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
BLU-ray REVIEW – RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES! – **
Directed by John De Bello. Starring Anthony Starke, George Clooney, John Astin, Karen Mistal, Steve Lundquist. USA 1988 98 mins Certificate: 15
Out now from Arrow Video.
Anticipating the wave of gag-laden parodies that would be instigated by the release of AIRPLANE! (with which it shares a titular exclamation mark), John De Bello’s ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES (1978) was an amiable but vastly over-stretched parody of 50’s creature features built on the foundation of a single joke. It was, alas, a joke whose mission was already accomplished by its title. De Bello has devoted much of his career to this single gag, overseeing three further movies and two spin-off TV series, an unlikely franchise typified by the second cinematic entry, RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES!
Characteristic of many spoofy American genre films of the late 80’s, RETURN is keen to emphasise how bad and desperate it knows it is. This means repeated self-conscious nods to its cash-in-sequel status and a framing device in which a low-rent movie host prepares to show the film as part of “One Dollar Movie” night, but instead mistakenly shows something called “Big Breasted Girls Go To The Beach And Take Their Tops Off”. Its engagingly catchy theme song reinforces the idea that the “joke” is on the audience, with lyrics like “The theme song still remains the same / The plot has barely changed”.
This time out, however, there is minimal killer tomato action, with events unfolding in the wake of the great tomato uprising of the earlier film. Tomatoes are, understandably, now banned and survivors of the prior event talk about it like Vietnam, complete with flashbacks. The ban has resulted in key tomato-based foods like pizza now being produced with strawberry jam. The central “plot” revolves around the nefarious gene-splicing experiments of Professor Gangrene (John Astin), the mastermind behind the giant tomatoes of ATTACK, and now up to more mischief, aided by his beautiful, suspiciously robotic assistant (Karen Mistal) and his hulking servant Ygor.
RETURN is, like many parodies of its era, heavily influenced by the scattershot, slapstick approach to the form that made the Zucker brothers so popular, with a typical gag panning from the main action to reveal the film’s crew (including director De Bello) and the reveal that the production has run out of money, necessitating gratuitous product placement to reach completion. Fourth wall-breaking visual gags alternate with specific movie spoofs and running gags (notably one involving a persistent mime), though the only genuinely amusing elements tend to be the Weird Al Yankovic-style original songs (“Touch me there / You know I like it when you touch me there”).
The lack of momentum and the overwhelming sense of material stretched perilously thin are relieved somewhat by an endearing cast. George Clooney (yes, he did get prettier with age) and Anthony Starke display a pleasingly light comic touch as pizza parlour co-workers who run scam contests like “Win a date with Rob Lowe” to hook up with pretty girls, and Karen Mistal is distractingly alluring as the less-than-human eye candy. It’s inoffensive, forgettable and, if it largely fails to caress the funny bone, at least it took its inspiration from the finest sources (Mel Brooks, Monty Python, Zucker Bros, etc.)