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 – Pieces – ***
Directed by Juan Piquer Simon, Christopher George, Paul Smith, Edmund Purdom, Linda Day, Horror, USA/Spain, 86 Minutes. Cert. 18.
Released in the UK by Arrow Video on the 27th March.
Arguably one of the most shocking reveals in cinema, comes at the start of John Carpenter's 1978 seminal slasher film·Halloween·in which we discover that the perpetrator of the violent murder we have just witnessed is a ten year old boy in a clown costume.·Halloween's·influence is felt keenly throughout the horror genre, and no more so than at the start of Juan Piquer Simon's 1982 film·Pieces·which has just been re-released on blu-ray. The opening scene mirrors that of·Halloween ,·albeit with less subtlety and a shock value based more around gore. We initially meet young Timmy (Alejandro Hernandez) in Boston 1942. Clearly a strange child, we see him putting together a puzzle that contains content that should be out of the reach of his young hands. His volatile mother is shocked, but none more so than when Timmy brutally butchers her with an axe. Where·Pieces·differs from·Halloween·though is that Timmy manages to get away with his crime; from a psychoanalytical perspective, he has formed the superego that Michael Myers has not, thus enabling him the freedom to kill again. Psychoanalysis is to play a key part in his later motives – without giving anything away, it’s clear that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was another reference point.
The film then jumps forty years later and Timmy has grown up. Into whom, we don't know, and this creates a 'whodunnit' (or rather 'who is doing it?') when a chainsaw murderer starts brutally murdering female teenagers on a Boston college campus. Tobe Hooper's horror is yet another influence - 'You don't need to go to Texas for a Chainsaw massacre!’ - boasted the film’s original tagline.
In spite of all this though, Pieces retains its own, very bloody identity. Thirty-five years after its initial release, it still manages to shock, with its high body-count and extreme gore which just manages to tread the fine line between horror and comedy. The film’s iconic ‘water bed’ sequence packs a real punch. The effects are of course somewhat dated, but not to the point where it becomes distracting or completely loses the ability to make you tense up.
The deaths themselves though are somewhat obviously signposted while the overt red herrings as to who the perpetrator is remove elements of the mystery. The script isn’t overly smart when it comes to the police trying to solve the crimes either. Such is their incompetence that not only does nobody try to be wary of the dangers but in the end, they illicit the help of a college kid who sits down and solves things very quickly and easily, also exposing a key plot hole.
This does however lead to an effective climactic scene that retains the ability to surprise and shock in equal measure.
While Pieces was never going to have the effect or influence on cinema that many of the aforementioned films which influenced it have and is broadly (and at times intricately) speaking, very daft, it is a horror film that does what it says on the tin. Or to quite the DVD cover, it’s exactly what you think it is.
Extras: It’s a comprehensive package that offers an excellent 4K restoration from the original camera negative along with the US theatrical cut and the Spanish directors cut (exclusive to blu-ray). An accompanying CD contains the memorable score although it’s music that only really works in context. There are further features and interviews, highlighting the films influence and effect plus more, across the 3 discs.