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 – GUVYER– ***
Directed by Screaming Mad George, Steve Wang. Starring Mark Hamill, Jack Armstrong, David Gale, Spice Williams, Jimmie Walker, Peter Spellos, Michael Berryman, Jeffrey Combs, Vivian Wu. USA / Japan 1991 92 mins Certificate: 12
Out on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow Video December 19th 2016
As with so many of the 80’s genre movies lavished with 21st century home entertainment luxuries (Slipcovers, HD transfers, extra features, no need to adjust the tracking every five minutes), your enthusiasm for GUVYER will hinge significantly on how it rates in your own personal “Nostalgia-ometer”. Perhaps it was the UK video release under the peculiar name of MUTRONICS THE MOVIE that nudged this low-budget Americanised Manga into your psyche, somewhere around the time that the Brits got characteristically pathetic about the association of the word “Ninja” with a certain bunch of heroes-in-a-half-shell. Or maybe you followed, in a dedicated VHS-era fanboy fashion, the career paths of stand-out, Japanese-born make-up FX surrealist Screaming Mad George (here in his only feature film directing gig) and RE-ANIMATOR producer Brian Yuzna. There’s (sadly) a chance that you weren’t even a foetus in the early 90’s and will find this as excruciating as all of us always found the rapping of Jimmie Walker. With lyrics like “I want that Guyvin’ jiving thing”, even the most pacifist viewers will wish him a gruelling spine-ripping death, though this was the era of The Fat Boys, so we had already experienced worse.
Whatever your take, it’s an impossible movie to hate, and, if Arrow Video are sprucing up seldom loved titles like MICROWAVE MASSACRE and SATAN’S BLADE, then this campy, busy monster-fest certainly deserves to be out there for devotees and newcomers alike. It opens with a STAR WARS-style exposition crawl, as if to ensure we have noticed that MARK HAMILL plays a key character. We learn that aliens were responsible for creating mankind as the “ultimate organic weapon” and ultimately inserted a particular gene into man that turned them into mutant, shape-shifting soldiers known as “Zoanoids”. The nefarious leader of the Zoanoids in the modern day is hell-bent on world domination, and is on a mission to recover a mechanical device capable of merging with the human body, turning the wearer into the super-powerful “Guvyer”. Hunky Aikido-practising UCLA hunk Jack Armstrong gets hold of it, the evil “Chronos Corporation” are on his tail, and MARK HAMILL is a CIA agent embroiled in the whole business.
Co-directors Wang and Screaming Mad George, coming off the back of a decade full of rubbery, chatty monsters and corporate villains, have a lot of fun with the set-up. There’s a bravura, rousing theme for the “Guvyer” himself and a splendid succession of monster suits and old-school practical FX. Appropriately comic book-style screen wipes punctuate the brisk action, and some of the actors are genuinely in the spirit of the thing. Genre legend Michael Berryman (well cast and gurning enthusiastically) has a great pre-titles sequence wearing the greatest cinematic coat of the 90’s before transforming into a creature that looks like the results of the Predator impregnating a Gremlin and winning Mick Jagger’s lips in a surreal flesh-raffle. RE-ANIMATOR’s wonderful David Gale (“What is this? Some sort of masochistic joke?”) is again a scene-stealing villain, and it’s a travesty that his premature death cut short what should have been a long running latter-day career as a latter day Vincent Price. In another nod to RE-ANIMATOR, his co-star Jeffrey Combs shows up all wide-eyed and geeky as the knowingly named “Dr East”.
Not everything about GUVYER is so enjoyable, however. There are wooden, painfully dull efforts to develop a sincere romance between Armstrong and the distressingly banal Vivian Wu. Some of the nudge-nudge in-jokes fall flat: in one goofy interlude, the mutant-fighting gate-crashes a film set, where Linnea Quigley shows up in a scanty outfit screaming, just so the target demographic can tick the “Gratuitous Cameo” box on the “Knowing B-Movie” check-list. The monster-battles are frequent but repetitive, meaning that even the magnificent sight of MARK HAMILL transforming into a giant bug during the climax doesn’t quite receive the rapturous enthusiasm it might otherwise have generated.
Nonetheless, there’s enough commendable design work and deadpan hammy dialogue (“You can’t kill me! I’ve been rejected by death!”), plus a relentless eagerness to please to make GUVYER an enduringly pleasant throwback. And, of course, Gale’s cadaverous antagonist also predicted the world’s current state of pre-apocalypse during the sequence in which he ponders aloud:
“Can you imagine these lovely creatures in the White House…?”