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 – THE AMITYVILLE HORROR -1979 ***
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton. USA, Horror, 114 mins, cert 15.
Released on Limited Edition Steelbook BluRay in the UK by Second Sight on the 26th June, 2017.
So many horror movies have started from the simple premise of a family moving into a new house and finding spooky and inexplicable things happening to them and to some extent that idea goes back to 1979's THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. The first of a franchise that soon devolved into silliness (hauntings via clock, mirror and lamp from the original house) before just becoming a brand that could be slapped on any old unrelated dross (AMITYVILLE PLAYHOUSE is so abysmal you could weep), Stuart Rosenberg's film is solid, humourless, overlong and serious, and isn’t all that scary, but there are still some chills to be had from it.
A year after the previous resident murdered his entire family with a shotgun, newlyweds George (scary-bearded James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) and her three children move into their new home. Before very long things go missing, George is woken every morning at 3:15 (the exact time of the earlier killings), young daughter Amy has an increasingly sinister invisible and apparently not imaginary friend and, in what is probably the film's most memorable sequence (spoofed by James Woods in the only decent bit of SCARY MOVIE 2) priest Rod Steiger attempts to bless the house but is beset by an inexplicable swarm of flies and told by an unseen voice to get out of the house. Is there an evil presence at work there?
How much of it is true? Did any of it really happen? And does it really matter? The "based on real events" tagline might lend it a certain buzz, but it does also offer writers a get-out for characters doing nonsensical things, or at the very least not going with the smart option, which in this case is "get out of the house and don't come back". Eventually, of course, they did get out, but it's hard to see why they didn't do that much earlier - it's made out to be a simple question of money, with George Lutz financially overextended, but they have no choice when the house has made itself uninhabitable in less than a month.
This is one of those (hundreds of) films that I first watched on a VHS rental more than thirty years ago but haven't seen since, and it's certainly worth the effort of giving some of them a second look with better picture quality and in the correct ratio. I'd actually forgotten most of what happens so to some extent it was like watching it for the first time. Perhaps it's been overshadowed by more full-on hauntings such as POLTERGEIST, or more recent horror films of the Blumhouse school which like to cram in a lot more popcorn jolts in a shorter running time, but at 114 minutes THE AMITYVILLE HORROR now feels leisurely, not to say slow. (The 2005 remake, by contrast, runs just 88 minutes and that includes a longer end credits crawl.) But it does have that iconic architecture, it does have a creepy Lalo Schifrin score, and it does have Rod Steiger giving the film some agreeable overacting.
As is increasingly the norm these days, the Blu comes with a stack of extra features, including new interviews with Brolin, Lalo Schifrin and screenwriter Sandor Stern, actor Meeno Peluce who played one of the children (and now appears to have modelled his look on Brolin's), an intro and commentary from parapsychologist Hans Holzer, which looks to have been carried over from the earlier DVD release, and the full-length documentary MY AMITYVILLE HORROR in which son Daniel Lutz (renamed in the film) gives his own account of what went on. Worth picking up, then, and now my interest is piqued for a rewatch of AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION.