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 - FEAR IN THE NIGHT ***
Directed by: Jimmy Sangster, Starring: Judy Geeson, Ralph Bates, Joan Collins, Peter Cushing. Horror, UK 1972, Cert 12.
Released on Doubleplay DVD/Blu-ray in the UK by Studiocanal on 30th October 2017.
"I'm going to find something that will mark her a little, and hurt her a lot."
Originally enlisted as the supporting half of a 1972 Hammer double-bill alongside STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING (accompanied by the lurid poster tagline: ‘Women in terror!’), Jimmy Sangster’s moderately effective little thriller has now been treated to a HD restoration.
The script, known under various guises, was originally conceived by Sangster back in 1963 before it finally saw the light of day (and fear in the night – ha!) with some alterations and a bit of spit and polish by co-writer Michael Syson. Recently married 22 year old Peggy (Judy Geeson) is still recovering from a nervous breakdown when she comes to live with her ‘schoolteacher’ husband Robert (Ralph Bates) in a cottage on the grounds of a remote boy’s school. Having already survived an attempted strangulation in her former bedsit at the (gloved) hands of an unseen assailant with a prosthetic arm, things don’t bode well for Peggy’s psychological recovery when the headmaster at the school, Michael Carmichael (Peter Cushing) just so happens to also have a prosthetic arm...
A relatively by the numbers rift on LES DIABOLIQUES (1955), director Sangster compensates for the minimalist script by wringing every last possible drop of atmosphere out of prowling through the deserted classrooms, dormitories and across the windswept school grounds after woman-in-terror Peggy.
Peter Cushing only appears in a couple of scenes, but he lends his customary consummate excellence in conveying the nuanced character of Carmichael, and his presence permeates throughout the film.
Ralph Bates struggles to convince in a role that requires a lot in order to sell the plot twists, but Joan Collins’ unblinking dispatch by rifle of a rabbit unsubtly sketches in her cold calculation as the wife of the headmaster.
There’s a strikingly effective use of school sound recordings which play at the flick of a switch and which rise to a shrieking cacophony during the film’s finale – mirroring the spiralling madness infecting the proceedings. The opening credit sequence cyclically foreshadows events to come, as does a scene in the gymnasium with a display of rope knots carefully framed behind headmaster Carmichael, and an unexpectedly open-ended conclusion helps negate the somewhat implausible and mechanical plotting preceding it, delivering if not quite fear in the night then certainly a shiver in the morning.
Extras: New 16min documentary and trailer