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
Book REVIEW - NOSFERATU A SYMPHONY OF HORROR - ****
By Cristina Massaccesi. Paperback. RRP £12.99 128 pp
Published by Auteur Press March 2016
Although arguably the most famous of all pre-1930 horror films, NOSFERATU is one of the most worthy candidates for analysis in the ongoing, exceptionally informative “Devil’s Advocates” strand from Auteur Press. The movie’s considerable reputation has always preceded it, and yet full-length, accessible analysis has been relatively elusive despite the prominent position it continues to hold in the genre’s evolution. Cristina Massaccesi, who regularly teaches F W Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece to her students, immediately conveys her enthusiasm on the subject in her enlightening introduction, accompanied by filmmaker E Elias Merhige’s personal reflections, defining it as an experimental work made at a time when cinema was still considered a questionable art form. (As a refreshing post-script, Massaccesi also interviews Merhige, who reflects on the significant changes that occurred to the original script for his film SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE en route to the screen).
This thorough examination of silent cinema’s most enduring genre work vividly positions the film in post-war Germany, with the country’s economy and politics in chaos as hyperinflation took hold, the impact of the Versailles treaty became apparent and the nation struggled to comprehend the loss of around two million of its men. Against this real-life anxiety, unrest and grief, German film production enjoyed a massive creative boom – most famously reflected by the rise of Expressionism, offering a stylised union of sets, lighting and performance. Massaccesi considers Murnau’s own profound personal losses during the First World War as a key factor on NOSFERATU and his other, often mournful works, and places the movie in the context of a career cut tragically short at the start of the 1930’s. If the film has long been presented as Murnau’s genius at work, she also highlights the significance of his collaborators, notably producer / set designer Albin Grau, who played an enormous role in the film’s conception and ultimate design.
The legal problems that arose between NOSFERATU and Bram Stoker’s widow are well known, though Massaccesi proffers a detailed look at both the parallels between the two works (certain aspects of the vampire’s physical appearance and the epistolary structure) and the crucial differences in storytelling, characterisation and social commentary. There is a detailed analysis of the available home video versions of the film, finding a disarmingly different viewing experience when comparing the BFI edition (scored by Hammer’s James Bernard) with the Eureka incarnation that employs the original 1920’s score.
A detailed, scene-specific reading of NOSFERATU, as per Noel Carroll’s generic narrative template applied to horror films, reflects on how the film predates so much contemporary horror by identifying itself as a chronicle of real events. Murnau’s use of technique, mise en scene, composition, costumes and framing (notably, the employment of arches and doorways) are examined in terms of their relevance to character development. Murnau’s visual influences veered from the paintings of Arnold Bocklin and Henry Wallis to the “phantom ride” films of early cinema, and his use of external location shooting and cinematic technology belied the Expressionist trend for reconstructed studio sets. Massaccesi lauds Murnau’s pioneering use of cross-cutting, often juggling up to five narrative strands simultaneously, a technique that would be subsequently duplicated by many, including John Carpenter for the climaxes of films like THE FOG.
The book is most fascinating in detailing how Murnau’s forward-thinking style contradicted the acknowledged style of Expressionist cinema (and of his work generally), while its look and themes opened the movie to multiple interpretations throughout the years, from the initial responses to the later consideration of Nosferatu representing post-WWI anti-Semitism, prefiguring the rise of Nazism. Meanwhile, the film’s iconic moments are given due attention, notably the scene of Nosferatu rising up from his coffin like “a terrifying Jack in the box”, with Massaccesi quoting David J Skal’s unforgettable description of the hideous vampire’s image “simultaneously suggesting erection, pestilence and death”.
Throughout, Massaccesi is engaging and thoughtful, making this a particularly successful entry in the Devil’s Advocates series, accessible and insightful to readers of all kinds, creeds and interests. NOSFERATU is almost a century old, but the strength of the author’s study is that, whether you’ve seen it once or two dozen times, you’ll be compelled to revisit and discover much more to admire.