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 HILLS HAVE EYES – *****
Directed by Wes Craven. Starring Robert Houston, Dee Wallace, Susan Lanier, Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe. 89 mins Certificate: 18
Released by Arrow Video on 3rd October 2016
Following the notoriety of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, Wes Craven was assigned by producer Peter Locke to come up with something in a similarly gruesome vein, with an eye to achieve similar controversy-enhanced profit margins. Inspired to a large degree by the Sawney Bean legend (and the parallels between those committing the atrocities and those doling out the “justice”), THE HILLS HAVE EYES was the filmmaker’s second “legitimate” directorial effort. Equipped with a professional cast and a bigger budget, while ditching both the misguided “comic relief” and cruder exploitation movie elements of LAST HOUSE, Craven made a taut and highly suspenseful variation on the central theme of his incendiary breakthrough movie. It was another opportunity to expose the underlying savagery existing within us all, appearing in its purest form when a nice white bread American family are threatened by an in-bred family of cannibals.
As with LAST HOUSE, Craven’s film follows the subversive trend of modern American horror by letting so much of the horror unfold in broad daylight. The familiar on-screen advice of “Stay on the main road” (not heeded) signifies that HILLS is a keynote film in the cycle of 1970’s U.S. genre films presenting city folk vastly out of their depth when confronted by both a remote natural location and an antagonist that they cannot understand - though will match (and perhaps exceed) in terms of barbaric violence when it comes to the fight for survival. The fears of the Carter family matriarch reflect the film’s relation to the concurrent revolt-of-nature cycle that also dominated 70’s horror: she speaks nervously of over-sized rattlesnakes in the unfamiliar desert area, while the others yearn for the showers, Gin & Tonic’s and cheeseburgers which represent their “normality”.
The set-up, of course, specifically duplicates the basic scenario at the core of endless movies from DELIVERANCE through to the WRONG TURN franchise. As with LAST HOUSE, a special family occasion provides the backdrop for a drama of escalating cruelty: in place of Mari Collingwood’s milestone birthday, here the central married couple are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. The script displays Craven’s proven skill for pithy characterisation and witty observational detail; particularly when it comes to his characteristically cynical portrayal of adult characters.
The matriarch of this California-bound family puts her faith in God and, until being abruptly shot down in the film’s powerful home-invasion set piece, finds her biggest dilemma to be her daughter’s use of the word “shit”. (In LAST HOUSE, the hopelessly out-of-touch parental units are more concerned about a Alice Cooper-esque rock concert their daughter is attending rather than the more realistic threat that ends up invading their lives). The doomed patriarch is a weak-hearted retired Detective whose memories of the force are dominated by “niggers and hillbillies” and he puts his faith in gunpowder; all of this proves futile when he is captured, crucified and burned alive. As would become the norm in so much contemporary American horror, the younger generation prevails: the teenage-ish heroine played by Susan Lanier has fears of becoming “human French fries” from the start, having acknowledged that fresh air “makes me want to puke, gives me the creeps..” There’s a knowing and bleakly humorous quality to the film’s representation of typical middle class American city folks.
A familiar stop-off at a gas station enables an old-timer (John Steadman) to warn our protagonists in the horror harbinger-tradition, and provides briefly sketched exposition for the cannibal clan involving 20lb babies born sideways, a nearby Nuclear testing site and abducted prostitutes. Led by Michael Berryman - whose unforgettable visage became the poster image for this and subsequent genre films - the opposing family are as disgusted by the Carters as they are by them, and Craven refuses to craft them in one dimensional terms: you’d be hard pressed to dispute one of the most significant lines in the film: “You come out here and stick your life in my face!” They steal the Carter’s CB radio so they can sadistically turn their own modern technology against them, they eat “Beauty” the family dog (it’s the other family dog, ironically “Beast”, who survives to help save the day by becoming savage himself) and abduct the family’s latest addition, referring to the baby as a “young Thanksgiving turkey” (“About time we got some proper food around here!”). In one of the grimmest plot developments, Mom and Dad’s loss of dignity doesn’t end with their unpleasant deaths: the former ends up being used as crude bait by her surviving children to trap the cannibal clan.
Craven anticipates the recurring tropes of so many slasher films to come: the antagonist crashing suddenly through a large window during a subdued dialogue scene; victims pinned to doors to allow for a shock reveal and the brutal, bravura finale in which Lanier becomes a resilient final girl, rescuing the ostensible male “hero” and proving highly efficient with an axe. It’s slicker and more polished than the grubby, harrowing LAST HOUSE (the budget allows for an exploding caravan and a consistently good ensemble cast) though its biggest asset is the expansive yet highly oppressive use of location.
Although the violent content, as with numerous subsequent Craven films, was toned down by the MPAA (and has never been restored, so is presumed lost), it remains visceral and powerful like its predecessor. With HILLS, however, much of the impact stems not from on-screen depravities (save for gruesome details involving dog-chewed ankles and beheaded domestic birds) but from the wrenching emotional content of the violent set pieces. There are disturbingly real moments, such as Virginia Vincent desperately lamenting “That’s not my Bob!” repeatedly upon discovering her heavily charred husband. The trailer assault remains one of the most upsetting set pieces in American horror: shying away from a threatened sexual assault, it packs an enormous punch, as significant characters are viciously attacked (but suffer rather than dying straight away) and we voyeuristically observe the emotional breakdown of one of the survivors. The tagline warned “The lucky ones died first!” - almost as iconic as that for LAST HOUSE - and it wasn’t kidding.
HILLS, although always viewed in considerably more “respectable” terms than its predecessor, is just as cynical and nihilistic. Sympathetic characters survive, but at such a cost the ending feels like a hollow victory at best. The sight of the film’s meek looking second male lead (Martin Speer) transformed into a snivelling, unrepentant savage, stabbing his assailant repeatedly (and unnecessarily) while yelling “Die!” is a typically depressing post-Vietnam genre image. To reinforce the hopelessness of what we have witnessed, the film fades appropriately to red (a trick borrowed by THE BURNING at the end of its main massacre a few years later) before the ominous legend “The End” appears.
Arrow’s release gives the movie a polished appearance: the 16mm feature was never going to dazzle in HD, but this certainly is a visually and aurally satisfying affair for anyone that remembers growing up with the murky Palace videotape. New features involve a chat with Martin Speer and composer Don Peake, who is engaging discussing his atonal, experimental soundtrack - a self-described “ugly score”. All of the other significant players are rounded up in Perry Martin’s 55 minute documentary, previously used in Anchor Bay’s 2005 DVD release. The much missed Craven is marvellously witty and captivating, as he always was, recalling the tortuous shoot and one of his many miserable experiences with the MPAA. Bluthe, Wallace, Houston and Berryman, among others, all contribute vivid recollections.
Also on the disc and of interest is an alternate ending that recuts the parallel climactic action before closing on a sentimental, hand-holding note that is alien to everything we have just witnessed and involves an unlikely union of sorts between what remains of the two families. It even concludes with relatively chirpy picture credits for the cast members (something Craven used in LAST HOUSE and much later in all four SCREAM movies). Needless to say, they were right to use the harsh, unforgiving, abrupt ending we all know and love.