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.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
BOOK REVIEW – FRIGHTMARES: A HISTORY OF BRITISH HORROR CINEMA – *****
Written by Ian Cooper. 208pp. RRP £18.99
Out now from Auteur Press
Having contributed a beguiling study of WITCHFINDER GENERAL to Auteur’s acclaimed “Devil’s Advocates” series of horror cinema monographs, Ian Cooper now offers a witty, affectionate yet highly perceptive whistle-stop tour of Britain’s genre legacy. Circumventing vastly over-analysed fare like THE WICKER MAN (though not muting their enduring influence), Cooper vividly captures the evolution of the British horror film via often underrated features from different decades, arguing that the UK genre scene has long revealed more about the national psyche than more respected art films, and highlighting the repeated convergence of high and low culture within the form.
It opens with a reminder that the impact and outrage provoked by the 18th century Gothic novel and the Penny Dreadfuls pre-empted many eerily similar domestic moral panics to come, noting the recurring fear from self-imposed moral guardians of the effects such lurid entertainments would have on their audience - with “audience” so often defined as young, working class men. A fascinating trawl through Ripperology conveys a contemporary Daily Telegraph letter linking a stage performance of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” to the Jack the Ripper murders.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about FRIGHTMARES is the attention and respect it gives to often sidelined elements of British horror, reflecting Cooper’s overall perception that British genre cinema has only truly enjoyed significant appreciation in the last decade or so, having previously been inextricably entwined with Hammer. Cooper re-evaluates the Tod Slaughter oeuvre, finding the features significantly more cinematic than usually acknowledged, and positioning Slaughter’s often derided work as a critical bridge between the Victorian music hall and British horror cinema.
He conveys Slaughter’s influence on Hammer, but also highlights the significance of the UK’s response to the (copyrighted) classical monsters of Hollywood: pandering to a fascination with more grounded psycho killers that would prove a mainstay in the UK horror scene. Cooper also finds real horror in overlooked 30’s “thrillers” like THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT - smuggling lurid plot points into a more respectable format - and even the Will Hay comedy MY LEARNED FRIEND, These movies were notably adorned with the mischievous gallows humour that would come to dominate the genre from Hitchcock to Pete Walker.
The book dispels popular misconceptions (the late 30’s “horror ban” by the BBFC for example), highlights the pervasive Germanic influence on keynote, very British films like DEAD OF NIGHT and offers an overdue appraisal of the Amicus anthologies, noting their playful sense of self-awareness, long before the so-called post-modern horror bandwagon. The author finds their deceptively light, largely bloodless house style conceals a cruel streak a mile wide, represented via stand-out episodes like the Pinter-esque “An Act of Kindness” within the long-underrated FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE.
As the study moves into the 70’s, Cooper’s contextual analysis of stand-out films is consistently engaging, placing the playful Phibes-era Vincent Price movies in the pantheon of Slaughter’s barnstorming ham (while looking forward to the murder-as-art set-piece-driven viscera of the far gloomier SE7EN and SAW), while noting the seldom acknowledged influence of Don Siegel on more eclectic fare like THE SORERERS and SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN. Gary Sherman’s incredible DEATHLINE is rightly celebrated as one of Brit horror’s greatest achievements, with Hugh Armstrong’s pitiful, subterranean “Man” representing a 70’s urban reworking of the “beauty and the beast” story tropes of KING KONG, while the usually dismissed HORROR HOSPITAL is lauded for being genuinely disturbing despite having the appearance of a spoof and the presence of Robin Askwith.
Cooper has an often disarming turn of phrase, referring to BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW pithily as “a Victorian bad trip into orgiastic Manson-style cults”, while distilling the overwhelmingly disappointing CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR in terms of “a very fetching Barbara Steele painted green and wearing a ram-horn hat”. Hammer are, of course, given due praise and attention, though Cooper refreshingly devotes space to admiring the elegiac qualities of the once-derided FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL and the long-despised DRACULA A.D. Putting his realist hat on, he also convincingly tracks the studio’s inevitable demise due to their unwillingness to veer outside their in-house talent rather than follow their rivals’ use of aggressively talented up and coming filmmakers- noting the marvellous yet old fashioned THE DEVIL RIDES OUT emerged the same year as the very modern ROSEMARY’S BABY.
Pre-empting Cooper’s upcoming full-length study of FRENZY, the book marks Hitchcock as a keen lynch-pin of British horror with a particular enthusiasm, come the 70’s, to keep up with the taboo-busting younger filmmakers in terms of explicit, ugly violence - the likes of which escalated by the time Pete Walker delivered his own cycle of establishment-baiting, pre-punk nihilistic shockers. (With Cooper viewing Sheila Keith in these films as a latter-day, distaff Tod Slaughter).
Cooper’s admirably non-snobbish approach allows for thoughtful, appreciative study of the often vilified Andy Milligan and the underrated Jose Ramon Larraz in the same “Bloody Foreigners” chapter that discusses the British horrors of Polanski. While documenting the “slow, painful birth of the new wave of domestic chillers in the 21st century (bringing things up to date with crucial “magpie” directorial talent like Ben Wheatley and Neil Marshall), Cooper also considers valid points on both sides of the debate over James Watkins’ incendiary EDEN LAKE, noting its lineage (STRAW DOGS, DELIVERANCE, etc) and offering a concise critique of the vastly over-used (and nonsensical) “torture porn” tag.
Eminently readable and flab-free at under 200 pages, FRIGHTMARES is among the most enjoyable studies of Brit horror to date, avoiding the pitfalls of rehashing endlessly retold anecdotes and trivia, and while spotlighting strong unsung films and finding fresh takes on the old familiars. A few forgiveable errors surface (the citing of “Sean of the Dead”, the reference to Roland Joffe’s CAPTIVITY as “Captive”), but it seems churlish to complain about such an enthusiastic and smart study of an expansive and fascinating subject.