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 – Reptilicus – **
Directed by Sidney W. Pink. Starring Bent Mejding, Asbjørn Andersen, Povl Wøldike, Ann Smyrner, Dirch Passer. Horror/Sci-fi, USA/Denmark, 81 mins, cert PG.
Released in the UK on DVD by Fabulous Films on 4th July 2016.
What do you get if you cross GODZILLA, JAWS, JURASSIC PARK and John Carpenter’s THE THING? Probably the greatest sci-fi monster movie in the history of cinema but what you don’t get is REPTILICUS, although it is highly likely that John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg saw this 1961 Danish/American co-production and borrowed a few ideas. Thankfully they didn’t borrow the special effects department from this film because REPTILICUS, like most monster movies, depends on its visuals and even for a creature feature from the early 1960s, this is laughably bad.
The plot revolves around a copper mining team in Lapland who discover a piece of bloody skin wrapped around their drill bit. They call in a couple of scientists from Denmark and the action – if you can call it that – shifts to Copenhagen where the doctors are keeping the remains in deep freeze. The thing is, the remains seem to be regenerating and – surprise, surprise – the now fully regrown creature, dubbed Reptilicus by the press who were waiting to see what would happen to the frozen reptile tail, goes on the rampage in downtown Copenhagen, causing the military to get involved and try and put a stop to the giant reptile that shoots acid from its mouth.
Well, it’s supposed to be acid but it is really green blobs drawn onto the film by somebody with no real sense of scale or movement, and it is that same incompetence that plagues this film all the way through, from the BLUE PETER-esque monster puppet to the way-off pacing and the very European ‘comic’ relief that isn’t funny and is scored by the sort of musac you would find in British sitcoms from later in the decade. But, and you knew this was coming, it is those same cheap and cheerful production values that make REPTILICUS worth watching just once, if only to laugh hysterically at how awful this film looks and sounds.
Some of the hilarity comes from the dreadful acting, which isn’t entirely the fault of the actors on-screen as this film was dubbed, despite being filmed in English. There is a Danish version of REPTILICUS (directed by Poul Bang) that was filmed first and has never been seen outside of Denmark, then the film was reshot by Sidney Pink in English but the accents were deemed too heavy so voice actors were brought in to redo the dialogue. It isn’t massively distracting but every now and then the voices don’t do the facial expressions any justice, giving REPTILICUS the appearance of a bad foreign film parody or a Harry Enfield sketch. But if the dodgy audio doesn’t quite tickle your funny bone to its limits then the creature itself is comedy gold, operated around the miniature set by somebody with no obvious grasp of how animals move – or would move if they had bombs dropped on them whilst lying at the bottom of the sea – and having the unfortunate job of swallowing the badly drawn bodies that are guided into its mouth with all the technical proficiency of an Etch A Sketch being shaken too harshly.
But the terrible monster effects and shaky dubbing could be forgiven (slightly) if the film was a tour-de-force of sci-fi/horror entertainment that left you breathless with its scenes of military action and wanton destruction. However, REPTILICUS has major problems with the fact that you don’t get to see the monster in its entirety until about halfway through, the first half of the film dragging as various unpleasant characters establish what we already think of them by acting incompetently and blaming each other for letting the frozen piece of plasticine in their freezer escape. Once it does appear, of course, the film picks up a bit by throwing in stock footage of naval ships dropping bombs and having the creature roll around badly scaled model buildings but the way they finally placate Reptilicus is fittingly daft so at least it is consistent. Overall, REPTILICUS is entertaining but for all the wrong reasons and in the long list of sci-fi/horror movies from the 1950s and ‘60s it really doesn’t rank very highly. You take your chances with this one.