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 HOWLING *****
Directed by Joe Dante. Starring Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Picardo. Horror, USA, 87 mins, cert 18.
Released on DVD and BluRay in the UK by StudioCanal on the 9th October, 2017.
Of all the 80s horror franchises, the Howling series was the one with the least continuity: a set of cheap direct-to-video horrors which didn't connect significantly with each other, to the extent that none of the first four films were even shot on the same continents. None of the follow-ups were any good at all (in particular, the third has a guest appearance by Dame Edna Everage while the seventh degenerates into an unholy morass of puns and line dancing), and a terrible 2011 reboot hit the supermarket DVD bargain shelves with a deafening silence. Maybe the original had some of its thunder stolen by AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON which came out five months later, and it's the John Landis film that seems to have ended up as the fan favourite. Well, maybe it's heresy but, if I have to compare the two, I prefer·THE HOWLING.
The legacy of Joe Dante's 1980 original might have been tarnished by all those in-name-only sequels, which is a pity as it's generally great. Following a traumatic end to an ongoing investigation into serial killer Eddie The Mangler, TV reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) is sent to recuperate at a countryside retreat run by psychiatrist George Waggner (Patrick Macnee). But it's not long before the odd behaviour of some of her fellow residents and the weird night-time howling lead to a horrifying discovery: "The Colony" is actually a community of werewolves, torn between the primal urge to hunt and kill humans and the more social need to live with them...
Maybe too much time is spent in the early sections on the disastrous hunt for Eddie and not enough spent with the beasts in the second half, but that's probably nitpicking. Boasting the usual injoke references to old movies, with veteran stars and Dante regulars like John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Picardo and Dick Miller (again playing Walter Paisley of course) and most of the major characters named after obscure werewolf movie directors including Roy William Neill and Erle Kenton, years before it became a lazy trope to drop in Sheriff Hooper and Professor Argento, THE HOWLING is great fun for hardcore movie geeks. But it's got so much more. Again, not wishing to just compare the two big werewolf movies of that year, but the physical transformation effects are top-notch, at the very least the equal of those in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON's, and Pino Donaggio's score is far more effective than Landis' collection of moon-based pop songs. More importantly, it's got a much better ending than LONDON's somewhat abrupt and downbeat conclusion.
The new Blu release includes the now-obligatory selection of featurettes and bonuses which probably make it worth the upgrade from previous releases: a commentary from the original novel's author Gary Brandner, interviews with co-screenwriter Terence Winkless and effects animator David Allen. (Some of these extras appear to have been previously released on the American Shout! Factory version; collectors should note that we still don't get the fake porn movie from the sex shop viewing booth sequence, which the BBFC rejected from the 2004 release.) If you don't already have THE HOWLING on your shelf (why not?) this is as good an opportunity as any.