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.
DVD REVIEW – DVD REVIEW – THE MAN FROM PLANET X – **
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Starring Robert Clarke, Margaret Field, William Schallert, Raymond Bond. Horror/Sci-fi, USA, 70 mins, cert PG.
Released in the UK on DVD by Fabulous Films on 24th October 2016.
Upon reflection, 1951 could be seen as a transitional year for genre movies. Howard Hawks’ THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD set the template for the decade ahead, mixing sci-fi-based terror with post-WWII paranoia for a generation about to explore space for the first time but that year also saw the release of THE MAN FROM PLANET X, a title that also suggests alien invasions and desperate scientists trying to save Earth from extraterrestrial beings but this movie probably owes more to the gothic, mist-shrouded cemeteries of the Universal horror movies from the previous decade than it does to the pioneering ambitions of its creators.
At face value THE MAN FROM PLANET X comes across as a pilot DOCTOR WHO episode, all matte painting backgrounds, papier mâché alien masks and spaceships that look like a toddler has designed them in crayon and handed the image to an underfunded props department but if you dig a little deeper there is a little – not much, but a little – bit more going on under the surface. Like all 1950s sci-fi there is the undercurrent of Cold War politics, the idea of our morally superior way of life being invaded by foreign beings looking to bring about change, but what makes THE MAN FROM PLANET X a little different is the ambiguity of the titular character, a humanoid alien with a huge head squeezed into a glass space helmet who has crash landed his craft on a remote Scottish island just as Planet X is predicted to orbit close to our planet in a few hours. Are the two incidents connected? What does it all mean? Is the alien friendly? We don’t know, and by the end of the movie we still don’t know as the alien uses mind control on the locals to free up his craft so he can launch away back to where he came from. It all goes a little bit BUTTON MOON by the end as the creature manages to get away after the local constabulary have unwittingly helped it dig its ship out of the bog it landed in and it disappears.
Lead character John Lawrence is played by Robert Clarke (MIDNIGHT MOVIE MASSACRE) and is a likeable enough presence in the style of a poor man’s Basil Rathbone, and his love interest Enid (Margaret ‘mother of Sally’ Field – 3000 A.D.) isn’t the usual shrieking damsel in distress that plagues movies from this time, so spending time with them during the slower parts isn’t as painful as it could have been had the actors not been quite so charming. Dr. Mears (William Schallert – INNER SPACE) is the most interesting character, a shifty man looking to make a bit of profit out of the new discovery that seems to have been presented to them, but this a genre B-movie so he’s not really given enough development but unfortunately there’s not really enough of a story here to fill in the gaps and once the intrigue of the mysterious spacecraft is addressed by the unintentionally hilarious first appearance of the alien then the film just seems to fall apart and shamble towards its end. It is only 70 minutes long and if you view it with a sense of humour then it is maybe worth a look once if monochrome sci-fi/horror from a bygone age is your thing and you want to see where the transition from traditional horror into something more space age fits in but is it actually a good film? Not really.