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.
DVD Review – THE BLEEDER ****
Directed by Philippe Falardeau. Starring Liev Schreiber, Elizabeth Moss, Ron Perlman, Jim Gaffigan, Naomi Watts, Michael Rappaport. USA 2016 Certificate: 15 97 mins
Released on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital by Lionsgate UK on August 21st 2017
Often under-used or overlooked, Liev Schreiber gets a great feature film showcase in THE BLEEDER, a compelling snapshot of the life of heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner. It has been restored to its original shooting title for this UK release after a U.S. run under the more transparent moniker CHUCK – which means now it sounds like a straight-to-Asda found footage slasher flick.
Fond of calling himself the “real” Rocky Balboa after the release of the original Stallone movie in 1976, Wepner also bragged that he was to his New Jersey home town of Bayonne what Sinatra was to Brooklyn. Seemingly destined to be a fighter from his 1950’s childhood when he discovered an ability to take a punch, Wepner moonlights as a liquor salesman when not reigning supreme as New Jersey’s heavyweight champion. Always fond of putting on a show, we meet him in the mid 70’s as he watches Foreman and Ali’s “Rumble In The Jungle” on TV prior to being summoned to fight Ali when a need arises for the legendary fighter to be pitted against a white boxer. His unprecedented 15 rounds with Ali elevates his reputation still further, but his ragged personality is not conducive to successful relationships, as reflected by the decline of his union with loyal wife Elizabeth Moss.
Alongside nicely handled portraits of Ali and Stallone (by, respectively, Pooch Hall and Morgan Spector), CHUCK boasts rich support work from Ron Perlman as Wepner’s manager, the always underrated Michael Rappaport as his brother and Jim Gaffigan as his best buddy. It adds up to a vivid and sympathetic portrait of a deeply flawed but well-meaning guy caught up in the endless pursuit of celebrity. As his family crumbles, cocaine benders unfold and loose women fall at his feet, Wepner becomes ever more besotted by the need to stay famous even if it means…wrestling. Schreiber is utterly convincing and commands this movie through its episodic narrative structure, conveying the discomfort of auditioning for Stallone, the humiliation of charity shows in which he has to box with a bear and the heart-breaking awkwardness of a cringe-inducing parent-teacher meeting with his estranged daughter. The hugely gifted Moss brings zest and typical conviction to the usually disposable alienated-wife role.
The period is credibly evoked (disco, Kojak on TV, Bee Gees and Bachman Turner Overdrive on the soundtrack) and fans of the era’s movies will particularly dig the narrative turn – including a glimpse on the set of LOCK UP – that reinforces Wepner’s famous link to ROCKY. His unbridled joy at watching ROCKY clean up at the Oscars, which he saw as a personal victory, is the kind of rapturous moment (along with its resolution) reflecting the film’s relatively optimistic approach to the standard heavy, intense realm of the boxing biopic.