montage set to Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” (originally conceived as one shot), and a look at the difficulty of selling the film in the wake of Columbine and, as luck would have it, 9/11. We also get a consideration of its cult revival via the success in the UK and the emergent popularity of the DVD format, all leading to an enduring presence in pop culture consolidated via a gag in THE SIMPSONS. And, incidentally, we bet you forgot a young Seth Rogen’s small but significant role in the movie.
Read the Gore in the Store interview with DONNIE DARKO director Richard Kelly by Paul Risker here