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 HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES - ***
Directed by Douglas Hickox, Starring: Ian Richardson, Donald Churchill, Denholm Elliott. Crime, Horror, UK, 1983, 100mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray, download and on-demand on April 25th by Second Sight.
“But without the imagination Watson, there would be no horror”.
Originally planned as a series of six made-for-TV films, US producer Sy Weintraub’s plan was scuppered after just two (THE SIGN OF FOUR being the other) were completed due to copyright wrangling with the Conan Doyle estate and Granada Television swooping in and making their own Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett as the famous detective.
Directed by Douglas (THEATRE OF BLOOD) Hickox, with a script penned by Charles (THE FLY, PSYCHO III) Edward Pogue, and lensed by veteran cinematographer Ronnie Taylor (whose incredible roster of jaw-droppingly diverse credits even include three Argento’s), clearly there is much to entice horror fans to revisit this re-working of the tale of the glowing beasty on the moors.
Ian Richardson’s interpretation of Holmes is a friendlier, better humoured reading of the Baker Street sleuth and one I immediately warmed to. His impish playfulness is encapsulated by his masquerade as a fortune-telling gypsy popping up unexpectedly with his pack of cards disguised as a cross between Ron Moody’s ‘Fagin’ from OLIVER! and Peter Cushing’s ‘Doctor Schreck’ from DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS.
Donald Churchill’s ‘Watson’ is less endearing however, coming across as an annoying, pompous, blustering windbag. Inevitably, Pogue’s screenplay plays fast and loose with some of the original story’s elements – but one reward of this is to introduce the character of ‘Geoffrey Lyons’. Inspired casting throws up Brian Blessed in the role, who SHOUTS a lot whilst chewing up the scenery, is mistakenly considered a prime-suspect due to his ‘black’ beard (which in reality is the brownest black beard I’ve ever seen and therefore surely a ‘red-herring’), and towers over the production like Robbie Coltrane’s ‘Hagrid’ in the HARRY POTTER franchise. Martin Shaw is completely miscast as American Sir Henry Baskerville (inevitably dubbed), perhaps the casting department miss-interpreted their instruction to get a professional?
The actual hound of the title is initially and very unpromisingly rendered with a brief daub of animation before a suitably mighty canine (enhanced with SCOOBY-DOO day glow) is enticed to attack later on. But a word of warning to any animal lovers – this production is ruthless in its depiction of dispatching creatures great and small. Whilst Sir Hugo Baskerville is molesting farm girl Francesca Gonshaw (Maria from ALLO ‘ALLO!) her stolen horse is torturously consumed by the quick-sand like bog that is Grimpen Mire. This triggered my traumatic flashbacks to Artax’s demise in the Swamp of Sadness from THE NEVERENDING STORY, and coupled with the brutal assault it’s intercut with, this sequence would surely have brought a barrage of ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ complaints to ‘Points of View’ had it ever been shown on TV! And it doesn’t stop there. Dr Mortimer’s pooch gets chewed up more graphically than Amy Steel’s ‘Muffin’ in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, and director Hickox even throws in a close-up of rabbits being skinned and gutted and the carcass of a freshly consumed sheep – it’s a PETA video nasty I tell ya!
Production values are high for a TV film, and cinematographer Taylor even pulls off an Argento-like set-piece early on with a spiralling camera depicting Sir Charles’ death by fang juxtaposed with a steadicam chase as servants rush to his aid.
Unfortunately, I have to report that Taylor’s photography isn’t at all well served by the surprisingly ropey ‘HD’ transfer which is often so poor it’s easy to forget you’re actually watching a Blu-ray.
But this classic shaggy dog tale is reasonably well-told and provides an entertaining enough yarn to sink your teeth into, even if you are required to overly extend your imagination to evoke horror at, and from, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.
Extras: Audio commentary by ‘Holmes’ expert David Stuart Davies.