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 – DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING *****
Released on Blu-Ray by Arrow Video on September 11th 2017
In the modest, mountainous town of Accendura in Southern Italy, we follow the rites of passage of a group of adolescent boys while aware of the series of child murders that have rocked the community. Co-writer / director Lucio Fulci, fresh from the trippy horrors of LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN (1971) was never afraid to explicitly link children with horror, violent threat and sexuality, and here flirts fearlessly with taboos at an early stage of the film. One of the impressionable boys, taking a break from smoking with his mates and spying on outsiders, is taunted and teased by the alluring “lady of the house” (Barbara Bouchet, a former drug addict from a wealthy family) who lounges around his home naked and has a potent impact on local males of all ages. The vignettes punctuating the first half hour of the film are alternatively amusing and discomforting, but are overwhelmed by the escalating sense of impending doom for these likeable kids, as the police manhunt grows, parents are asked for wildly unrealistic ransoms and more murders occur.
This being a keynote film in the history of the giallo, there are plentiful suspects, including the resident peeping Tom / village idiot (Vito Passeri), who is arrested despite being clearly incapable of such crimes. Bouchet’s unbalanced siren wears her lack of morals on her sleeve (not that she often has sleeves), while Marc Porel impresses as a handsome young priest who’s a really good centre forward but regularly laments the sensationalistic nature of the modern world. Florinda Balkan – also in LIZARD and en-route to the marvellous title role of FLAVIA THE HERETIC – is the local witch introduced as a sinister, child-threatening figure feared and vilified by the locals and apparently engaged in voodoo rituals. Visiting Milan journalist Tomas Milian joins forces with Bouchet to play amateur detective, unravelling a mystery involving a headless Donald Duck toy (a subtle precursor to the duck-imitating killer in Fulci’s NEW YORK RIPPER) and a deaf / dumb six year old girl.
This deservedly-beloved early movie from a future agent provocateur crafts a haunting vision of a community under siege from its own enduring internal prejudices and diseased mindsets. It’s a rare hard-edged giallo that shows restraint in between memorable shock moments, while having an emotional impact few of its contemporaries achieved. The sight of Passeri’s desperate simpleton sobbing as he is accused of the killings is succeeded by the uncovering of a child’s body, the emphasis placed on his father’s tortured face. Fulci doesn’t flinch from stark images of submerged, open-mouthed juvenile corpses, and superbly captures the small-town mentality as false rumours spread of the murdered boys having been sexually assaulted and ill-informed lynch mobs swiftly form. Parents sit around idly watching violent westerns on TV, oblivious to the fact that their child has snuck out of the house at a time of prevailing threat and paranoia.
It is one of Fulci’s best-paced movies – nothing feels extraneous, and the use of Riz Ortolani’s score is smart and powerful : his beautiful melodies offering a stark counterpoint to the on-screen horrors. The script is suitably cynical (“Around here, witches…they’re all hand-in-glove with religion…” bemoans an inspector) and displays a fondness for gallows humour: “Let’s get ready for another nice funeral with a choir”. Although several years away from his splatter heyday, Fulci reveals his cruel streak in scenes that have lost none of their power, notably the use of subjective camerawork enabling us to experience the throttling of a child first hand. The overall impact is heightened by Sergio D’Offizi’s beautiful widescreen deep-focus cinematography, with most of the movie (and all of its most disturbing scenes) cannily unfolding against the idyllic, sunlit rural backdrop.
One such sequence remains the most distressing of all the director’s many explicit scenes of physical mutilation. Florinda Balkin, in an extraordinary performance transitioning from feral and feared to tragic victim, is cornered by the patriarchs of the town’s dead children. Prefiguring the more gloatingly grisly prologue of Fulci’s Gothic horror masterpiece THE BEYOND, she is chain-whipped in uncomfortable detail, the camera lingering on open flesh wounds, though it is the emphasis on her lingering, painful death that proves most upsetting. As the soundtrack segues from a cheery 50’s American rock song into an Italian ballad, Balkan crawls away from the scene of the crime, her desperate pleas for help ignored by the families cheerfully passing past what will become the site of her death. When she is discovered by the authorities, someone notes accurately and bleakly: “We construct gleaming highways but we’re still a long way from modernising…” (or in the dubbed version, “We can build highways but we can’t overcome ignorance and superstition”). It might be the only death scene in a Fulci movie that truly feels like a major loss.
Still utterly riveting and shocking after all these years, DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING isn’t averse to familiar tropes, but wears them well, from a violent confrontation in a melodramatic thunderstorm to a highly suspenseful cliff-top finale unveiling one of the giallo’s most disturbing killers. The hotly anticipated new HD incarnation of the film for home viewing does highlight Fulci’s misjudgement in over-exposing a sub-par gore effect in the climactic scene, but this never looked convincing even in the VHS days. It’s also the only weak link in a modern classic that serves as a welcome reminder of what a fine filmmaker Mr Fulci was.
Arrow’s release offers a vast selection of extras, from Troy Howarth’s commentary to a couple of video essays, including Mikel J Koven’s “Giallo A La Campagne”, putting the film in the context of the giallo’s history, the Italian economy and the changing face of domestic film exhibition. Kat Ellinger’s “Hell Is Already In Us” subverts the standard misogyny charges aimed at Fulci, celebrates the “gloriously primal” performance of Balkan and illustrates her arguments with vivid clips from THE NEW YORK RIPPER, LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN and Fulci’s rarely discussed THE PERVERSION STORY.
You also get substantial interviews with the cinematographer, editor and make-up artist, though the 28 minute chat with Florinda Balkan is the highlight of the bonus goodies. Funny and charming as she reflects on Lucio’s peculiarities, Balkan undermines the long-held perception of the director as an intimidating screamer. The climax of the piece involves the actress watching, for the first time, her death scene in DUCKLING, and it is a uniquely poignant experience watching her (predictably disturbed and emotional) reaction to watching the demise of a character she portrayed 45 years earlier.