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 CHURCH– ****
Directed by Michele Soavi, Starring Hugh Quarshie, Tomas Arana, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Barbara Cupisti, Asia Argento, Robert Caruso, Roberto Corbiletto. Horror, Italy, 87 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray by Shameless Screen Entertainment on 28th November 2016.
Following on in the Italian tradition of unofficial knock-off sequels to popular movies, Michele Soavi’s 1989 movie THE CHURCH is sometimes titled DEMONS 3 in certain territories as it could be tenuously looked at as a sequel to Lamberto Bava’s gonzoid classic DEMONS (itself a thinly disguised homage to THE EVIL DEAD). Although the immediate connections really don’t amount to anything more than Soavi’s name being attached to both movies and them both being produced by Dario Argento, once you dig a little deeper you can see how the links have been made.
And also, if you listen to the Michele Soavi interview in the special features then the director clarifies that initially the basic idea for THE CHURCH was going to be DEMONS 3 but Soavi and Bava went their separate ways, with Bava making the abysmal DEMONS 3: THE OGRE and Soavi deciding to move away from the schlock-horror of DEMONS to something a little more refined. The opening scenes of THE CHURCH certainly go some way to fulfilling that as Teutonic Knights slaughter a whole village of people accused of witchcraft and devil worship in a violent assault that forgoes the oozing neon liquids of DEMONS and keeps the gore a little more grounded (for an Italian horror movie anyway).
The corpses of said villagers are thrown into a pit and buried, their grave marked with a huge stone cross and a cathedral built on top to try and keep the evil inside the mass grave beneath, but you know how these things go and we fast forward to the then-present day and Evan (Tomas Arana – GLADIATOR), the new librarian of the church, unwittingly unleashes the dark forces when he breaks the seal that holds them in. This action also triggers a safety mechanism installed by the original architect that automatically locks all the doors, trapping all of the visitors – including a class of school children, an arguing biker couple and the priests and bishop that work there – inside as gradually they succumb to the satanic influence that has been unleashed. All except for Father Gus (Hugh Quarshie – NIGHTBREED), who avoids being possessed but must try and find the one mechanism that will bring the church down in one fell swoop and destroy the demonic presence forever.
It could be said that THE CHURCH is something of a slow-burn as after the initial swords-and-horses rush of the opening scenes it does settle down into a more sombre, atmospheric mood that Soavi manages to maintain throughout thanks to the fantastic score and Soavi’s knack of melding classic Gothic imagery with a garish ‘80s colour palette. His instinct of creating a standalone Gothic horror away from the more brutal and splattery DEMONS template pays off, and the obvious religious metaphors help to give it a bit of depth despite the plot not being one of the strongest elements, although that honour would probably go to the laughably bad post-production ADR that makes most of the characters sound like creations from THE FAST SHOW. The movie also shamelessly(!) rips off a famous scene from ROSEMARY’S BABY that may raise a few eyebrows but again, this is an Italian production and such tropes come with the territory.
But even so, THE CHURCH is still a fine example of ‘80s Italian horror, i.e. visually impressive, gruesomely gory and plot holes galore, such as how is there a massive pit of dead bodies beneath the church that the people who built the subway train line that also runs underneath it didn’t notice? It doesn’t really matter as the subway gag was only there to provide a special effect shot (and a hilariously bad one at that) and didn’t tie into anything else, as is the way with Italian movies. Nevertheless, the 2K restoration is pretty flawless and looks fantastic even on DVD, with plenty of detail on display that many a quickly-made B-movie wouldn’t usually bother with so in that sense it does elevate itself above the faster-paced DEMONS movies that it started out trying to be. The score, courtesy of Goblin, Philip Glass and Keith Emerson, is suitably Gothic and very 1980s, again forgoing the pumping heavy metal that was the norm for Italian horror at the time, and only helps to enforce the atmosphere that more-or-less carries the film. It is difficult to recommend Italian horror cinema to those not already invested in the quirks and traditions that it has but THE CHURCH makes for a solid entry point if you’re a curious newcomer and also a worthy re-watch if you’re an old hand.