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
FrightFest Gore in the Store is delighted to publish this multi-part look at Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series that is as iconic as it is entertaining. Released in a stunning Limited Edition Dual Format by Arrow Video, it’s the first time all five films have been brought together on Blu-ray - including a brand new 4K restoration of the 1979 classic, Phantasm, overseen by Star Wars and Star Trek helmer, J.J. Abrams.
Thanks go to Steven West for this epic and thoughtful look at this fondly remembered fist of movies.
The PHANTASM movies represent a distinctive achievement in the oft-reviled world of the horror franchise. Most horror series burn themselves out via a succession of decreasingly profitable and conceptually empty sequels in a matter of a decade or so (c.f. the ELM STREET series, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, SAW), biding their time before audience ennui has faded and a new generation enforces a need to return to the well. Others (AMITYVILLE, TEXAS CHAINSAW) waive continuity early on and reinvent themselves every few years with new chapters that are, ostensibly, reboots to cash in on the brand name. For almost 40 years, the creator of PHANTASM, Don Coscarelli has retained creative control over his original concept, a luxury most famously denied of Wes Craven, who eventually used his NEW NIGHTMARE as a feature length exorcism about looking on as Freddy Krueger became a cartoonish anti-hero exploited to sell children’s lunchboxes and Fat Boys records. Unusually, Coscarelli directed the first four PHANTASM films and, although he promoted a faithful collaborator to directorial status on the fifth, was still the writer-producer.
Throughout the series, he remained dedicated to reuniting the original cast wherever possible, while shaping the films as an ongoing serial that strove for continuity and crafted cliff-hangers that subsequent films gamely attempt to resolve. Although, like his more financially successful franchise rivals, Coscarelli had a recurring antagonist (The Tall Man) striking enough to warrant Fangoria cover stories, fan familiarity and fondness for the protagonists proved just as much a part of their enduring popularity. The later films in particular, with budgets stripped back and ambitions often unfulfilled, coast on the goodwill and nostalgia factor provided by the reappearance of ageing cast members from a 1979 cult classic. The very personal fan satisfaction of growing from adolescence to middle age (and beyond) with Reggie and Mike, is perhaps the closest the genre has got – or will get – to the sentimental attachment lovers of the HARRY POTTER films enjoy.
The first four movies were previously collected in the UK in the early 2000’s courtesy of Anchor Bay, though worldwide “complete” box set releases have often been thwarted by the awkwardness of the film’s one-film backing from a Hollywood studio (Universal Pictures). Arrow Video have gathered all the movies together for the first time on Blu-ray, giving the most recent entry, RAVAGER, its debut UK release. As with the earlier DVD set, they are sexily packaged in an inactive silver sphere, designed to ensure you spend the remainder of your life dusting and very carefully repackaging it every time you move house or have a refit. Like many such releases, it provides an excuse to revisit a bunch of movies for which many hold affection, with the added bonus that they have been painstakingly “dusted” and refitted for our hyper-critical 21st century viewing pleasure.
PHANTASM - If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead..
PHANTASM has, understandably, been afforded the most elaborate restoration job. The 4K transfer overseen by Hollywood hotshot J J Abrahams has removed visible fishing lines from FX scenes and wholly rejuvenated what was often a murky looking movie on VHS and early DVD. A disarming clash of fanboy cultures occurs at the very beginning, when the logo for Abrahams’ production company Bad Robot appears right before the original Avco Embassy logo – a nostalgia-fest in itself thanks to Avco’s distribution of so many iconic genre films from the late 70’s and early 80’s.
