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
BLU-RAY review - GHOULIES - ****
Directed by Luca Bercovici. Starring Lisa Pelikan, Peter Liapis, Michael Des Barres, Jack Nance, Peter Risch, Tamara De Treaux, Scott Thomson. Horror/Comedy, USA, 81 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray by 101 Films on 11th April 2016.
Often labelled as a GREMLINS rip-off, despite the fact that both films were in production at the same time, GHOULIES is one of those fondly-remembered gems from the VHS era that usually gets a response of “Oh, I love GHOULIES” whenever you mention it to anyone old enough to have enjoyed its charms the first time round. But now that 101 Films have put it out on Blu-ray, does it still illicit the same response?
25 years after his cult leader father tried to sacrifice him to Lucifer, Jonathan Graves (Peter Liapis) moves back into the family mansion with his girlfriend Rebecca (Lisa Pelikan), safe in the knowledge that his father Malcolm (Michael Des Barres) is dead and buried in the grounds. Jonathan finds old papa Graves’ stash of occult books and spells, along with his cloak and staff, and starts getting obsessed with his father’s work, managing to conjure up a collection of tiny creatures ready to do his bidding.
Things take a turn when Jonathan drops out of college and begins spending all of his time in the basement casting spells, forcing Lisa to pack up and leave. However, she does return but Jonathan puts her under a spell and invites his friends over for a party – or a black mass, because he needs seven people for his next spell – during which he unwittingly resurrects the corpse of his father, who isn’t best pleased about this new arrangement and sets about killing off the group and finishing what he started 25 years before.
So does GHOULIES still stand up? Oh yes, although if you didn’t catch it back in the day then the nostalgic factor won’t be there and it will probably just come across as dumb. And it is dumb, but it’s fun and entertaining which counts for a lot, especially when you break it down and consider that the acting is pretty atrocious, the script is workable at best and it features two dwarves that serve no real purpose other than to provide a visual one-on-top-of –the-other-in-a-long-overcoat gag.
The worst culprit is Peter Liapis, then in his mid-30s and playing a 25 year-old college student (side note – RE-ANIMATOR’s Jeffrey Combs auditioned for this role. Just leave that thought there…) and he is terrible. Flat, boring and looking a bit like Eric Roberts - don’t know if that’s good or bad – he cannot carry this film at all and it is left to the much more competent Lisa Pelikan to invest in as a force for good, although once she falls under Jonathan’s spell at the black mass she has very little to do. The standout, however, does not go to special effects maestro John Carl Buechler’s titular creatures but to the wonderful Michael Des Barres who camps things up like a villain from the 1960s BATMAN TV series, marching around with his arms crossed like a militant wizard in a holiday camp dance troupe and spouting all sorts of over-emphasised statements of intent. He isn’t in the film as much as you would like but after the opening sacrifice scene his presence is felt throughout t – helped along by the camera constantly looming over his grave – and when he reappears for the final battle, which is both nonsensical and hilariously brilliant, you cannot help but be gripped by his poor man’s Sting persona.
GHOULIES is a difficult film to sell to somebody not prepared to put up with ‘80s camp and the kind of low-rent horror/fantasy movies that producer Charles Band is known for. But given the right surroundings, like a film festival in a room full of like-minded fans of trash, then GHOULIES is pretty much perfect fodder for some audience participation and an appreciation of a time when these things were made with passion rather than ability. It’ll never stand up to the big boys of horror cinema but if the likes of silly creature features like TROLL, CRITTERS and PUPPET MASTER are your thing then GHOULIES is up there with the best of them and now looking better than ever.