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.
FILM REVIEW – SORCERER *****
Directed by William Friedkin. Starring Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, and Amidou. 1997, USA, 121mins., adventure/drama/thriller.
Released in the UK by Entertainment One in cinemas on 3rd November and Blu-ray 6th November 2017.
It’s been catch up time recently. Two unseen by me and initially unappreciated re-releases in one week. One left me wondering what all the fuss was about and one didn't.
Described as William Friedkin's lost masterpiece, SORCERER is heading back into cinemas and onto Blu-ray this November. The second big screen version of Georges Arnaud's 1950s novel Le Salaire de la peur, although William Friedkin will dispute it, he described it as a reimagining, SORCERER is considered a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 THE WAGES OF FEAR.
Released just one month after the phenomenon that was Star Wars, the film received mixed reviews; it didn't set the box office alight. Friedkin and many others blame the film's failure on the blockbuster mentioned above, but in reality, the reasons are many fold. The choice of title could be one. It has been noted that audiences perhaps expected mythical weirdness linking the Sorcerer title with Friedkin's THE EXORCIST. It could also have been the fact that Friedkin pissed off the studio's top management while making the film, and as a consequence, they didn't feel the need to support it. We can go on and on looking for reasons for the movies initial failure, but over the years the film has slowly been re-evaluated, and after a protracted legal battle with Universal and Paramount, who financed and released the film, Friedkin returned to supervise the film's digital restoration. The finished product premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2013.
I try not to know much about films before viewing, avoiding trailers and pre-publicity as far as possible. Not always an easy task these days so as a result, I was a bit unsure what was going on when SORCERER kicked off with four vignettes. Each in a different language they were cut from the films initial release so that cinemas could get in extra performances. They set-up the backstory for the characters exile so when the film moves to Porvenir it makes sense. If there was ever a place that you could describe as the middle of nowhere or the back of beyond, Porvenir fits the bill perfectly. Life in Porvenir couldn't be further from their previous lifestyles, eking out a living that they are all desperate to escape from, so when offered the opportunity to move some dynamite, which to be charitable, is not in the best condition and is required 200 miles away, they jump at the chance.
What follows is some of the most intense, exciting, suspenseful and heart-stopping action that I for one have ever seen play out on a cinema screen. At one stage I could physically feel the tension in the cinema. Performances from the cast are excellent even though Scheider wasn't Friedkin's first choice as leading man. He had been looking to cast Steve McQueen. Tangerine Dream’s pulsating electronic score is a delightful surprise and works perfectly.
SORCERER is a master class on how, from a director at the time at the height of his powers, to deliver a compelling on the edge of your seat movie about men driven by determination, desperation and sheer bloody-mindedness to absolute extremes.