Although he had already made two (non-horror) feature films, Coscarelli was a twentysomething maverick with a multitude of cinematic influences leaning as much toward sci-fi as horror (he cites INVADERS FROM MARS as a key influence). Set in a familiar American small town where the only thing to do in the evenings is to shag in graveyards, the film opens with a clever subversion of slasher movie tropes which, by 1979, were beginning to dominate the genre. Mike (A Michael Baldwin) voyeuristically observes a local teen getting it on with a bare-breasted blonde (Kathy Lester) in the creepy cemetery, his adolescent presence summarising in a single scene the vicarious thrills found within the horror genre by scores of similarly aged viewers. Coscarelli’s mission from the start is to undermine our default position of low expectations, so the frisson of pervy titillation is ruined when the blonde yanks out a knife and has her appealing visage replaced with that of Angus Scrimm’s The Tall Man.
Subsequently, lowly ice cream vendor Reggie Bannister - rocking what will become his trademark bald head and charmingly retro ponytail – mourns the “suicide” of the graveyard victim with his orphaned buddy Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Jody’s 13 year old bro Mike. Bannister and Thornbury are frustrated musicians, and the film has time for an unashamedly whimsical interlude in which they enjoy a jamming session over beer on their porch. The three male protagonists all look and talk like humdrum real people : no six packs, no beautifully coiffured hair, no catwalk model girlfriends – just ordinary guys hurled into an extraordinary situation as The Tall Man and his inter-dimensional agents make their presence felt. If PHANTASM were made in the 21st century (and it’s a rare well-known 70’s horror film that hasn’t been remade yet), the Reggie role would presumably be taken by some outrageously buff Abercrombie & Fitch stud, while anyone even marginally less attractive would be relegated to the “disposable geek” or “ill-fated jokester” side-lines. It is conceivable that we could hang out with Reggie Bannister and enjoy banter over beer.
PHANTASM, while offering a clever visual reversal of the Gothic form (much of it takes place in daylight or over-lit rooms, giving it an unexpectedly futuristic feel at times), plays fast and loose with conventional plotting while revelling in nightmare logic and surrealistic visuals. This brings it closer to the Euro horror of the period, and Fred Myrow’s insistently eerie, highly effective score offers a bravura variation on the style of John Carpenter’s famous HALLOWEEN soundtrack – itself vastly indebted to the haunting earworm themes of Goblin’s DEEP RED score. The characters wisecrack their way through an unpredictable, episodic and dread-infused series of encounters, allowing for nervous chuckles as events become more disturbing. Witty “rational” explanations for strange events include “It was probably just a gopher in heat” and “You sure it wasn’t that retarded kid Timmy from ‘cross the street?”
The film’s obvious major drawing card was its striking imagery, from the barely glimpsed, hooded, dwarf figures scuttling between gravestones to the money-shot moment of the iconic flying silver sphere drilling its way into a hapless character’s forehead before he erupts into geysers of blood. This became the series’ signature moment, and Coscarelli would repeatedly try to one-up it to increasingly elaborate effect in later sequels. Just as jarring, however, are the scenes of the Tall Man’s severed, living finger wriggling around in yellow goop or the scores of tiny barrels filled with cadavers.
Prefiguring the dream logic and rubber reality of the ELM STREET era, Coscarelli blurs nightmares with everyday banalities, while Scrimm’s arch, intimidating presence violates both without being over-indulged. Bannister offers a shout out to the rules of old-school Universal / Hammer horror (“We’ll drive a stake through his heart!”), but the narrative is playfully and deliberately undisciplined, relishing throwaway scares like the one in which The Tall Man turns to scowl at the audience while seemingly confined to the world of an old black and white photograph. It’s also not above outrageous contrivances, notably the convenient reveal of a sign saying “Warning: Open Mine Shaft”.
Bannister grounds the movie as one of the genre’s most popular unlikely heroes, predating Bruce Campbell’s equally hapless but much more cartoonish Ash in the EVIL DEAD franchise. And, although PHANTASM stood out then – and now – for boldly abandoning the accepted genre formulas of the period, it was still happy to incorporate commercial trends where necessary: the final frame scare is one of the most potent of the innumerable post-CARRIE closing shocks.