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 Sidney Lanfield. Starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Wendy Barrie, Lionel Atwill, Richard Greene, John Carradine, E.E. Clive. USA 1939 80 mins Certificate: PG
Out Now from Studiocanal. Blu Ray / DVD.
The 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle mystery has, of course, been adapted many times in many different media, though this lavish monochrome 20th Century Fox production endures better than most. It proved to be a career-defining movie for actor Basil Rathbone, already a star thanks to two then-recent Oscar-nominated roles, and now essaying the character of Sherlock Holmes for what would be the first of fourteen feature films (the second, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, arrived in theatres just months after this one).
This California-filmed HOUND gets an immediate, guaranteed laugh from British audiences for an opening title card informing us that there’s nowhere in England more dismal than the “moors of Dartmoor”. The central location is referred to no less as “a vast expanse of primitive wasteland”. Clearly, the researcher whose work led to this condemnation of a picturesque highlight of Southern Devon has never spent a Saturday night (or, indeed, any night) in King’s Lynn.
You will, surely, know the story, which opens with the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville on the moors. The locals talk ominously of murder, while there is much murmuring of strange footprints on the crime scene, said to be that of a giant hound of unknown origin. Sir Charles’ young heir, Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene) arrives from Canada to London, and we learn of the enduring curse dictating any Baskerville who inherits the estate meets with a premature demise. Henry himself dismisses the implications as poppycock, while fussy, shifty-eyed doctor Lionel Atwill turns to the occult for assistance, with his jittery, psychic other half (“My wife has consented to a séance!”). The ever-determined and playful Holmes and his loyal, jovial Dr Watson (Nigel Bruce) are on the case.
With its highly evocative, eerie set pieces on said “dismal” moors, this adaptation holds particular appeal to fans of the pre-war American horror pictures, being visually reminiscent of the fabulous 1930’s studio-bound Universal genre films. The connection is reinforced by the presence of familiar genre actors such as E E Clive, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill and Rathbone himself. Indeed, both Rathbone and Atwill co-starred the same year in one of Universal’s finest (and most underrated) hours, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.
It’s an absorbing, sprightly paced picture peopled with lively character parts and a splendidly dry and witty double act between Rathbone and Bruce that’s highlighted by the comic set piece in which Holmes outwits Watson via a cunning, somewhat bizarre disguise. What’s more, the film’s once-censored final-line (“Watson, the needle!”), alluding to Holmes’ drug habit, remains one of the most astonishing throwaway bits of business in vintage Hollywood cinema.
The Blu-ray provides the movie with a lushly atmospheric HD restoration, alongside a pair of documentaries: the ever-engaging Christopher Frayling offers a 50 minute consideration of Holmes on screen, while Michael Druxman positions HOUND in the context of Rathbone’s lengthy career.