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 NINTH CONFIGURATION - ***
Directed by William Peter Blatty. Starring Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Neville Brand, Ed Flanders, Jason Miller. USA, Comedy/Drama/Horror, 117 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD and BluRay by Second Sight on the 25th April, 2016.
Where do you go when you've spent several years writing slapstick comedy? Horror, perhaps. And what do you do when you've written one of the outright scariest and most powerful horror books (I had to throw away my paperback of THE EXORCIST - unfinished - because it creeped me out so much I simply couldn't keep it in the house) and films of all time? Naturally, a film that's three parts wacky knockabout, one part military satire and one part theological drama, all flung together with a seasoning of horror on top.
Jason Miller described·THE NINTH CONFIGURATION·as "a Marx Brothers comedy written by St Thomas Aquinas". He plays one of a group of US Marines who might be genuinely mad, or simply faking insanity to get out of the Vietnam War: locked up in a remote, frequently fog-shrouded castle he's attempting (along with Joe Spinell) to adapt the works of Shakespeare for dogs for no other reason than "...someone's got to do it". But the film's main focus is the arrival of new psychiatrist Kane (Stacy Keach), who has deep secrets of his own that he's struggling to suppress, and his relationship with Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), an astronaut who panicked on the launch pad and became a celebrity laughing stock. They argue theatrically about the existence of God and the Devil: if Kane can cure him then he can put his own demons to rest, but at a cost...
A "lunatics in charge of the asylum" tale which writer-director William Peter Blatty described as part MASH and part SPELLBOUND (that Kane is in as much need of help as any of his patients' is clear from very early on), THE NINTH CONFIGURATION contains a lot of wild and anarchic comedy in its first two thirds, as Kane's treatment consists of indulging the mens' fantasies, but turns darker in its last stretch with a spectacularly violent encounter in a bar full of yahooing bikers.
There's a great cast of character actors (Robert Loggia, who gets to lipsync an Al Jolson record in boot polish blackface, Moses Gunn, who seems to think he's Superman; Tom Atkins, Neville Brand, Richard Lynch), and a drippy 70s pop song to open and close with that feels completely inappropriate and absolutely right at the same time (actually written for ROLLING THUNDER two years previously). Very dark, and very serious - more on the side of cult oddity than the general mainstream - but if you can get with the shifts in tone it's a very enjoyable, very intriguing film: surprisingly funny given the subject matter, and surprisingly powerful as high-flown intellectual drama given the wild and crazy antics the men get up to. The BluRay - as you would expect these days - is laden with extras including a vintage introduction from Mark Kermode, a commentary from Kermode and Blatty and a set of interviews (some archive) including Blatty, Tom Atkins and Stacy Keach.