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
DVD Review - RE-ANIMATOR ****
Directed by Stuart Gordon, Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton. Horror, US, 1985, 86mins, Cert 18.
Re-released in the UK on Blu-ray on 14th March 2016 by Second Sight
(Very) loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’, director Stuart Gordon’s 1985 splatterfest burst upon the genre in much the same way as the bone saw emerged from the chest of one of Jeffrey Combs’ reanimated corpses. It’s rejuvenating injection of gore and guffaws, courtesy of Herbert West’s luminous syringes, delivered a Frankenstein-like tale with a deliciously lurid Hammer-like take, topped off with gross-out make-up effects and a naked Barbara Crampton.
I first recall watching the film on an Entertainment in Video VHS rental tape back in those halcyon days in the 80’s when every trip to the local video store represented a voyage of disreputable discovery and wobbly tracking. Even though it was shorn of nearly 2 minutes including most of Barbara Crampton being fondled on the slab by the severed head (and mind-controlled body) of David Gale’s Dr Hill, it still stood out from the crowd of relatively tame and tired slashers on offer at the time.
Therefore it’s a delight to be able to view the film now in all its guts and gory glory in a superb restoration which for the first time also includes an ‘integral’ version which restores all the extra talky bits and cut scene sub-plots trimmed at the time of release to tighten pacing. I still prefer the ‘Unrated’ 86 minute cut – but it’s a treat for any completist to be able to view the film with all the scenes intact, in context.
What does remain constant in whichever version you view is the extraordinarily mesmeric performance of Jeffrey Combs as the madly obsessed ‘re-animator’. No one can break a pencil with such concentrated intensity as Combs, and his performance as Herbert West acts as a lightning rod conducting the increasingly manic and maniacal mayhem in the Miskatonic University morgue. Both Bruce Abbot and Barbara Crampton provide sterling support work – with Crampton really putting herself out on a limb during the notorious slab scene – and David Gale’s performance as a severed head in a tray of blood plasma is memorably grotesque.
Technically, Stuart Gordon’s debut feature direction is surprisingly assured, and he is ably assisted by Mac Ahlberg’s efficient camerawork and Richard Band’s infectiously funky re-scoring of Bernard Hermann’s strings. And of course the practical make-up effects are to die for in their unrestrained gooey bloodied ickiness.
Gordon went on to memorably plunder H. P. Lovecraft once again the following year with FROM BEYOND, bringing along with him both Combs and Crampton for the ride, but his subsequent body of work ever since has never managed to eclipse the richly deserved affectionate notoriety of his first feature.
This 2 disc Blu-ray package is positively bursting with extras which, when added to the bonus of the ‘Integral Version’ combines to make what must surely be the definitive release of RE-ANIMATOR.
Extras: The ‘Unrated’ Version – 4k restoration, the ‘Integral Version’, x2 audio commentaries, documentary, interviews, extended and deleted scenes, trailers and gallery.