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 – ERIK THE CONQUEROR ****
Directed by Mario Bava. Starring Cameron Mitchell, Giorgio Ardisson, Alice Kessler, Ellen Kessler, Andrea Cecchi. Italy/France, Action, 91 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on BluRay by Arrow on the 28th August, 2017.
There are a lot of movies from half a century ago that seem to be pretty much forgotten these days, if they were ever known in the first place, and it's a real pity because some of them put today's sleek CG-laden offerings to serious shame. Arrow's latest foray into the Mario Bava vaults has yielded not a horror or a science fiction film (I'm still hoping PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES turns up at some point) but a romping, rousing Viking adventure with battles and sieges and traitors and long-lost brothers and identical twin vestal virgins. And it's more thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining than many current releases.
Made in 1961, released in 1963, and also known as FURY OF THE VIKINGS (and, originally, GLI INVASORI),·ERIK THE CONQUEROR·is basically a Saturday matinee piece of sword-wielding hokum. It starts in AD 786 when a peaceable Viking trade mission ends in a massacre on the Dorset coast by the boo-hiss evil Sir Rutford that leaves both kings dead - and the Viking chieftain's young sons separated, with one making it back home but the other found in the carnage and adopted by the British Queen. Twenty years later, Viking warrior Eron (Cameron Mitchell!) is assigned to lead the latest invasion attempt; meanwhile his long-lost brother Erik (George/Giorgio Ardisson) is in charge of Britain's navy. And the treacherous Sir Rutford is still plotting to take the British throne for himself...
On a ropey B-movie level, ERIK THE CONQUEROR·is perfectly adequate. It's violent enough to earn a 15 certificate (though strangely the BBFC's site claims it was originally given a U in a cut version for the UK cinema release), and it doesn't waste a second. The trump card, of course, is Mario Bava himself who, acting as his own cinematographer, has made the film look absolutely wonderful. This is a riot of bold primary colours, with rich greens and reds and blues, gorgeously lit in a way that sometimes looks almost theatrical; and as with the best of Dario Argento you're so seduced by the look of the film that you never start wondering where that green light is actually coming from. Even the most overtly horror sequence (involving a tarantula) looks magnificent. There’s even a dance number! Bava knew how to put those lights and colours together brilliantly and on that level of gloriously vibrant pulp I really couldn't have enjoyed it more.
Extra-wise, the most interesting this time out are a 12-minute comparison of ERIK THE CONQUEROR with Richard Fleischer's 1958 bigger and most expensive epic THE VIKINGS, with which Erik has some plot similarities (and it's made me want to see THE VIKINGS again), and a 61-minute audio interview from 1998 with Cameron Mitchell, primarily about his work with Bava. There is also the choice to watch the film in subtitled Italian or English: I went for the former and to my ear the audio sounds better on it. For Bava connoisseurs and newcomers alike, it's a ravishing treat.