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 BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE ****
Directed by Dario Argento, Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Eva Renzi. Horror, Italy, 1970, 98mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK in a Limited Edition Blu-ray/DVD dual format package on 19th June 2016 by Arrow Video.
“Right, bring in the perverts!”
Dario Argento’s stylishly assured directorial debut was the catalyst for the renaissance of the giallo, and acted as a significant calling card for one of horror cinema’s most celebrated cinematic stylists.
Loosely adapted from Fredric Brown’s pulp 1949 mystery novel ‘The Screaming Mimi’ (previously adapted for the 1958 film SCREAMING MIMI), Argento take, stalking in the footsteps of Mario Bava’s THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, provided a revised blueprint for dozens of giallos which followed in its wake.
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), an American writer on an extended stay in Rome to overcome his writers’ block, witnesses an assault on a woman in a modern art gallery for which he is powerless to intervene as he gets trapped between the gallery’s sliding glass doors. Haunted by a nagging feeling that there was more to the incident than it appeared, he becomes obsessed with the case and pursues his own investigation in parallel with the police who are desperately trying to identify a serial killer terrorising Rome with a string of brutal murders. In doing so, Sam brings himself to the attention of the killer, and soon it is Sam, and his girlfriend Giulia (Suzy Kendall) who are being stalked.
Argento sets out his intentions right from the off by focusing down on an unseen black leather-gloved killer fetishizing over a selection of polished knives before covertly photographing the next would-be victim. He then proceeds to foreshadow the iconic gallery set-piece by introducing our protagonist Sam by tracking him down a corridor of glass display cases filled with stuffed birds (whilst a predatory cat looks on). There’s much joy to be had in spotting the incidental details, visual puns and coded clues in the film. The ironic fact that Sam’s case of writer’s block has resulted in him having to write a ‘manual on the preservation of rare birds’, and the striking prehistoric-like bird claw sculpture in the gallery are all winks and nods to the film’s title and hint at the killer’s denouement.
Many of Argento’s traits and recurring themes are already present in his debut feature. The theme of voyeurism is to the forefront as Sam is trapped between the glass panes he is forced to spectate on the gallery assault as are we the viewers, all within a glass frame that resembles the ratio of a ‘scope cinema screen. The misperception of what has been seen, and how the eye can be tricked (at least initially) is also a recurrent trope in subsequent works. Despite being an animal lover, cats often don’t fare too well in Argento’s films - here they are captured, caged, fattened and cooked! And then there’s the influence of art itself, a painting depicting a past trauma acting as a psychological trigger, and the physical threat of sharp pieces of sculpture.
What’s probably not recognised so much is the amount of humour, albeit mostly of the non-politically correct variety, in the film. There’s intentional light relief in the form of endearing Gildo Di Marco’s stuttering pimp “so long” Garullo, the grumpy reclusive cat-hating artist, and the twitchy informer who wouldn’t seem out of place in a Pink Panther film or a ‘Fast Show’ sketch. There are also the more embarrassing character depictions, notably with the gay antique shop owner (whose overtures towards Sam make Lieutenant Gruber's interactions with cafe owner René in BBC comedy ‘ALLO ‘ALLO! positively subtle in comparison.) And then there’s the classic suspect line-up scene, which not only features the headline quote “Right, bring in the perverts!”, but then manages to top that with Inspector Morosini’s exasperated reaction to one of the attendees in the line-up: “How many times do I have to tell you, Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts!” To be fair to Argento, sexuality and gender are subjects he does not shy away from, and are tackled with greater significance in his later works, so I’m inclined to award him a ‘get out of jail free’ card this time. Interestingly, he doesn’t subscribe to the traditional macho male hero image, despite Sam’s outward appearance. He’s rendered impotent to intercede in the gallery assault, his writing has faltered, there’s a hint that he may have had a drink problem, escapes assignation himself by sheer luck on more than one occasion, seems unreasonably blasé about how his meddling might draw the killer’s attentions onto his girlfriend, and is clearly bested by the killer. (And what’s with the ticking metronome behind the bed, is Argento suggesting he is a repetitive and uninventive lover?)
Accusations of misogyny are frequently hurled at Argento, to which it must be said he hasn’t always countered convincingly, but it’s only fair to note that the detectives (all male), for all their fancy (1970’s style) computer equipment and scientific analysis, fall hopelessly short in indentifying even the most fundamental fact about the killer.
The murder set-pieces, orchestrated and perpetrated by the hands of Argento himself, are less explicit and more restrained in terms of onscreen depiction than Argento would become renowned for in subsequent outings, yet one sequence involving ‘sexualised violence’ was still sufficiently problematic for the UK censor back in the day and resulted in 18 seconds of cuts (now fully restored of course, and tellingly, the rating has reduced from ‘18’ down to ’15).
The influence of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE cannot be underestimated both in Italy with the renewed interest in giallo filmmaking, but also across the pond, where it, and subsequent entries such as Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD paved the way and provided the blueprints for the next incarnation of murderous mayhem: the US slasher film. With Arrow’s brand new vibrant 4k restoration from the camera negative, it’s quite simply essential viewing.
As you’d expect, there’s a positive cornucopia of brand spanking new extras on this special release, including a new audio commentary by Troy Howarth, new visual essays and critical analysis, a brand new interview with Dario Argento, and a new interview with actor Gildo Di Marco (Garullo the pimp). And to top it all there’s also a limited edition 60-page booklet.