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.
FIlm REVIEW – THE LOVE WITCH – ****
Directed by Anna Biller. Starring Samantha Robinson, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Laura Waddell, Lily Holleman, Gian Keys. Horror, USA, 121 mins, cert 15.
Released in UK cinemas and on DVD, Blu-ray On-Demand by FrightFest Presents/Icon on 10th March 2017.
Right from the off THE LOVE WITCH dazzles you with the look – hair, make-up, a Mustang negotiating a winding coastal road and some perfectly-placed rear projection – of a 1960s movie, so much so that you could believe, if you were none the wiser, that it actually is a forgotten cinematic gem from five decades ago. However, sometime during the film somebody brings out a mobile phone and you also get to see a couple of modern cars along the way so the illusion of it being the genuine article is somewhat shattered, but credit to writer/director/editor/costume designer Anna Biller for creating such a wholly realised homage to the era and for also creating such a mesmerising expression of self through film.
The conduit of Biller’s expression is Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful young witch making her way to a new town after her husband was murdered, where she hopes to find somebody new to love her. And she does that very thing, several times in fact, because each time she uses one of her ‘love magic’ spells on a new potential love it turns out that her need for love is just too strong and the objects of her desire keep dying. However, after several attempts she does eventually meet chisel-jawed cop Griff (Gian Keys) and Elaine’s desperation to be loved drives her to ever-more extreme ways to try and capture the man of her dreams.
Despite the occult references and sinister undertones, THE LOVE WITCH arrives with the sell of being a quirky dark comedy, and while it does relish in the kitsch and camp of 1960s America it is not exactly what you would call a giggle-fest. There is humour here but it is a very knowing humour, a vein of black whimsy lurking beneath the flamboyant colours and textures of the mise-en-scène that riffs on the off-beat comedy of The Addams Family and Bewitched without going for obvious gags, assuming you are already in on the situation, accepting Elaine and her witchcraft as the eccentric plot mechanisms that they are.
And while Anna Biller perfectly recreates the look and feel of the 1960s with a gorgeous array of colour schemes, set designs and costumes that scream authenticity, THE LOVE WITCH really hangs on the central performance from Samantha Robinson, whose portrayal of the overly-romantic Elaine should – in a just world – be the kind of calling card role that will see her become a huge genre star. Everything about her performance, from her line delivery to her presentational acting style and ever-so-slight facial movements, is spot-on, and every time she is on the screen – which is a lot as, a few police station shots aside, she is pretty much in every scene – you simply cannot take your eyes off her. The supporting cast all deliver similarly pitched performances but Robinson seduces you from the very second she appears until the very end of the movie, by which time her spells have seemingly permeated across the screen and possibly even through it.
If you’re not on the same stylistic wavelength as Anna Biller then there is a good chance that THE LOVE WITCH will go right over your head and not grab you in quite the same way that it does if you are a sucker for retro-horror. While it is true that the plot is a little thin and some of the scenes feel a little stretched out, everything about THE LOVE WITCH is designed to draw you in and once you are under Elaine’s (and Anna Biller’s) spell it is impossible to look away, especially if you are watching this in HD as the swirling colours and light contrasts are simply stunning. But underneath all of the style and glamour THE LOVE WITCH is essentially a meditation on female empowerment and sexuality, and while it would have been easy to have made the film into an aggressive sexploitation piece, Biller keeps the sex and nudity to a minimum, showing bits of flesh as titillation - a nipple protruding through long hair, burlesque dancing, and naked background characters during a ritual while Elaine is centre-stage with her underwear on, and she still manages to outclass them all with her erotic posing – and celebrating the feminine without being overt or preachy. THE LOVE WITCH is certainly something different and well worth watching, if only to absorb all of the labour-of-love filmmaking craft that has gone into it, although genre fans looking for a more obvious or bombastic horror movie about witches beware as THE LORDS OF SALEM this is not.