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 – PHANTASM 1-5: LIMITED EDITION COLLECTION ****
Directed by Don Coscarelli, David Hartman. Starring Reggie Bannister, A Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm, James Le Gros, Bill Thornbury, Kathy Lester. USA 1979-2016 90 / 95 / 91 / 90 / 86 mins Certificate: 18
Released by Arrow Video on 25th April 2017
In this second part of this multi-part look at Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series, Steven West looks at films two, three and four.
PHANTASM II - This summer, the ball is back…
Given the modest nature of the rest of the PHANTASM franchise, it’s fun to reflect how, amidst Hollywood’s rush to milk New Line’s ELM STREET cash-cow, Universal Pictures financed PHANTASM II for a prime summer release almost a decade after the offbeat, indie original. It satisfyingly picks up where the earlier movie left off, though Coscarelli’s commendable commitment to continuity is thwarted by the studio’s insistence that Mike is now played by the hunkier, more conventionally handsome James Le Gros (a role for which Brad Pitt auditioned, fact fans!). A painfully bland romantic sub-plot between Mike and his psychically connected girlfriend (taken to embarrassingly corny extremes in a thankfully deleted love scene montage) also smacks of Universal’s involvement, as does the script’s regular pauses for exposition, clearly designed to (over) explain things that were left enigmatic in the 1979 film. It’s, inevitably, a far more formulaic film than PHANTASM, swiftly turning into a pacey, Tall Man-chasing road movie and weirdly prefiguring TERMINATOR 2 in structure and downbeat Reggie narration. The shift to a more action-oriented direction is reflected by the prominence of dwarf fights and exploding buildings in the first 10 minutes.
There is, however, much to enjoy about PHANTASM II. With more money at his disposal, Coscarelli is able to indulge his wilder ideas and deliver the kind of pyrotechnics and production value that funding prohibited in subsequent PHANTASM pictures. Hence, we have an impressive mausoleum set, Freddy-like gore gags of the Tall Man manifesting as an over-sized maggoty thing, slicker / shinier silver spheres burrowing through heads and torsos, and even an elaborate climactic Tall Man melt-down rife with yukky yellow goo.
Ostensibly, the movie reworks PHANTASM as a slick theme park ride, with crowd-pleasing gore or comic shenanigans every few minutes, and Bannister officially confirmed as the main Schmuck-hero rival to Bruce Campbell’s Ash. Getting off with hot girls, afforded his own obligatory 80’s tooling-up montage (with four-barrelled shotgun!) and challenging better-equipped rivals to chainsaw duels, Bannister is hilarious and adorable. Some kind of series highpoint is reached when cool, cute brunette hitchhiker Alchemy (a terrific Samantha Philips) enthusiastically gives him the ride of his life (“God Reg, I love your head!”), though Coscarelli doesn’t lose sight of the eerie surrealism of the original: there’s a stand-out set piece in a ransacked graveyard. PHANTASM II also bows out with the best shock ending of the series, with everybody apparently perishing at the indestructible Tall Man’s hands.
PHANTASM III- PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD - It’s never over..
PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD (1994) returned the series to its indie roots, and also saw Coscarelli compensate A Michael Baldwin for his exclusion from the Universal sequel by bringing him back to re-join original co-stars Bannister and Bill Thornbury. After a rousing “Previously On Phantasm” montage, it follows the series’ trend of picking up immediately from the previous film’s cliff-hanger. Mike keeps having coma-visions of the dead Jody (Thornbury) in a dramatically back-lit afterlife, speaking like the squeaky midget from POLTERGEIST, and Reggie divides his time between busting the heads of malevolent dwarves and getting his ass consistently kicked. While Jody is trapped within one of the silver spheres, Reg forms a fresh buddy act with a gun-toting, evil-fighting orphan whose parents were offed by The Tall Man.
The most playful of the series, this revels in movie quotes (“I’m too old for this shit!”), and has knockabout fun with Raimi-inspired comic-horror skits featuring scuttling disembodied demon hands. Considering the reduced budget, it delivers an impressive array of car stunts, decapitations, effective shocks (a Frisbee-induced throat slashing) and gruesome, surrealistic set pieces – the best of which involves a possessed nurse erupting in yellow goo before a sphere emerges from her cranium, complete with detachable eyeball. Bannister is again great value as the indefatigable Reg, successfully seducing a nunchuck-wielding black chick (Gloria Lynne Henry, sporting a Grace Jones buzz-cut) with the outstanding line “You ever try Vanilla?” Sadly, their handcuffed motel passion (“You’re so big!”) turns out to be an amusingly optimistic Reggie fantasy.
Arguably the best of the sequels, it is, as always, enhanced by Scrimm’s indelible presence as the uber-villain and, as ever, The Tall Man proves indestructible as we head towards another elaborate cliff-hanger.
PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION
The shortest gap between sequels led to PHANTASM IV: OBLIVION appearing in an unusually swift fashion, straight to DVD, in 1998. The weakest of the saga, it all too clearly lacks the funding to back up its narrative ambitions, though is not without pleasures of its own. Picking up from III’s dramatic end, it finds Mike fleeing in pursuit of the Tall Man while Reggie is literally left hanging in the evil dude’s lair. It’s the most nostalgic of the series, with Mike recalling their earlier lives via previously unseen / unused footage from the first PHANTASM, and the script aping the road movie structure and kiss off lines of the earlier films. Sadly, Reg’s screen time is reduced, leaving the less engaging Mike Baldwin to carry the movie, while an excess of black and white Civil War backstory scenes prevent the saga moving forward in any significant way.
Amidst the dimensional forks and gratuitous exploding cars, Angus Scrimm gets to do his first non-glarey acting in the franchise during the film’s most compelling scenes, portraying the friendly Jebediah Morningside – the earlier, non-evil incarnation of The Tall Man. Meanwhile, Reg shacks up with another hottie (Heidi Marnhout) in another low rent motel, failing to get off with her in any conventional fashion and recoiling as her boobs become attacking silver spheres (“Far out!”) during an otherwise fruitless bedroom scene. Lacking the visceral horrors and eerie charge of its predecessors, OBLIVION is unashamedly sentimental in the way it sacrifices the traditional series cliff-hanger for a low key, 1979 character moment.