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 – MULHOLLAND DR. ***
Directed by David Lynch. Starring Naomi Watts, Laura Ellen Harring, Justin Theroux, Ann Miller. UAS/France, Horror/Drama/Thriller, 140 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on BluRay, DVD and Electronic Sell-Through by StudioCanal on the 22nd May, 2017.
In a BBC Culture poll of critics last year, David Lynch's MULHOLLAND DRIVE was voted the greatest film of the 21st century, incredibly beating the likes of PAN'S LABYRINTH, ZODIAC and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. (For the record, Jason Statham's DEATH RACE remake didn't even place.) That's the level at which it's revered: it's the most highly rated of Lynch's feature films on the IMDb, a co-winner for Best Director at Cannes, Oscar-nominated for Best Director... Granted that a lot of awards have been won over the years by absolute tat, is it really that much of a masterpiece?
Just as SUNSET BOULEVARD is actually SUNSET BLVD., so MULHOLLAND DRIVE is actually MULHOLLAND DR., as seen on a road sign under Angelo Badalamenti's sinister, typically Lynchian title music while a black limousine twists through the Hollywood Hills. It's involved in a spectacular accident leaving only one survivor: an amnesiac (Laura Ellen Harring) who takes the name Rita off an old poster for GILDA and holes up in an empty apartment. The new tenant, newly-arrived aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts) turns up and the two women try and work out who she really is.... Well, that may be how it starts, but at some point reality breaks down completely, with most of the events of the previous two hours completely abandoned and Watts and Harring as playing entirely different people. Or are they? What really happened? How much of it is fantasy, hallucination, dreamscape?
Even the people who love it don't claim to fully understand it (that's one of the reasons they love it) and it's apparently one of those movies you have to rewatch numerous times to get to grips with. I've never been a fan of obscurity for its own sake, and the apparent lack of resolution annoyed me when I first saw the film (in Denver, Colorado) and to be honest it still annoys me. But this is a David Lynch film so there are any number of agreeably weird byways to explore: a pair of creepy mobsters (Dan Hedaya and composer Angelo Badalamenti) apparently under orders from a silent, wheelchair-bound man in an windowless room, a cuckolded film director (Justin Theroux) forced to cast an actress he doesn't want, a psychic who turns up, claims "someone is in trouble" and is never seen again, and more memorably the nightclub in which Rebekah Del Rio performs an a capella version of Roy Orbison's Crying in Spanish. More memorable still is a stunning scene in Winkie's Diner concerning a dream of some unspeakable, primal evil hiding in a back alley behind the building, and it's as unsettling and freaky-creepy as anything.
Any number of those elements may or may not have recurred in the TV series for which this was originally the pilot episode, until ABC turned it down and it mutated into a feature film. That may also be why there's hardly any strong language because of network standards (and presumably it was the extra material that involved the nudity). But these strange characters and odd little moments - including a hilariously botched murder in a private eye's office - are frustratingly never allowed to develop as everything that has apparently been set up is ignored, forgotten or switched around.
For hardcore Lynch fans it's a no-brainer.·There are a wealth of extras on the new Blu release, and happily the first one is a 26 minute French documentary that picks through the film's clues and explains what really happens and what is only taking place in someone's head, which helps enormously. There are also extensive newly filmed reminiscences with Lynch, Harring, Watts and Badalamenti, on-set footage from the night shoot on Mulholland Drive itself, and another featurette in which various film-makers from Fabrice Du Welz to Richard Kelly explain why they believe it's such a great film. Personally I'm still not convinced as to either MULHOLLAND DR.’s cult appeal or its masterpiece stature; I did enjoy it more this time around, and there’s enough actual narrative in there to get to grips with (unlike INLAND EMPIRE, which I absolutely hated), but it's no TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, for me Lynch's best film by a mile.