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.
DVD REVIEW – MADHOUSE ***
Directed by Ovidio Assonitis . Starring Trish Everly, Michael MacRae, Dennis Robertson. Horror, Italy/US, 92 Minutes. Cert. 18.
Released in the UK by Arrow Video on the 12th June
The influence of John Carpenter’s 1978 seminal horror classic HALLOWEEN stretches far and wide. Almost every slasher film since has drawn upon the DNA that Carpenter created, from the overt likes of FRIDAY THE 13TH to more recent postmodern offerings such as SCREAM via video nasties such as THE DRILLER KILLER and PIECES. In that ilk comes MADHOUSE, Ovidio Assonitis’s 1981’video nasty’ that is now released on duel format DVD and Blu-Ray.
The plot feels at the start like a direct lift from HALLOWEEN as a knife-wielding young girl named Mary (Allison Biggers) escapes from a mental hospital with a desire to kill her twin sister Julia (Trish Everly) on a particular night of the year – namely, their birthday.
The film opens with a rocking-chair while some nursery-rhyme inspired music plays over the top. It’s effective and chilling, before the music switches and dated effects demonstrate a brutal attack. This in many ways sets the tone for the film as a whole – at times it is very unsettling and at others, extremely over the top and melodramatic.
The scenes in which characters are in potential peril are when the film works very well – flickering lights, blank phone calls and eerie basements are all used to full effect. Yet equally certain scenes are so over the top they border on laughable, even if the amount of crimson spilt is surprisingly restrained considering the films reputation.
It leads one to the conclusion that the Assonitis wasn’t too sure on what type of film he wanted to make – an out and out slasher or a more surreal, humane horror/drama. One characters particular death is extremely understated and is followed up with a scene of sadness and remorse for the victim’s friends that is oddly touching.
Structurally the film does take some unexpected turns that lead it away from the standard slasher flick, with the final climactic scene being a bizarre, surreal birthday party that veers away from the heroine being stalked that we’ve become used to.
How you take this film will perhaps reside with how comfortable you are with the tonal mixture. It’s not quite an out and out slasher film but its structure is similar, it’s not full on giallo but has its moments of gore and it’s too far-fetched to be a fully-effective character piece. Yet all these elements are present and it makes for something that die-hard horror fans should at least be able to take something from.