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 - KILLER DAMES - ****
Directed by Emilio P Miraglia. Starring Anthony Steffen, Marina Malfatti, Barbara Bouchet, Rudolf Schundler, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Erika Blanc, Sybil Danning.Italy 1971 / 1972 202 minutes (combined). Certificate: 18
Out May 23rd from Arrow Video.
Italian filmmaker Emilio P Miraglia made a mere six films as director, and only two in the horror / giallo vein, but when the two in question are THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE and THE RED QUEEN KILLS SEVEN TIMES, few fans of the form have been known to complain. Previously packaged as an enticing DVD duo by the late, lamented No Shame – with a marvellous, multi-purpose, wipe-clean figurine of “The Red Queen” in accompaniment – the deadly double are now reunited and spruced up for a handsome Arrow Video Blu-ray set.
THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE (1971) revolves around mad Lord Anthony Steffen who, haunted by the demise of his unfaithful wife Evelyn, lures unsuspecting redheads (usually hookers and strippers) to his gothic castle-home, where he proceeds to tie them down and threaten them with red hot branding irons. He is, naturally, careful to tug at their hair to ensure no wigs are involved. We learn that Steffen is fresh from a psychiatric clinic while odd brother in law (Roberto Maldera) lurks shiftily around the castle, still blaming him for Evelyn’s death in childbirth. Taking the advice of his friend (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), Steffen hastily remarries (to Marina Malfatti) but a gloved murderer is on the loose, Evelyn’s slight case of death is questioned and, of course, Everyone’s A Suspect!
This memorably (if misleadingly) titled giallo proffers familiar genre tropes (much female nudity, surrealistic flights of fancy, red herrings galore) but stands out from the crowd thanks to gorgeous visuals, a beautiful Bruno Nicolai score and an assortment of vividly atmospheric Gothic trappings. Miraglia favours offbeat, dream-like imagery, with beguiling side-lines like the identical, blonde maids or the killer’s eccentric tendency to gruesomely employ poisonous snakes and caged foxes as proficient means of despatching his / her targeted victims.
If the twisting narrative boils down to yet another riff on the evergreen DIABOLIQUE (a plot between two people to tip an unbalanced individual over the edge), the execution is richly Gothic, with dusty cobwebbed crypts, thunderstorms, corpses that vanish from their tombs, creaking coffin lids and even an apparently rotted cadaver sitting up in its coffin. It’s all a vast amount of barmy fun, capped by a barnstorming, twist-laden, acid-enhanced finale.
A different Evelyn is depicted in childhood flashbacks at the outset of the superior THE RED QUEEN KILLS SEVEN TIMES, bonding in a sisterly fashion with sibling Kitty. Even at this formative stage, however, Evelyn shows an unhealthy fondness for claiming to be “The Red Queen” while repeatedly stabbing and decapitating her doll, apparently influenced by a painting in their Grandfather’s house depicting “The Red Queen” and “The Black Queen”. Legend has it that they were two feuding sisters who lived in a castle: The Black Queen killed her sister, and the Red Queen allegedly rose from the grave to avenge her death, something she continues to do every 100 years. In the present day, Kitty (Barbara Bouchet) has repressed the premature death of Evelyn and mourns her Grandfather’s passing, while those linked to the lush family estate are murdered by a crazy-laughed, black-haired, red-cloaked figure.
Red herrings abound in the giallo tradition in between beautiful executions and an abundance of infidelities, hookers, sexual perversions, messages from the “dead” and institutionalised wives. It’s a livelier, grislier movie than the fine THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME FROM THE CRAVE, with Miraglia sustaining a brisk pace and relishing the suspenseful, gruesome death scenes. The most striking aspect of the movie, fittingly, is the Red Queen herself, one of the giallo genre’s most startling killers – a figure with a shrill laugh who is prone to dramatically sprinting down long corridors in his / her flowing red cloak. The movie climaxes in fine style with a dungeon-set finale featuring familial revelations amidst a backdrop of surviving characters stabbing / shooting each other and lots and lots of rats.
THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE has long suffered from ropey representation in budget horror DVD collections, and both it and THE RED QUEEN KILLS SEVEN TIMES have lacked a UK DVD showcase of any kind so far. Arrow Video’s luscious box-set comes complete with a 60 page booklet and appropriately psychedelic packaging design. This edition also represents the films’ worldwide Blu-ray debut, and the prints finally restore the visual lustre of the movies. Extras are plentiful, from Stephen Thrower throwing in his informative two cents and new on-camera interviews with starlets Erika Blanc and Sybil Danning. (The archival extras from the No Shame release are carried over for completism). The most engaging of the special features turn out to be the commentary tracks. Giallo expert Troy Howarth is ingratiating on the EVELYN track, while Kim Newman and Alan Jones are reliably hilarious on the RED QUEEN chat-a-thon. Newman reflects on how the Red Queen could have been a franchise character had she popped up in an 80’s American slasher movie as the antagonist, while both offer a contextual analysis of the film’s place in the giallo genre as a whole. Even more notable are the fashion observations (“That’s pop art gone crazy!”) and the mutual lament that Miraglia’s representation of German prostitution closely resembles a truck driver in drag.