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 – SATAN’S BLADE – *
Directed by L Scott Castillo Jr. Starring Tom Bongiorno, Elisa R Malinovitz, Stephanie Leigh Steel, Thomas Cue. Horror, USA, 83 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on BluRay and DVD by Arrow on the 11th July, 2016.
Film preservation: what should be saved for future generations and what should be judged to be unworthy, and why? Should every movie get a full definitive restoration? If not, how does the decision get made? Who gets to choose: fans, critics, studios, financiers? Oh, sure there are plenty of reasons why - distribution rights, lost source materials, legal issues - but it's still baffling trying to work out how Movies A, B and C get left to rot in the obscurity vaults while Movies D and E get repeated trips to the Special Editions well despite being demonstrably inferior.
Way down the alphabet, down so far you have to invent extra letters to get there, is a film like SATAN'S BLADE, now more than thirty years forgotten and rightly so. Shot in 1980 and 1981 but not released until 1984 (and bearing a copyright date of 1982, just to add to the confusion), it looks to be a tired entry in a genre it actually predates: the low-level maniac-on-the-loose slasher film, which in this case spends more time focussing on soapy marital angst than the Mountain Man psychopath of local folklore killing off tourists and holidaymakers. The day after an unnecessary violent bank robbery and the mysterious deaths of the two criminals at a remote mountain resort, two married couples and a group of vacationing girls arrive at the only two available cabins, which they take even though it's a multiple crime scene and the bloodstains haven't been cleaned off the wall.
Mountain Man then takes a few reels off while Tony and Al get drunk and goof around, and Lisa gazes miserably into the log fire wondering whether husband Tony might have the hots for Stephanie the sexy cheerleader next door. Is he going to resist her advances? There's a brief horror dream sequence in which everyone gets killed, but it's a while before the maniac picks up his supposedly Satanic knife again and gets to work, to the accompaniment of a synth score so monotonously boring it makes John Carpenter's moody themes sound like the Ride Of The Valkyries.
To its credit, the movie does go to the unnecessary trouble of establishing an actual whodunnit identity for its villain: a nice touch, but it doesn't really help matters when acting, writing, plot and directing are so desperately lacking. From the hilarious death scenes to the reading out loud level of some of the performances, from the sleazy violence (which caused the BBFC to take out nearly four minutes from the 1987 VHS release, now "thankfully" restored) to the end credits promise of a sequel which auteur is still threatening, there's nothing in SATAN'S BLADE to suggest it's been unfairly neglected and worthy of rediscovery.
Credit to Arrow for going to a lot of effort to give it the DeLuxe treatment it honestly doesn't merit: a 2K restoration on BluRay and DVD, a choice of standard widescreen and open matte 4:3 presentations, an interview with Castillo himself and an audio commentary by "slasher trash with panache" podcast The Hysteria Continues. But it's really for diehard completists with a need to see and own every last 80s slasher cheapie, no matter how terrible, and SATAN'S BLADE really is at the bottom of the pile.