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 SIGN OF FOUR - **
Directed by Desmond Davis, Starring: Ian Richardson, David Healy, Cherie Lunghi. Crime, UK, 1983, 97mins, Cert PG.
Released in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray, download and on-demand on April 25th by Second Sight.
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
This adaption of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes novel was the first in a planned series of six Holmes stories to be filmed for TV by producer Sy Weintraub. In the end only this and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES were made (also available from Second Sight).
Directed by Desmond Davis (CLASH OF THE TITANS 1981) from an adaptation by Charles Edward Pogue, it’s an uneven rambling narrative which eschews mystery by revealing it’s murdering perpetrators almost right from the off, and cheats us out of seeing any of the pivotal events in India which led to the formation of ‘The Four’. Stolen treasure, a vengeful one-legged bogeyman and a drainpipe climbing cannibal dwarf fail to instil nearly as much impact as they should. A travelling fair/freak show with a ghost-train ride and a set piece on a carousel seem somehow incongruous, although they do give Ian Richardson’s sprightly humorous Holmes some derring-do moments. I loved the ‘break-neck’ steamboat chase down the River Thames (passing the Royal Naval College going the wrong way). And the icing on the cake: the PSYCHO-like Hermann strings desperately screeching during murders most foul.
Eagle-eyed viewers might spot the clumsily inserted Baker Street shot cribbed from Billy Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. And whilst on the subject of eyes, I just must mention young dewy-eyed Cherie Lunghi who looks like she’s permanently on the verge of bursting into laughter as the wronged ‘Mary Morstan’. Perhaps she’s inwardly suppressing her mirth at the preposterous flirtations of David Healy’s Dr. Watson. (At least they do not announce their engagement in this version – although had this been included in Pogue’s adaptation I feel sure it would have triggered one final burst of Hermann horrific shower strings – and appropriately so for once!)
Full disclosure: I was first introduced to that oft quoted Holmes line that I couldn’t resist using as the tagline not via the writing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but instead from Dario Argento’s TENEBRAE. I would, therefore, recommend Holmes expert David Stuart Davies’ audio commentary included on the disc as I strongly suspect he approached the great detective from 221b Baker Street from a purer source than a giallo set in a semi-futuristic Rome.
P.S. My favourite line of dialogue from this adaption (doubtful it’s in the novel) is – and I deliberately provide you with no context whatsoever dear reader: “Best stay clear of old Alfie - he not only bites – he swallows!”
Extras: Audio commentary by ‘Holmes’ expert David Stuart Davies.