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 BURNING– ****
Directed by Tony Maylam. Starring Brian Matthews, Brian Backer, Leah Ayres, Lou David, Larry Joshua, Fisher Stevens, Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg, Holly Hunter. USA 1981 91 mins Certificate: 18
Out now on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow Video
THE BURNING has endured as one of the most popular – and rereleased – of the cheap American slasher movies made between 1980 and 1982 to swiftly ride the lucrative coattails of Sean S Cunningham’s FRIDAY THE 13TH. In the U.K., its lasting infamy was secured by its place on the “Video Nasties” list, even though it was no more “nasty” than some of the rival U.S. slashers that never fell victim to the laughably random witch-hunts of select genre cassettes. It was an early success for Miramax, with the now-legendary Weinstein brothers taking writing and producing credits: they were shrewd enough to contrive a scenario in which another vengeful, counsellor-hating killer (represented via subjective camera, silhouettes and shadows until the climactic reveal) butchers young people at a Crystal Lake-esque summer camp. They even imported Tom Savini to craft the gory deeds: the rising make-up effects genius gets an additional, loftier credit here in the form of “horror sequences designed by…”
Aside from Savini and the Weinsteins, you’ll spot several familiar names on the credits, starting with Rick Wakeman, who provided the pounding, electronic score that was very much characteristic of the period’s low budget genre scores and relies on cheap, HALLOWEEN-inspired sounds to underline scares. Jack Sholder, later director of the often-overlooked urban slasher ALONE IN THE DARK, was the editor, while the appealing cast includes a very skinny Fisher Stevens (as a character referred to as “the world’s jerk-off champ”), a fleetingly seen Holly Hunter and a pre-SEINFELD Jason Alexander as the obligatory wisecracking member of the group. That’s a lot of established and burgeoning talent assembled for an assembly-line knock-off, and THE BURNING is certainly in the upper echelons of its sub-genre.
The simplistic plot follows the prank-gone-wrong format of several contemporaries, including TERROR TRAIN and PROM NIGHT; SLAUGHTER HIGH and scores of others would continue to use the catalytic plot device for years to come. Much-reviled camp caretaker Cropsy (Lou David) is the unintended victim of severe full body burns by a bunch of mischievous kids who had set out to scare him. Five years on, he’s released from hospital after many failed attempts at skin grafts, and is sensitively referred to by an orderly as a “fuckin’ Big Mac, overdone!” After killing a hooker to provide an on-screen kill in the first reel, Cropsy returns to the now-renamed camp and unleashes his simmering resentment at American youth with a natty pair of gardening shears.
The lengthy build-up includes the expected quota of gratuitous showers, voyeuristic shots of girls’ butts, tomfoolery in and around the lake and “Oh! It’s you!”-style hand-on-shoulder scares. Crucially, however, the young cast are sympathetic and credible (the teenagers look the right age, for once) and the film makes satisfying deviations on characterisations and plot turns that were considered clichéd even as early as 1981. The film dispenses with the expected “Final Girl” protagonist, in favour of a good-natured male lead – regretting his own involvement in the devastating prank – and the unexpected survival of a persecuted misfit (nicely played by Brian Backer) who, after being established as an oddball peeping tom, evolves into a resourceful and empathetic character.
Of course, the film is full of scenes that are interchangeable with any number of other slashers from the time: grab yourself a pen so you can tick off old favourites like the midnight skinny dip that ends in death, a campfire gathering serving as exposition and concludes with a false scare and a girl’s first, unsatisfying sexual experience resulting in post-coital bloodshed. The Savini-engineered, brief-‘n’-bloody executions are excellent, however, with the make-up effects standing up well 35 years on (with a couple of exceptions: that over-sized prop hand that stands in for Fisher Stevens’ real mitt didn’t convince, even in 1981).
The film also deserves its relatively strong reputation for incorporating one of the slasher genre’s greatest set pieces. In a shocking left-field development at the midway point, several characters are massacred in swift succession on a raft, as Cropsy rises up from a canoe as a towering, faceless monster, slicing fingers, throats and foreheads in a marvellously brutal and startlingly well edited display of viscera. It’s an unforgettable sequence and, although the rest of the film truly struggles to find anything to match it, Maylam’s directorial efficiency ensures a suspenseful climax and an effectively resonant closing scene that reinforces the plot’s huge debt to recurring urban legends, with Cropsy becoming a campfire tale “monster” for the ages. “Don’t move…you’re dead!”
After years of being undercut by a characteristically shoddy (and, for a long time, censored) Vipco release in the UK, THE BURNING becomes the latest 80’s slasher flick to get the red-carpet Arrow treatment. The transfer is a beauty for such a low budget film of significant vintage: it’s never looked more pristine and colourful. As always, you get a smorgasbord of extras, including a couple ported over from the U.S. MGM DVD, alongside a new commentary from the engaging “Hysteria Continues” podcast quartet and interviews with Lou David and the ever-hilarious Rick Wakeman.