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 third and final part of our FrightFest Gore in the Store look at Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series, Steven West looks at film five and the copious extras on this amazing box set.
Memorably emerging in fandom as a completed project before anyone seemingly knew anything about its existence, PHANTASM: RAVAGER (2016), for all its flaws, brings everything to a poignant and logical conclusion. Clips from earlier movies and Reggie’s portentous voiceover narration open the movie, which finds our hero wandering the desert relentlessly since the events of OBLIVION, following the Tall Man’s destructive path, reflecting on past battles and, no sooner has he got his beloved old car back, fleeing from a barrage of silver spheres.
The movie’s central conceit reveals that, in what we call “reality”, Reggie resides in a care facility, discovered confused and lost in the desert and subsequently diagnosed with early on-set dementia. He insists that this state is just another of the Tall Man’s tricks, though his longest and most trusted friend Mike sadly advises him otherwise. To keep his mind active and help with his treatment, Reggie is encouraged to retell his story : the most recent events of which involve a fan-boy check list of Reggie action – fighting and punching dwarves, tooling up for a montage (guns, chainsaw, nunchuks), playing his guitar and making the usual ham-fisted attempts at flirting (“It gets hard on the road…”). There’s an impressive cast reunion, with Bill Thornbury and III’s Gloria Henry showing up, alongside Kathy Lester’s “Lady in Lavender” – the latter for the first time since the original and, through the magic of today’s plastic surgery techniques, somehow looking younger than she did then.
The concept at the heart of RAVAGER turns the final movie into an unexpectedly downbeat story of ageing, providing echoes of Coscarelli’s finest movie, BUBBA HO TEP, and afforded a further melancholic quality thanks to the farewell appearance of the late Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man. A versatile actor who ended up typed in Tall Man-esque roles thanks to his inescapable association with the franchise, Scrimm is visibly frail and it’s bittersweet to see the now very elderly actor playing, for the last time, the role that had rendered him a cinematic old man for five decades in the eyes of his fan base. The core theme of Reggie’s dementia provides the movie with perhaps the most inevitable means of dealing with ageing protagonists in the context of a reality-blurring, fantasy horror franchise. It has its precedents in one-off episodes of episodic TV series in which the protagonist’s outlandish adventures are placed entirely in doubt by a storyline suggesting an extended fantasy from their permanent real-world status in an institution: BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER did a particularly good episode (“Normal Again”) on this note.
RAVAGER is a long way from perfect. It fails to realise the biggest triumph of PHANTASM was holding back, not explaining too much, and obeying the old adage “less is more”. This has more sphere scenes than all the earlier films put together (a giant sphere, multiple spheres in the desert, a spiked red sphere, a sphere attacking a horse), but they’re as oddly unremarkable as the slick, empty digital FX that (sadly) now bring them to life. Awkward CGI also mars other elements in this ambitious, apocalyptic story, some of the humour is strained and at least one of the new characters is genuinely obnoxious. However, Bannister is touchingly vulnerable, and the thoughtful ending is true to the positioning of the saga’s alternate dimensions and rubber realities as exciting escapism experienced by the alter-egos of people suffering the mundane cruelties of the life that we refer to as “real”. A fitting end to a horror franchise celebrating everyday humanity and unfettered flights of fancy.
As you may expect, Arrow have not held back on lavishing this fan-favourite franchise with the box set treatment. The five movies (and six discs) are presented within a replica silver sphere with stand-out new artwork by Gary Pullin and a 152 page book with new writing from Kim Neman and Bill Ackerman alongside a whole bunch of archive material and original stills / posters. All notable extras from earlier releases of the movies have been ported over for this release, including Jake West and Marc Morris’ comprehensive documentary “Phantasmagoria”, which covers the making of the first four movies. Each of the five movies has its own “Reflections of Fear” featurette (or, in the parlance of the set, “pheaturette”) in which key personnel provide anecdotes and memories. Part 3’s doc is dominated by FX talk, 4 becomes a moving, heartfelt sequence of reflections on the then-recently departed Scrimm; Coscarelli’s discussion of a letter he wrote in 1979 is particularly poignant.
Some of the more interesting yarns amongst the extras are associated with PHANTASM II, including its unlikely emergence from Universal Pictures (the President of the time greenlit a lot of horror in the late 80’s, even buying Chucky from MGM), who ultimately demanded a less dream-like, more explanatory approach. Greg Nicotero reflects on his work on the film and the busy late 80’s period in general, the battle with the MPAA is discussed (and work print deleted scenes allow the chance to see significantly more grue than present in the release version) and engaging actress Samantha Philips is very funny talking about her Reggie sex scene. It’s also fun to revisit the film’s memorable trailer, which gives away the ending and delivers the tagline “This summer, the ball is back!” with a straight face.
Other highlights include an unearthed TV interview with a frighteningly young Coscarelli from 1979, who’s joined by a charming, hilarious Angus Scrimm. “A Tall Tale” represents largely deleted scenes from “Phantasmagoria” and allows Scrimm a chance to offer further, surprising references within his performance, including Garbo in QUEEN CHRISTINA! Archival featurettes cover the subjects of stuntwork, locations and fandom, while the 20 minute “Dear Angus” is Kristen Deem’s self-made account of the friendship she struck up with Scrimm via a series of fan-letters. It’s heartfelt, though almost embarrassingly gushing and sentimental at times, but the highlight is seeing Mr Scrimm’s wonderfully warm, articulate replies to her letters. He is much missed, and this box set is, amongst other things, the finest tribute we could hope for.