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.
DVD REVIEW – ROGER CORMAN’S DEATH RACE 2050 – **
Directed by G.J. Echternkamp. Starring Manu Bennett, Malcolm McDowell, Marci Miller, Burt Grinstead, Shanna Olson, Yancy Butler, Charlie Farrell. Action/Sci-Fi, USA, 88 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray on 20th March 2017 by Universal Pictures.
With legendary producer Roger Corman’s name proudly displayed in the title – so as not to confuse it with the slick Paul W.S. Anderson remake series from a few years back – DEATH RACE 2050 is a remake/reboot of his 1975 cult favourite DEATH RACE 2000, which was basically a gory live-action WACKY RACES movie starring David Carradine and a pre-ROCKY Sylvester Stallone.
Unfortunately there is no such star power here, and that should have been an early indicator for how this movie would pan out as DEATH RACE 2050, despite starting out on the right note with an America of the future populated by TV violence-worshipping hardcore fans and Malcolm McDowell (alright – he may have a bit of star power but he seems to have sold his soul to the gods of B-movie trash recently and is slumming it in every direct-to-DVD crap-fest) as the chairman of this brave new world, chewing the scenery whilst wearing what is possibly the most ludicrous wig ever. TV is now host to Death Race, a cross-country car race where the drivers are awarded points for kills as they mow down innocent civilians, excited fans and, in some cases, each other to get to the finish line, and after the introductory blurb we are introduced to the drivers who will be taking part, who include carry-over character Frankenstein (Manu Bennett – 30 DAYS OF NIGHT), the current Death Race champion.
So far, so good, despite the overly-wacky tone looking a little desperate but it’s fun and once the race gets underway there is more fun to be had as we get explosions, disembowelments, gratuitous nudity and Malcolm McDowell’s wig disappearing and reappearing every few minutes, and all the while getting a daft race commentary to help the great unwashed watching on their TV screens follow the action. And despite the cheap nature of the CGI – the blood just about gets away with it, the fire looks rubbish – it all moves along at an exciting pace and doesn’t feel too far removed from the clunky 1970s aesthetics of the original. However, it gets to a point where you’ve pretty much seen all that it has to offer and it’s got nothing left in the tank, and there is still an hour of the movie to go. Had the film been populated with half-decent characters played by competent actors – like Stallone’s Machine Gun Joe in the original – then that final hour may not have been such a slog but the script has clearly run out of steam by this point, the action slows down and you’re left with a ponderous and confused sub-plot about rebels trying to stop the race as the film shambles to a very anticlimactic finish, by which time all of the remaining characters have blurred into one, except for Frankenstein who stands out from the rest by being the most bland.
Lacking the sharp satirical undertones of the Paul Bartel-directed original, DEATH RACE 2050 does initially show promise for continuing Roger Corman’s penchant for cheap entertainment with a first act that sticks fairly close to the feel of the original movie but the entertainment angle soon gets dropped and nobody – not Corman, director/co-writer G.J. Echternkamp or any of the cast – seems to be able to rescue it from losing the momentum that it set up; even the SHARKNADO-level special effects that were obviously designed to add a little low-budget charm fail spectacularly to the point where it isn’t even funny anymore. Malcolm McDowell does the same shtick he did in 31 – and pretty much every film he’s done since HALLOWEEN – which isn’t bad but not worth watching the whole film for, and Yancy Butler (HARD TARGET) is good fun as the leader of the rebels but despite being the best thing about the film she actually has very little to do when she isn’t interacting with McDowell, so overall DEATH RACE 2050 is a rather dull and pointless film that doesn’t really do anything better than the original and feels like the longest 88 minutes you’ll ever spend wishing you were watching something else.