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.

Steven West

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BLU-RAY REVIEW – SCARS OF DRACULA ***

Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Starring Christopher Lee, Dennis Waterman, Jenny Hanley, Christopher Matthews, Michael Ripper, Michael Gwynn, Anouska Hempel, Patrick Troughton, Bob Todd. UK 1970 Certificate: 15 95 mins

Out now from Studio Canal on Blu-Ray / DVD Double Play

The last (and least liked) of the Hammer period Dracula movies, this lively, often visually evocative outing was also a key movie in the studio’s battle to stay relevant in a changing marketplace. Released on a double bill with Jimmy Sangster’s self-consciously spoofy HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, it followed the edgier tone and content of its predecessor, Peter Sasdy’s brutal TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, by upping the on-screen sadism and gore. It became the first Hammer DRACULA movie to earn an “R” rating in the States – where the series was rapidly running out of commercial steam – and joined a wave of raunchy / bloody early 70’s Hammer movies employing familiar monsters in a trendily explicit context, yearning to compete with the adult genre films of post-Romero America.

SCARS has long been given a bum rap by Hammer fans – its modern-day successors, which both have their pleasures, fared even worse – but enthusiastically strives to give the fanbase what it expects in as brisk as fashion as possible. Unlike the preceding three films, it wastes no time in resurrecting Christopher Lee’s pallid, urbane Count: one of the film’s over-exposed, over-sized Woolworths-style vampire bats dribbles blood on his remains in the very first scene. As resurrections go, it’s up there (or down there?!) with the flaming dog urine that revives Freddy in the fourth ELM STREET movie: the script doesn’t even try to explain it, resigning itself, quite rightly, to the fact that we’re here to see Dracula – so who cares why he’s back?! Unlike the earlier DRACULA sequels, Lee was brought out of the shadows for this one, granted more dialogue and screen time than any series entry since the 1958 original. In a concession to the actor’s vocal laments of the studio’s neglect of Stoker’s original, a stand out variation on one of the novel’s most striking moments involves Dracula ascending the castle walls.

After Dracula’s prompt revival, the movie continues to undermine expectations, by staging a typical Hammer climax at the very beginning : locals led by nervous publican Michael Ripper and the equally welcome Michael Gwynn storm Castle Dracula, setting it alight in fine style. The characteristically angry mob then discover that, while they’ve been busy destroying the Count’s home, Dracula has massacred their loved ones in the “sanctuary” of their church (“The Devil has won!”). It’s one of the most visceral openings in Hammer’s later movies, rich with 70’s zooms into torn throats and eyeballs on cheeks.

Subsequently, womanising cad Christopher Matthews (who gropes three different women in the first 35 minutes) searches for a room for the night and a sense of inevitability surrounds the line “I only hope the castle is more hospitable!” At Dracula’s temporary accommodation, buxom vampire bride Anouska Hempel enjoys one of Hammer’s more graphic neck bitings, effortlessly seduces Matthews and is stabbed to death by Dracula in a jarringly bloody, oddly out of place sequence (and one that was bloodier still prior to its theatrical BBFC cuts). In the wake of his disappearance, Matthews’ brother (Dennis Waterman) and his posh girlfriend (Jenny Hanley) show up at you-know-where.

Admittedly, the class of Terence Fisher’s peerless entries in the series had long gone by this stage in the franchise. There are far too many scenes of characters pretending to cower in fear at the goofy bats: these creatures, representing Dracula’s command over certain living things (another direct reference to the book), do make us grateful they just settled for one ropey species of Dracula-influenced wildlife. Buffoonish comic relief was always a staple of Hammer horror – Miles Malleson provided the chuckles as a comedy undertaker in the 1958 movie – though here someone should have probably reined in BENNY HILL star Bob Todd as a comedy burgomaster and a silly pair of comedy coppers (David Leland, Richard Durden). Also, at this stage in the series, we could have probably done without a gratuitous dialogue exchange that vampires…drink human blood. What a revelation!

There’s much to enjoy, however. The regular bloodshed is well executed, and further physical horror is added by the movie-stealing presence of the always-wonderful Patrick Troughton as a very different “Klove” to the one portrayed by Philip Latham in DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS. Monobrowed and feral, Troughton is a dutiful assistant with an efficiency in basic corpse disposal, at least one quotable line (“It may be too late – the broth?!”) and an unforgettably brutal moment in which he is burned by Dracula’s long, red, hot sword (“I have sinned, Master!”). This sequence further reflected Hammer’s need to keep up with the fact that British horror now had WITCHFINDER GENERAL to keep up with.

Hammer glamour is ever-present in the appealing forms of sexy barmaid Wendy Hamilton and a very cute – if sadly dubbed – Jenny Hanley, sporting corn-curls and the usual flattering Hammer frocks. No opportunity is missed to feature a close-up of Hanley’s cleavage, with the usual ruse of showing her crucifix, though this old Hammer trick doesn’t quite wash : at one climactic point, her cross is ripped from her neck, and the movie cuts to a wholly unnecessary shot of her (bloodied) bosom to remind us that her cross has been ripped from her neck! Hokey moments aside (Dracula’s glowing red eyes piercing through his eyelids as he sleeps always looked silly), this sequel, proficiently directed by Amicus / Hammer veteran Roy Ward Baker, remains huge fun, right up to its spectacular finale in which God Himself plays a part in the Count’s latest demise.

Extras

This new Blu-ray forms part of Studio Canal’s series of HD releases to commemorate 60 years of Hammer Horror (they’re taking CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN as the first “Hammer Horror” film rather than the gruesome and disturbing THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT). The transfer gives the movie a new visual lease of life, with – inevitably – vibrant reds.

The extras stretch to the original theatrical trailer and Marcus Hearn’s 18-minute documentary “Blood Rites”, in which familiar experts like Alan Barnes, Jonathan Rigby and John J Johnston offer a potted history on a largely unloved chapter in the Dracula cycle. As is often the case, the most fun is had from the recollections of the leading lady: Jenny Hanley is very amusing as she recalls her character (“boring as Hell”), touching in her fond memories of Ripper and Troughton and honest in her account of Christopher Lee as an over-serious, lecturing figure on the set. He apparently wasn’t amused by the comedy bats.

Steven West

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