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.
THE RESURRECTION OF A NIGHTMARISH TRUTH: SHELDON RENAN DISCUSSES THE KILLING OF AMERICA
To quote Terence Davies, the journey of any film is one in which, “It goes out into the world and it has to either survive or die.” Sheldon Renan who co-directed alongside Leonard Schrader the 1981 documentary THE KILLING OF AMERICA, offers an interesting take on this idea of the life and death of a film. He explains: “I went off and for the rest of my life I never talked about having made it. I talked about all the other films and TV shows I did, but I never mentioned this film, and I never saw it once I was done with it.” Renan’s relationship to the documentary attests to the independence of a film, whose fate is not intertwined with that of its filmmaker. Rather it belongs to others who have the capability of resurrecting it and while THE KILLING OF AMERICA has never had a U.S release, it has been screened at special events and has even been released in Japan under the title AMERICAN VIOLENCE. But the idea of a film either having to “survive or die” is particularly potent for a film that deals with the subject of homicide, especially as its co-director is now willing to discuss it and acknowledge its relevance for our contemporary society, as it becomes available for the first time in the UK.
In conversation with FrightFest, Renan reflected on his changing perspective of the film, the hopes for the films social interaction and the integrity of the collaborative process that countered exploitation to offer a film of truth.
In retrospect, how has your impression of the film changed across the years?
By the time we had finished the film I would say we were suffering from PTSD. It was tough-going dealing with it and one of the things we discovered was that dealing with homicide is a toxic subject, not only for the people that are killed, but for the people who do the killing - for everybody associated with it. To learn about homicide I spent some time talking to people who'd killed, and some time talking to retired and active homicide detectives. I also had lunch with the head psychologist of the Los Angeles Police Department, who told me that he knew that any time a policeman was forced to shoot anybody for any reason, good or bad, they would retire in four years; usually from stress related illnesses.
One of the reasons that I was approached to direct the film was because of a script I had written, and in the research I remember reading what one hit man had said, which was that every hit you make takes time off your own life. And that's also true for the people who are associated with him. According to a psychologist at UCLA where I did a lot of the research before I started shooting, everyone seems to love homicide everyday, but they don't do it. They do it more in America because of the availability of guns to kill people. When that opportunity is taken away the murder rate falls rapidly. The classic case is Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Canada. These places are right across the river, but Windsor has a tenth of the murder rate of Detroit. They have the same kinds of factories and people, and there might be more economic problems in Detroit… there is now, but back when the studies were done, they were very similar, with the exception of the availability of guns. And nowadays this romance around guns and the converging of freedom, I must tell you that I don't agree with it.
So when I first saw the film it was like a PTSD person seeing a war film. I went off and for the rest of my life I never talked about having made it. I talked about all the other films and TV shows I did, but I never mentioned this film, and I never saw it once I was done with it. And then Nick Pinkerton in New York did a study of Mondo films and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences paid to have a retrospective of Mondo films, including THE KILLING OF AMERICA at the True/False Film Festival. They flew me out and I answered questions at two screenings and saw that the film now looked great, looked relevant, looked like it had been made last month. Unlike the other Mondo films which were clearly exploitation, it had a real edge and sense of truth to it. As grim as it was, it had a substance to it that was not in those other films, and now thirty five years after I directed it, I am actually kind of proud of it. But I will tell you it is largely Leonard’s idea. He wrote it and he was the producer, and he was the person that did the final cut. And that is normal with films - the producer does the final cut, not the director.
From what we've seen recently in news reports of police shootings in the U.S, the opening of THE KILLING OF AMERICA sees past and present collide. It seems that America has not recovered, but is still seeking a way out of the nightmare. And of course this raises the often asked question of the ability for change?
What you are saying is absolutely true and we still have a problem, which is why the film is so relevant today. The film festival was on the college campus at the University of Missouri and in the audience were college professors and students, people who worked in public health and farmers from the surrounding communities. They were all interested and they all found it relevant, thought provoking and necessary to think about and understand these things. The problems haven't gone away and the issue is structuring things so that people are not mistreated; so that there is opportunity and not despair. It almost sounds like a cliché, but that's the bottom line. You really have to know what can go wrong and how badly things can go wrong. And that's the utility of the film, to understand that homicide is not some romantic thing. It's totally bad news and it's bad news for everybody in the countries in which it occurs.
Is the ultimate hope of the film that it will make not only Americans, but people more broadly aware of our propensity for cruelty towards one another that creates this violent social nightmare?
