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
BLU-RAY REVIEW – THE BEAST WITH 1,000,000 EYES – *
Directed by David Kramarsky & Roger Corman. Starring Paul Birch, Lorna Thayer, Dona Cole, Richard Sargeant. Horror/Sci-fi, USA, 78 mins, cert PG.
Released in the UK on DVD by Fabulous Films on 4th July 2016.
Coming from an era when science fiction and horror melded together to create varying degrees of metaphor about the Cold War and the threat of nuclear terrorism, 1955’s THE BEAST WITH 1,000,000 EYES is at once both a typical example of US propaganda regarding the red invasion and also one of the most misleading and dull films to get a wide release, certainly from the 1950s and, quite possibly, ever.
The biggest and most obvious gripe is that the feline-like creature featured in the fantastic cover art is nowhere to be found in this film, and the titular ‘beast’ purporting to have a million eyes is actually a huge spinning top and a posh voiceover that can claim to see everything on the Earth all at once, hence the title. Which makes it quite baffling that out of the whole world the ‘beast’ decides to invade the minds of the few people and animals that live on a remote ranch out in the desert, and once those minds are invaded they do the worst thing possible – they make noise and occasionally nudge their victims, like the cow that the alien invaders take over which raises it’s foot a few times and dribbles. Oh yes, this is terrifying stuff, especially for a generation that just witnessed the worst that humanity could do to each other 10 short years before.
But there are other gripes too. Not only does not a lot actually happen but the cast are all pretty bad, even by 1950s B-movie standards. It’s quite probable that lead actors Paul Birch, Lorna Thayer and Dona Cole only met the morning that shooting started as their portrayal of the dysfunctional Kelley family is as uncomfortable to watch as it undoubtedly was to perform, judging by their strained delivery and apparent disgust of intimacy. Granted, they are trying to be distant to each other so that when the reveal of the biscuit tin with a propeller welded to the top it that is masquerading as the alien visitor trying to understand humanity is made clear towards the end of the film you then side with them as they bond against the ‘beast’, but none of the actors can pull it off, resulting in a desire to see them wiped out by the rampaging animals, if only they could rampage a little more instead of just mooing and barking, which never killed anybody.
When viewing vintage sci-fi/horror movies from over 50 years ago you need to apply a certain leniency with regards to acting, writing, special effects and so on, but when you look at the big guns from the era – THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, THE FLY, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE BLOB, etc. – they still stand up because there is a quality and attention to detail that THE BEAST WITH 1,000,000 just doesn’t have on any level. It doesn’t even measure up to lower budget but still fun movies like THE LEECH WOMAN or the much-derided PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, which is a terrible film but there is still something that makes it watchable at worst and even slightly enjoyable at best. This movie is clumsy and poorly made but even worse, it is tedious and, location photography aside, has nothing about it to recommend , unless you’re a die-hard Roger Corman collector and simply must own every movie he has put his name to. Even so, this one is still worth avoiding.