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 Lawrie Brewster
THE BLACK GLOVES not only finds director Lawrie Brewster crafting a film in the style of a 1940s or 1950s black and white films, but connects to his and screenwriter Sarah Daley’s own body of work, as a prequel to 2013’s LORD OF TEARS.
The film tells the terrifying story of a psychologist obsessed with the disappearance of his young patient, and the menacing owl-headed figure that plagued her nightmares. His investigations lead him to a reclusive ballerina who, just like his patient, is convinced that she is about to die at the hands of this disturbing entity. In the bleak Scottish highlands, Finn counsels his new patient, under the watchful eye of her sinister ballet teacher. He soon finds himself entangled in a pas-de-deux of paranoia, dark agendas and a maze of deadly twists and turns, as the legend of the Owlman becomes a terrifying reality.
In our final In Conversation interview ahead of the World Premiere of THE BLACK GLOVES, Brewster discussed the relationship between inspiration and practicality. He also reflected on the role of technology in shaping the cinematic aesthetic, romanticism as a tool for orchestrating a contrast of feeling, as well as the responsibilities of the filmmaker toward character and story.
A film inspired by the past, how do you look up on the nature of the inspiration for this film?
It was as much being inspired as looking at what you have available, where the skills and resources will drive you in that direction. Cinematically, it is a black and white film, and it is shot in the style inspired by 1940s and 1950s cinema, but we play against those expectations and we tried to be subversive with it. Films like THE RED SHOES, Alfred Hitchcock's REBECCA, and early gothic classics like THE INNOCENTS and THE HAUNTING, they all play roles, and it’s just how Truman Capote wrote about the innocence with the subversive subtext, these kinds of weird, sexual undercurrent themes. We thought it would be cool to explore these perverse and strange dynamics between characters subtlety, with measured tones, to see if that can come through rather than with excess.
Art has a way of capturing the contrast between darkness and light, reflecting in a stark and noticeable way the mix of emotions in life. THE BLACK GLOVES features moments of beauty that are layered with a disquieting sensibility. Why in your opinion is art so capable of viscerally capturing this contrast?
To capture that requires a certain style of direction and cinematography, and a certain style of writing. Sarah Daly, my collaborator on all of our films approached the subject in a similar way that I would, which was a romantic perspective. The romantic period of British cinema is normally acquainted with the 1960s and the early 1970s, with filmmakers like Ken Russell, who did films such as THE MUSIC LOVERS about Tchaikovsky. But in any case, with romanticism the idea that you could express emotion as well as the key elements, to be able to form almost a metaphorical sense, I think that's what you can achieve in the way that you are talking about. So even the most violent and horrific scene, if it is embodied with an emotion and it can then be visually represented, it can be horrific and at the same time beautiful. And that emotional resonance that you are trying to create, it can have a point to the story. In a way Sergio Leone always achieved that with his films, especially with Ennio Morricone’s scores, which are good examples of romantic cinema that could be unbelievably violent and brutal. His films consist as some of my favourites for that reason, and so in trying to achieve that, it’s really just standing on the shoulders of those greats before me, and learning from those filmmakers.
I have also been interested in classical music, and a lot of composers from the romantic period all went nuts, were all troubled individuals prone to sexual excess, who used violence. And yet they would create beautiful music, where they were effectively trying to exorcise their demons. So yeah, in terms of art, romantic depiction is probably at the core of what I and Sarah do. That puts us at a distance to what is more common at present, which is a very cool detached, secular, non-romantic depiction of things. That difference allows us to maybe reinvent other ideas and challenge the idea of cool detachment, cool observations, characters, not the feelings, but talking more about those things that relate to culture and politics.
How do you view the way in which technology has changed the cinematic aesthetic?
