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
DVD REVIEW - LEECH WOMAN - ***
Directed by Edward Dein. Starring Coleen Gray, Grant Williams, Phillip Terry, Gloria Talbott, Arthur Batanides, Estelle Hemsley, Kim Hamilton, John Van Dreelan. Horror/Sci-Fi, USA, 73 mins, cert 12.
Released in the UK on DVD by Screenbound Pictures on 23rd May 2016.
By 1960 the Cold War paranoia metaphors of the sci-fi/horror movies from the previous decade had cooled a little bit and mainstream US horror films were moving towards a more grounded approach, with films like PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM getting under audiences skins by placing their tales of terror in a real world setting. However, Universal Studios were looking to pair up their US theatrical release of Hammer’s THE BRIDES OF DRACULA with a B-movie for a double feature and knocked up THE LEECH WOMAN on the cheap.
Scientist Dr. Paul Talbot (Phillip Terry) is in a destructive marriage with his aging alcoholic wife June (Coleen Gray) and is about to grant her a divorce when Malla (Estelle Hemsley), an elderly African woman, enters his office claiming she is 152 years old and, in return for the money to pay for her journey back to her tribe in Africa, offers to share with Talbot the secret of age reversal. Excited by this discovery Talbot persuades June to travel to Africa with him in order to retrieve the secret potion from Malla and her people but once they arrive Talbot reveals his plan to use the concoction on June, something which she is not happy about. But once the couple see the results on Malla (now played by Kim Hamilton) June is a bit more receptive, especially as her husband has been completely cold to her since they arrived in Africa, and now that the secret ingredient to Malla’s potion has been revealed, Dr. Talbot discovers that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Selling itself as a creature feature, THE LEECH WOMAN is a bit deceptive as there are no leeches or mentions of leeches in it. In fact, the only thing ‘leechy’ about it is the old age make-up that Estelle Hemsley and Coleen Gray have to wear, and, along with the stock footage insert shots of wild African animals and genuine tribespeople performing a ritual dance (for a giggle, see if you can spot the difference between this footage and the shots of made-up extras trying to blend in), this is what gives THE LEECH WOMAN the really cheap B-movie charm that lumps it in with other Universal monster movies. Underneath the dodgy make-up, however, is a pretty decent film that does that 1950’s thing of getting straight into the meat of the matter with very little mucking about, and running at a tight 73 minutes it doesn’t feel the need to fill itself with pointless details to pad it out.
Clearly an influence on Hammer’s COUNTESS DRACULA, THE LEECH WOMAN is a fun little film that falls way short of being a classic of the Universal Monsters canon but is still entertaining enough to keep you watching to see what happens to the main characters, and it does have a very similar vibe to THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, which isn’t a bad thing, although it probably has more in common with that movie’s sequels given its low budget. Coleen Gray gives a fine performance as June, a woman who engages our sympathies during the first part of the film before greed takes over and she becomes, literally, a different person, and the supporting cast are all equally good, thankfully avoiding the overblown theatrics that characterised many B-movies of the era and even underplaying certain scenes. Overall, an enjoyable 73 minutes that doesn’t quite stand up to the genre standards of the time – or any other time, really – due to its obvious limitations but is nevertheless worth checking out for some old-school sci-fi/horror schlock.