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 – HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME– ***
Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Starring Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Sharon Acker, Lesleh Donaldson, Tracey E. Bregman, Matt Craven, Lenore Zann. Horror, Canada, 110 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on Dual Format DVD/Blu-ray by Powerhouse Films on 12th December 2016.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is a Canadian slasher from 1981 that you may know about if you saw the excellent GOING TO PIECES: THE RISE & FALL OF THE SLASHER FILM slasher documentary from a few years back in which there was quite a sizeable chunk of time dedicated to it. This was mainly because the documentary was focusing on the slashers that came out in the wake of FRIDAY THE 13TH, and despite there being quite a number of gory holiday-inspired horrors from the time it is HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME that most evokes the murder mystery element of Sean S. Cunningham’s original Jason-free Camp Crystal Lake tale.
And like FRIDAY THE 13TH, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME begins with a murder but from the off we can see that the Italian giallo is also a prominent influence as we get a mysterious killer wearing dark gloves and stalking around the campus of the Crawford Academy. A group of students known as the Top Ten regularly frequent the local bar but one night Bernadette (Lesleh Donaldson) doesn’t make it as she falls foul of the killer lurking in the shadows - a killer known to her as she exclaims “It’s you!” before getting her throat slit with a straight razor – but the rest of the gang are fairly oblivious as they leave the bar and play their usual game of trying to jump the nearby bascule bridge before the gap is too big. After a seemingly confusing introduction to everybody it is here that the Top Ten splinters apart and we meet Virginia Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson), a timid teenager who lives in a big house with her rich father and is undergoing therapy after the death of her mother which she cannot quite remember as she has blocked the memory out. Virginia becomes the focus of the story as various members of the Top Ten start to disappear with no bodies ever being found, and as her birthday gets nearer Virginia starts to remember what happened to her mother, culminating in a birthday celebration that brings it all back to her in a truly twisted way.
Can’t reveal any more than that as HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is a film that is very easy to spoil due to the silly amount of SCOOBY-DOO endings it has, as just as you think you know where it is going another reveal is made and throws the whole thing into freefall. In some ways that is a good thing as you cannot say this film is formulaic despite some of the genre trappings it relishes in, but in other ways it is frustrating and unsatisfactory as the amount of twists means you have to really pay attention right up until the very end and even then it is quite hard to grasp who has done what to whom and why, and you’ll probably find yourself playing the final 10 minutes over and over again to try and make sense of it. It does make sense (sort of) eventually and by that time you’ve had so many “I’d have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you pesky kids…” moments that the sense of desperation on the part of the filmmakers to do something that FRIDAY THE 13TH didn’t do is almost palpable.
But that said HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME does do a few things differently to FRIDAY THE 13TH, most notably in the gore and nudity departments. The film is fairly light on blood with only a few tightly edited stabs and slices letting you know of any violence happening; most likely the work of the censors as this film did have to go through a few cuts to get a certificate but there are plenty of other slashers with more blood and guts on show that didn’t get butchered quite so heavily. As for any sex or nudity, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is devoid of both and although that isn’t a deal-breaker with most slasher movies it does make the scenes between kills a little less interesting as we’re spending time with supposedly promiscuous teens (most of whom clearly haven’t been teenagers for quite some time) who don’t seem to really do anything except go to the local bar. This kind of detail reflects the writing as a whole in that it just doesn’t feel authentic enough for the characters and the actors don’t really do that much to convince us of anything other than what is written for them in the dialogue, resulting in confused relationships – we’re never really quite sure who Rudi (David Eisner) is supposed to be dating as he just seems to randomly start kissing whoever he feels like but keeps his eye on Maggie (Lenore Zann), who also keeps staring back at him despite getting it on with other members of the group – and plot threads that don’t go anywhere, such as when Rudi takes Virginia to the bell tower in order to play a prank but the results of which are never made clear, even when the characters are talking to each other about it.
But what HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME does do well is look pretty damn good, especially now it has been given a Blu-ray transfer that makes the light colours vibrant and the darker colours deeper and offering a nice contrast. Melissa Sue Anderson is a great lead in the tradition of all the best final girls (but whether she is a final girl or not you’ll just have to watch) and most of the supporting cast all do fine with what they have to work with. All credit to the filmmakers for trying to tap into the mystery thriller element that the early slashers were built on and for the first hour or so it works but then something happens that changes the dynamic and what you thought was going to happen goes out of the window, which is good for keeping you guessing who the killer is (there is a very brief shot that telegraphs it early on but blink and you’ll miss it) but when a film like this clocks in at 110 minutes that leaves an awfully long time of trying to figure out what is going on, especially when they throw as many curveballs in that last 50 minutes as they do. Nevertheless, it’s a decent mid-tier slasher with a few neat ideas but also a lot of pointless ones that should have been trimmed out rather than the gore. Extras include an audio commentary courtesy of THE HYSTERIA CONTINUES podcast, alternate soundtrack and trailers, plus this being a Powerhouse Films release you also get a booklet featuring production details, interviews with director J. Lee Thompson, reviews and original press kit articles so it is a loaded package and one that slasher completists will want to own but as a film HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is enjoyable enough but doesn’t quite live up to its ambitions as a complex murder mystery.