Absolutely, and you are reminding me of the conversation I had with Leonard before we started the film. His philosophy was that you took the thing that bothered you the most and you worked on it until you made it a thing of beauty. He quoted passages from MOBY DICK by Melville, which is as close as we have to a great American novel that is an example of how the person has to go through a passage, or as the physicist Richard Feynman said: If you've got a theory that works perfectly, but there is something that doesn't fit in, it's the thing that doesn't fit in that really needs the attention… The value is somehow in that thing that doesn't fit in. So we have a system that's still not working right, which is a combination of a lot of forces historical, psychological, economic and political. We have to keep working on the machine, on the system to eliminate the things that are causing people to kill other people, instead of getting along with them.
Getting people to come to the theatre involves sensation and appealing to their voyeurism, and that's absolutely true. But it's also true that a rule in the theatre and in the business is that it doesn't matter how you get people into the theatre, once you get them there you've got to show them a good film - something that's meaningful and of value. And the difference between this film and the Mondo films is the truthfulness and the fact that it is relevant. Everyone who worked on it was somewhat ambitious. It wasn't volunteers, it was all young filmmakers and four of the people involved in the film went onto be nominated for Academy Awards, and two of the people that worked on the film later won Academy Awards for other productions. So everybody worked a little harder and did their very best, even though what they were working with was sometimes horrifying to look at. I mean I'd look over the editor’s shoulder at the screen and it was upsetting.
Considering your point about “appealing to their voyeurism” would the darkened environment of the cinema offer the most visceral spectatorial experience – the horror inescapable on the big screen compared to the experience outside of the movie theatre.
Well there's different values to it. The first thing is the film looks completely different when it is projected on a big screen with good sound. And the sound cutting here is not what they call “sweetening.” Sound affects and music aren't rolled in and out, it's hard cut, and it's cut for dramatic intent. The sound cutter was a guy named Val Kuklowsky, who we used to call ‘Night Cutter’ because he liked to work at night. He cut the sound on INDEPENDENCE DAY, but he came out of punk rock where he was making punk rock music videos before he cut the sound for us. So it has both a commercial intent, but it has an edginess to the sound cutting that you will not find in the normal exploitation documentary.
We all wanted to go on and make other films and so it was a starter film for a lot of us. We got the funding based on the success of how much money these Mondo films had made at the box office in Japan. But even though the subject and the inspiration was exploitation, everyone had a little more integrity. And it has Leonard’s narration which is really good writing. It's like the Chicago school of writing - Studs Terkel and it is kind of Kerouacian. I have to say it's very tough, beautiful prose and the guy [Chuck Riley] that we found to do it had a very distinctive and unusual voice, and he actually knew Jack Ruby when he was a Drive Time Shock Jock - that's what they called it in Oklahoma. And the reading he gave it, his voice cuts through metal [laughs]. After that studios began using him to do trailer previews and coming attractions.
Everybody who worked on it did their best, but the material was sometimes repulsive and horrifying. But it was put together in a way that every time it got to be too much, then we would put in something sweet or soften it a bit, and then it would come back again even stronger.
Picking up on your point about Leonard’s prose, THE KILLING OF AMERICA could be described as a celebration of prose and the pictorial in light of how the two are in perfect harmony.
Right, and some of that is Leonard and some of that is Lee Percy, the editor who did an incredible job. And the sound man that we had was an audio voyeur, a lot like the character in Coppola's THE CONVERSATION. He always had police scanners going at his apartment and I asked him to record police calls for forty-eight hours I think, and we matched that with the action that we had. So we would hear somebody call for a certain thing and then we would show it. But what we were showing was not the real action to that call. A similar call would have gone out because there is a certain zaniness to police dispatchers in every city in the United States – if you listen to some. So it was the way it was put together and if we didn't have the footage, and if we didn't have a sufficient way then we would have these little montages that David Weisman directed for us. With the combination of Leonard's writing those were some of the best parts of the film. And in one case I was working on a Movie of the Week for NBC and the person I was working with had been the head of NBC. He wanted to sell a Movie of the Week on Ted Bundy and I gave him the Bundy montage sequence. They then made a dramatisation based on the montage that David Weisman had cut for the film. There were a lot of people who were contributing to it and doing what they could, which is true of almost any film. But you usually don't have as many talented people from as many backgrounds as you had in this case.
THE KILLING OF AMERICA was released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on 31 October 2016.
Read Phil Slatter’s review of the film here.