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
DVD REVIEW – THE ANGRY RED PLANET – **
Directed by Ib Melchior. Starring Gerald Mohr, Nora Hayden, Les Tremayne, Jack Kruschen, Tom Daly, Jack Haddock. Sci-fi/Adventure, USA, 83 mins, cert PG.
Released in the UK on DVD by Fabulous Films on 4th July 2016.
Coming out relatively late in the US horror/sci-fi cycle, 1959’s THE ANGRY RED PLANET may not always be near the top of most people’s lists when it comes to essential viewing but this is a film with some considerable influence, with the likes of ALIEN, SPECIES II, FLASH GORDON and even metal royalty Rob Zombie all tipping their hat to this giant monster-fest.
A couple of months after it went missing during a mission to Mars the spacecraft MR-1 is discovered and brought back to Earth by remote control. The two survivors are taken to the hospital as one of them, Captain O’Bannion (Gerald Mohr), has a strange growth covering one of his arms. The other survivor, Iris Ryan (Nora Hayden), then begins to tell the doctors a tale of giant monsters, strange creatures and what happened to the rest of the crew.
Featuring all manner of bizarre creations and pioneering the use of the ‘CineMagic Process’, a technique invented by filmmaker Norman Maurer and writer Sid Pink exclusively for this film, THE ANGRY RED PLANET is nothing if not original when it comes to the visuals. The CineMagic Process is used for when the crew exit their ship on Mars, giving the film a red glow and the crew an animated, less realistic appearance, and those parts of the film are the best ones, adding a layer of other-worldly oddness that comes into full effect when creatures like the huge rat-spider hybrid come to life and begin their attack. The trouble is that those moments probably total about 10 minutes of the overall running time with the rest of the film being mostly taken up with Iris’ account of what happened in the run-up to landing on the red planet, which is possibly some of the most tedious storytelling ever seen in a sci-fi movie and not helped by some of the dumbest dialogue (“To hell with radiation. Let’s go!”) delivered by actors (and that is a very loose term) who don’t really seem to know what they’re saying and hope that a smile and a wink will see them through.
All of which makes THE ANGRY RED PLANET a bit of a chore to sit through without feeling the need to keep checking the clock, which is a bit of a disappointment considering the obvious influence that this film has had on the genre. It wasn’t too many years after this originally came out that 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY redefined the sci-fi movie but looking at the two films now it may as well have been decades as the non-CineMagic Process parts of THE ANGRY RED PLANET seem archaic in comparison, so if you’re after the fun and entertaining side of Cold War-era sci-fi then it may be best to skip this one in favour of something a little less tedious, although if ever a film was in need of a remake then this could be it.