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.
BLU-RAY REVIEW – SUSPIRIA: 4K RESTORATION – *****
Directed by Dario Argento. Starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Barbara Magnolfi, Udo Kier, Miguel Bosé. Horror, Italy, 99 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on Dual Format DVD & Blu-ray by CultFilms on December 4th 2017.
Having taken four years to fully restore to director Dario Argento’s original vision you could say that this stunning 4K restoration of his 1977 masterpiece SUSPIRA has been somewhat hotly anticipated by the horror community. Why is this? Because SUSPIRIA is highly regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time, an assault on the senses both visually and audibly, and that was before Cult Labs got their hands on it to give it a 40th anniversary polish.
As with the majority of Dario Argento movies – and Italian movies in general – plot doesn’t really come into SUSPIRIA a great deal. All you need to know is that lead character Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper – PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) is a dance student who arrives at a prestigious German ballet academy and soon discovers that the school is a front for a coven of witches, and after that you can let Argento and his crew take you on a wild journey as bright, vivid colours clash with a haunting score and huge crashing drums and bangs, the filmmaker running riot with everything he has in his creative palette to keep you disorientated as Suzy realises that the murders being committed around the academy are more than just the work of a maniac.
If truth be told, there isn’t really much you can say about SUSPIRIA that hasn’t been said already as it really is one of the true originals of genre cinema, being effortlessly creepy thanks to Argento’s expressionist use of colour and a sublime score by Goblin that captures the essence of what Argento had in his mind and helps translate that vision. Coming off the back of his giallo DEEP RED and his not-really-a-trilogy ‘Animal Trilogy’, Argento’s move into pure horror with SUSPIRIA, the first part of his so-called ‘Three Mothers Trilogy’, has never really been matched by any of his later works, and that includes the second part, 1980s INFERNO (third part MOTHER OF TEARS eventually followed in 2007 and was met with mostly negative reviews, although based on its own merits it is a fairly decent occult romp), but when you have a movie like SUSPIRIA in your catalogue of work you don’t really need to justify yourself any further.
In fact, Argento justifies his reputation as a director with vision during SUSPIRIA’s opening 10 minutes as Suzy arrives in Germany during a thunderstorm and one of the students from the ballet school runs away. We’re not given any clue as to who she is running from or why but her fate is soon detailed in beautifully grisly fashion as Dario Argento literally puts a nightmare on the screen amidst a flurry of swirling colours, broken glass and dripping blood, and this is still during the first few minutes! After that the set pieces that are dreamt up bring that nightmarish vision to life with surrealist disconnect as random horrors such as a pit of razor wire, a guide dog turning on its master in a hauntingly empty square and murderous ghostly apparitions are presented like images from a dark fairy tale woven together by a serviceable story to create a sensory overload unlike anything that American horror movies were doing at that time.
So what else do you get in this Limited Collector’s Edition apart from a classic movie looking and sounding amazing? You get that stunning artwork on an embossed slipcase for a start but inside you get a brand new 27-minute interview with Dario Argento discussing SUSPIRIA and how he put it together plus a newly recorded introduction to the movie from the man himself and a featurette detailing the restoration process. Other extras have been transported over from the previous DVD/Blu-ray release, namely an audio commentary by Kim Newman and Alan Jones, archive interviews and FEAR AT 400 DEGREES: THE CINE-EXCESS OF SUSPIRIA, an archive featurette about the film so there is plenty to delve into but all the talk and discussion about SUSPIRIA cannot do the film justice as it is a movie you don’t just watch but one you experience, and providing you have a nice big screen to show off the crystal-clear and dynamically perfect visuals and a decent sound system – preferably one with multiple channels to really get the full effect of that score – then this gorgeous restoration is pretty much the final word on the finest horror movie from one of the genre’s most imaginative filmmakers at his creative peak. Wouldn’t want to miss out on that now, would you?