Well, in respects to the aesthetic of cinema and how technology has changed it, it's interesting because I only have a career in film because of the increased accessibility of technology. I'm from Fife in Scotland, which is working class country, so going about making black and white films in the valley is not likely. But yeah, I think the technology has always had a massive influence on the style. Now that we have the toys available to us, more and more filmmakers are able to reflect on having a range of options, not governed by the limits of the technology, but rather the availability of any kind of look more or less. Now in respects to me and cinema, the very first film I ever produced had an almost documentary style of cinematography, with a very mobile camera. Then you have films like THE KINDNESS OF RAVENS which were riffing off these kinds of folk horror, 1970s films, and then THE BLACK GLOVES is more classical and very controlled, where everything is on tracks. I would say that what attracts me personally to the older style is that it is just because I haven’t had a chance to do it. There is an elegance with not just the past, and as a creative you don't really want to replicate the past, but when you see that there’s a different narrative and cultural focus in the movies back then, it’s interesting to bring that back and explore it by combining it with modern themes. So for example we were watching lots of film noir, researching films like SUNSET BOULEVARD for example, where every line of dialogue was really witty. And CASABLANCA. The idea of a dialogue driven by reaction and counter-reaction, and we've seen perhaps the more theatrical, but we thought lets just place the focus on the writing. If you notice, a lot of modern cinema including comedies especially, improvisation is everything. The focus on writing has diminished and it’s the idea of just creating magic for the camera randomly, and as an editor the idea of spending more time finding the goals is a modern one. All good films start with good writing. So anyway, the cinematic periods that did focus on writing then held a special resonance with us. But the cultural mores of the time were different, especially in relation to gender and politics. So it was interesting to take a film with those styles and those priorities with writing, and combine them with talking points of today, because every film should have an intellectual curiosity about it. That is, it is looking to explore a question and an answer, even a horror film. When a horror film is taking you on an intellectual journey, not preaching at you, but okay, lets have a look at what happens with say role and gender reversals, which are big themes at the moment with feminism in particular. So we thought lets explore, and we will not preach at the audience because they are smart enough, but lets explore something together as well as creating really freaky shit.
Speaking with Carol Morley for·The Falling, she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
Sure, I mean the thing is we produced this art, and whether it's art is something the audience needs to tell me [laughs]. But when folks watch horror films, they take their own version of the film, they personalise it and so in a way it is their film. So for example as a filmmaker, I have a deep appreciation for the sensitivity of what all these characters or films feel, and especially the antagonists, because in the horror genre the character of the antagonist is an important one. These are characters that we cherish from earlier iterations, and I feel when you do have a good story or a good character, if it is proven popular with the audience, then in many respects you are a custodian of that emotional investment they have played in your story. And that is something that should be protected and cultivated, and treated responsibly. So I would never kill off all the lead characters in the first two minutes like in ALIEN 3. I remember the thirteen year old version of myself being quite upset.·
Interviewing filmmaker·Christoph Behl, he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
I imagine the experience is different for everyone, but for me it is the experience of post production that changes me. For low budget filmmaking, which basically we are, I and some of my colleagues come from a post production background, and so we often try to save costs by doing the post production ourselves. When you do a film it’s actually the process of what you don’t like doing that shapes you the most, because these are the things you try to omit from the next experience. So that’s for me.
Each film will drain your energy and enthusiasm for one aspect of your filmmaking, by either allowing you to omit that part from the next production or attempting it, and then you become enthused and re-energised for what you do next. There’s no denying it, filmmaking is a really hard slog, and it takes a kind of mad zeal to persist. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, but the most fun thing I've found with filmmaking is being on site shooting and directing. Most of my job as a producer, I'll be travelling around rattling my tin trying to get money to make a film, or doing crowdfunding campaigns, which I enjoy because it’s something to interact with. Every filmmaker has a schizophrenic relationship with film, and I'll re-iterate that being a producer, my relationship to film is quite different to most other filmmakers, who will be pursuing careers as directors. So if you imagine for the normal careerist director, they have to tout themselves to get employed, and that’s a very different power dynamic to what I'll do as a producer, trying to get money for the films I direct. I would find that a million times harder.
THE BLACK GLOVES receives its World Premiere at Horror Channel FrightFest Halloween 2017 on Saturday 28 Oct, Empire Haymarket, 2.25pm. Tickets:·http://frightfest.nutickets.com/