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
SUSPIRIA (Devil’s Advocates) by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas - *****
Published by Auteur, December 2015, Paperback RRP £9.99
I have to admit that I’m biased, in that Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA (1976) is one of my favourite films, and I was thrilled to see that Auteur, publisher of Devil’s Advocates - pocket-sized companions similar to the BFI Film Classics series, but devoted to classic horror films – were adding it to their list of titles. My passion for a film, though, does mean that I set a very high bar, and have been disappointed before by volumes of criticism which, in my opinion, didn’t do justice to the film they were attempting to honour. However, I’m pleased to report that this one’s a worthy addition to the bookcase.
The author, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, is an academic who has previously written books about rape-revenge and found footage films, and also a radio film critic. Her introduction includes a discussion of Dario Argento’s infamous quote (preferring to watch the murder of a beautiful woman rather than that of a man or an ugly woman), and various opinions of his gender politics as demonstrated in his films, as she feels it necessary to address this sensitive topic before tackling the specifics of the film, and I found it added an interesting dimension to the analysis to follow.
Most fans of SUSPIRIA would agree that the plot is one of the least important factors in its success, so it’s perfectly acceptable that a synopsis is relegated to the introduction, leaving the majority of the book to cover much more important ground: firstly, the background and production of the film, particularly the wider relevance of the giallo boom and the carefully-selected cast, then a detailed scene-by-scene analysis focusing on the visceral use of movement, light, colour and symbolism, and finally an exploration of the film’s reception and lasting impact. These chapters are a pleasure to read, as Heller-Nicholas’s enthusiasm and interest in the film is infectious, not to mention her well-chosen observations.
The book is illustrated with stills from the film, has comprehensive footnotes and a useful bibliography, but in addition, a fascinating interview from 2014, with the cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, in which he speaks evocatively about the technical aspects of the shoot, his passion for creating innovative lighting effects, and his influences, among other topics. He discusses the driving aesthetic of ‘never to subtract, rather to add’, which, in conclusion, is an excellent description of what this book does for me. It complements and adds layers to my appreciation of the film, without subtracting those things which we love it for – the mystery, beauty and fear.