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 shining ***
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall, Danny Lloyd. 15, 1980, 117 mins.
In cinemas across the UK on 31 October 2017 accompanied by short film Work & Play: A Short Film about The Shining. Directed by Matt Wells.
THE SHINING, Stanley Kubrick's celebrated horror film is heading back to cinemas across the UK for a series of Halloween screenings on 31 October 2017. Back in the day, October 1980, I can remember THE SHINING turning up at my local ABC cinema. Or was it the Odeon. No matter, I didn’t go to see it. At the time, pre-multiplex days, in Dundee there were still several cinemas, and Monday was my night for "the pictures". Films ran for just one week then so I must have gone to see something else. Given the opportunity to attend a recent preview, time to rectify.
Based on Steven King’s novel it was first released in just two US cinemas in May 1980. Critical reaction at the time was mixed. However, audiences embraced the film delivering a profit for Warner Bros and a much-needed hit for Kubrick after the box office failure of Barry Lyndon.
Over the years the stature of the film has grown with fans, critics and the likes of Martin Scorsese now regarding it as one of the best horror films ever made. So I turned up at the screening with fingers crossed hoping that given the reverence that the film is held in, I wasn't going to be disappointed. Often I’ve visited so-called classics only for them to disappoint and leave me wondering what all the fuss was about.
The majority of fans reading this will know the film’s plot inside out, but for those of us who don't: Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic gets a job as the closed season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. Suffering from writer's block he is hoping the peace afforded to him at the hotel will unblock this. At the job interview, the manager mentions that the hotel is built on an old Indian burial ground and that the year’s previous caretaker had gone mad and killed his wife and two daughters before topping himself. Jack laughed this off, but soon after he settles in with his family, he becomes increasingly frustrated when his writer's block doesn’t lift, and he then starts to behave erratically.
For a film that is nearly 40 years old, it looks great. A testament to the original filmmaker's skills and the care taken with the digital transfer. Nicholson, always Kubrick's first choice to play Jack, is perfectly cast as a man in meltdown. Duvall, rumoured not to have gotten on with Kubrick, for me is the weak link. Whiny and weak, Kubrick cut much of her dialogue relegating her to someone there to scream on cue. Danny Lloyd who only ever made one other film and was just six at the time claimed in later interviews that he didn't know that he was making a horror film at the time Kubrick kept him so protected.
To my Dolby accustomed ears, the thin mono sound lets the movie down a little, and the fashions and cars make the film look dated. In many ways though, because of the overhead shots in the opening sequence, seen today in many low-budget films trying to pretend that their budget is more significant than it actually is and the groundbreaking steady-cam work, visually, it appears very contemporary. You could almost kid yourself, sound apart, and if you were unaware of the film's history, that this was a new film set in the early 80s.
Getting to the point, after the screening of THE SHINING did I come out with the feeling that I had just seen one of the best horror films ever made and that 40 years after the films release acres of trees have met their fate as book after book is published studying it in every detail. I'm afraid not. It's not that I didn't enjoy the film, I did, and I'm not blind to what others see, but I just didn't get that what I was watching is supposed to be a masterpiece. For me, one of Stanley Kubrick's weaker films.
I know that I'm very much in the minority on this one, but there you are.
Accompanying the film on its release to cinemas is Work and Play: a short film about The Shining (2017), directed by Matt Wells for Park Circus. This short documentary brings together new personal reflections from Kubrick’s collaborators and unseen materials from his personal archives to shed light on this unique cinematic achievement. Featured in the documentary are: Lisa and Louise Burns (who played The Grady Twins), Garrett Brown (inventor and operator of the Steadicam on The Shining), Diane Johnson (author and co-screenwriter on The Shining), Katharina Kubrick (Stanley Kubrick’s daughter) and Jan Harlan (Kubrick’s producing partner and brother in law).