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.
IN CONVERSATION WITH Damien Leone
In our penultimate In Conversation article ahead of the UK premiere of TERRIFIER at the Horror Channel Frightfest Halloween event on Sat 23 Oct, Frightfest talks to director Damien Leone about the ’Art’ of extreme clowning, his debt to Tom Savini and a terrifying Halloween experience…
Art The Clown initially appeared in your 2008 short THE 9th CIRCLE, then the 2011 award-winning short TERRIFIER and in your first feature ALL HALLOW’S EVE. What made you decide to give him a fourth outing?
Up until this point I never felt like I fully showcased Art's potential. I believe between the short films and All Hallows' Eve, there only exists about 20 minutes of Art the Clown screen time. For a character who's done so little, he seems to really resonate with horror fans. After all of the positive feedback, a full length film that focused solely on Art was inevitable.·
Art has a very twisted personality – he’s both brutal (his silence adding to his deadliness) and comical but not without some subtle pathos. How difficult was it to strike that balance?
In all honesty, I never intended to evoke any sort of pathos from his character. I do find that interesting and maybe there is something to that but the brutality and twisted personality was always· intentional from the get-go as was the subtle comedy. Although I'm a huge fan of some horror comedies like Return of The Living Dead or Evil Dead 2, it's not a style I strive for in my own films. I always shoot for a more serious tone but ironically, the comedy in Terrifier was very organic and almost wrote itself. I should be clear and say the intentional comedy in Terrifier only comes from the Art the Clown character himself. He's always had a sick sense of humour from the very beginning but this time I tried to take it a little further whereas after every unspeakable act of violence he commits, he follows it with something comical like a facial expression or a quirky gesture. This does two things, it gives the audience a chance to relieve some tension but it also makes Art more demented when we realize just how much fun he's having at his victim's expense.
You’ve said that you set out to make Art as violent as possible. Why?
DAMIEN. This basically comes from the fact that I'm a special effects artist. I knew the effects would be one of our strong suits going into the film since I can do a lot on a very limited budget. There is so much content out there right now and I believe that if you want to stand out, it doesn't hurt to show things that will really grab the audience's attention and get them talking. It's 2017; there's been thousands of horror movies. I mean how many times can you show a knife cutting through the air followed by a shot of blood hitting the wall? Almost everything has been done to death (pun intended) so I feel I have a duty to the audience to present them with stuff that hasn't quite been seen before or if it has, to do it in a way that feels fresh.·
David Howard Thornton is terrific as Art. How did you two meet and bond? And how challenging was it, given Art had previously been played by Mike Giannelli.·
Finding a new actor to play Art was by far the most crucial and nerve-wracking aspect of this film. Everything people loved about Art was a testament to how Mike Giannelli portrayed him and now I had to start from scratch. Very frightening indeed. But as luck would have it, David came in for an audition one day and my producer and I immediately knew this was our guy. David pantomimed the act of stabbing someone to death and sawing their head off with great exuberance and glee. He's also extremely animated, tall and thin. I always envisioned Art to be of a more slender build and I was excited to see what little quirks and nuances David could bring to the character.· Working with David was a total delight from start to finish. We bonded immediately thanks to the countless hours in the makeup chair. Dave will joke and tell stories as I transform him into Art over the course of approximately three hours.· We had to repeat this process well over 20 times during the shoot.
The film has a very dark 70s/80s tone and the narrative is stripped down to the bone. What influences were at play here?
The main objective was to keep it as close to the 20 minute short film as possible. The short film was a no holds barred, relentless, 70s-style grind house flick that was made to feel like an intense rollercoaster ride. That's actually how I came up with the title Terrifier. To me "Terrifier" was more a reflection of the film as an experience and didn't necessarily have anything specific to do with the characters or story.· People responded so positively to the short film that I figured the best plan of attack would be to just make an 80 minute version of the 20 minute short. Essentially this would mean taking the best parts of a slasher film and eliminating as much of the filler as possible.
With all the attention given to IT and Pennywise, does this tempt you even further to establish Art as a franchise and make more TERRIFIER films?·
Absolutely. Although we finally gave Art his own movie, we've only just scratched the surface. Now we have to dig a little deeper into his backstory. He has a ton of potential and I can see needing at least a couple of· films to tell his full story. It's too premature to say but numerous people have said he has the making of a horror icon. If this continues to be the case once Terrifier is released, it would be downright disrespectful to the character and to the fans to not produce·more; just as long as we maintain some·integrity and never jump the shark.·
All your films are set on Halloween night. Are you a fan of Halloween? Do you have a favourite Halloween / clown story?
I am a huge fan of Halloween but the main reason I set Art the Clown's films on Halloween is so it's acceptable for a man to be walking the streets while dressed as a clown. This at least enables his victims to lower their guard around him when they first cross his path. If it was a hot August night and a mute clown sat across from you in a pizzeria, I think the cops would be called immediately. I do in fact have a personal Halloween story that stands out and I'll try to make it quick. One night a few friends and I were driving home from a Halloween party and we passed a car on the side of the road that was turned completely on its side against the guard rail.· We immediately pulled over and approached the vehicle. Two young women were inside the car. Apparently, the driver was drunk and fell asleep at the wheel. Thankfully, by some miracle, both girls were perfectly fine aside from being dazed and frightened but what makes this story worth telling is seeing my friend who's 6'4 leap on top of the turned over car in full Spider-Man attire and pull the young women to safety. Surreal moment indeed.·
Finally, what’s next?
There are a few awesome projects that I'd love to tackle but I think it would be foolish to sleep on the inevitable Terrifier sequel. Clowns are so hot right now because of IT and more and more people are starting to dig Art the Clown on a daily basis so I think we should strike while the iron's hot before the killer clown sub-genre goes into hibernation for another 20 years.·
TERRIFIER receives its UK premiere at Horror Channel FrightFest Halloween 2017 on Saturday 28 Oct, Empire Haymarket, 11.00pm. Tickets: http://frightfest.nutickets.com/