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 MUTILATOR – ****
Aka: Fall Break. Directed by Buddy Cooper. Starring Matt Mitler, Ruth Martinez, Bill Hitchcock, Connie Rogers, Frances Raines, Jack Chatham, Morey Lampley. USA 1983 86 mins Certificate: 18
Out February 12th from Arrow Video
A relative late-comer to cash in on the American slasher wave of the early 80’s – Jason had already gone 3-D by this point, and Michael Myers was M.I.A. in the bold HALLOWEEN III – THE MUTILATOR receives a long overdue new lease of home video life via Arrow’s new blu-ray. Slasher fans of a certain vintage will rejoice in the ownership of an uncut HD incarnation of a movie that is more competently crafted than many of its contemporaries, while also cheerfully incorporating all the clichés and corn you’d expect. It’s the first decent print of THE MUTILATOR to enter your lounge, and the gore restoration allows us to savour the nastier bits sadly absent from its two separate Vipco VHS / DVD releases in 1993 and 2000 respectively.
As with various precedents like HALLOWEEN and NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN, the movie’s plot hinges on a catalytic act of childhood violence. In the lengthy prologue, a gormless kid cleans his dad’s gun collection as a favour and inadvertently ends up shooting his own mom. Dad (Jack Chatham) promptly turns into an insane recluse. Unusually for a sub-genre reliant on the whodunit angle, we know the perturbed patriarch is the eponymous “Mutilator” from the get-go. The kid grows up to be the slightly uneasy Matt Mitler (“I got a bad feeling about this!”), who spends Fall Break fixing up Dad’s old beach condo with half a dozen mature-looking college friends, including Bill Hitchcock as a comic-relief law student fond of Stan Laurel impressions and even given a fleeting moment of sub-Benny Hill high-speed visual “comedy”. Dad is a keen fisherman, with a variety of tools of the trade (plus, randomly, a battle-axe) unsubtly displayed in the condo for obvious future reference, alongside prophetic dialogue exchanges like “What’s this thing?” / “That’s a gaff!” For some reason that (hilariously) no one seems to find strange, Dad also keeps a gruesome photo of a dead guy on show in the condo; a sombre Mitler notes “My dad ran him over with a ski boat….” (long pause) “….an accident”.
Slasher tropes are present and correct, including the virginal survivor girl, multiple use of killer p.o.v. shots accompanied by heavy breathing and the standard-issue lovers opting for an ill-fated nocturnal swim. The film was late in the cycle, so there’s also a sprinkling of knowing dialogue to acknowledge audience familiarity with the “rules” (“Virgins, huh? At least we’re all safe!”). The characters are more likeable than most, and also surprisingly chaste compared to, say, the far hornier folks that people the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies: other than some minor pool making-out, the most risqué things anyone get involved with are a game of (non-Strip) Monopoly and a bout of Blind Man’s Bluff. The theme song (“We’re gonna have a good time…gonna have a good time…We’re going on a fall break!”) would undoubtedly have won the Catchiest Original Song Academy Award if the Oscars mysteriously started to embrace the slasher genre. Despite the expected cheese factor and the film’s limited reputation, a comparison to its independently produced 1983/1984 peers reveals it to be stronger than most in the key departments of suspense and tension.
Prefiguring the fishing-themed fatalities of the much milder I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, THE MUTILATOR also has some of the most righteously nasty kill scenes of the 80’s slasher cycle. The movie’s worst actor shows off his “death face” while getting horribly, er, mutilated with an outboard-motor, while other folks are whacked in the fizzog with machetes and graphically abused with fishing gigs. Perfecting his craft en-route to some bigger productions, FX man Mark Shostrum contributes some of the finest non-Savini slasher grue of the period, including the still-unpleasant gaff-penetration of a female character. Although it contains no nudity, this wince-worthy scene briefly brings the movie closer to the nastier Italian horrors of the 70’s / 80’s than the typical American fare. THE MUTILATOR also scores for taking the “indestructible killer” motif to its natural, absurd zenith: Chatham’s enjoyably maniacal, chuckling murderer still continues to hack off limbs even after his own unceremonious bisection!
Anyone who owned the grainy previous VHS incarnations of this movie could only fantasise about seeing it looking so great in this Arrow restoration. It is accompanied by an equally jaw-dropping array of extras for a package that makes the perfect companion piece to Arrow’s equally lavish recent treatment of similarly under-valued 80’s slashers MADMAN and BLOOD RAGE. Among the shorter featurettes created for this release is a diverting interview with Mark Shostrum, who recalls the reaction to the gaff murder and his disappointment at the failure of some of the planned gore FX. Aside from two new commentaries, the disc includes “Fall Breakers”, a 75 minute documentary rounding up key members of the cast and crew. Director Buddy Cooper, who never made another feature, is among those offering touching, warm recollections of an intimate shoot. Disarmingly chirpy and enthusiastic, Cooper recalls how the movie emerged out of his decision to spend $86000 on either making a feature or buying a vineyard in France. This diverting documentary is particularly insightful in conveying the problems facing a very low budget horror film in an unfair system where the failure to achieve an R rating is the seal of doom. “It felt like I was circumcising my child”, a key commentator notes, regretfully. Consider this release the delayed compensation for that trauma.