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.
BLU-RAY Review – THE SLAYER ****
Directed by J.S Cardone. Starring Sarah Kendall, Frederick Flynn, Alan McRae, Carol Kottenbrook. USA 1982 Certificate: 18 92 mins
Released on Blu-Ray (Dual Format) by Arrow Video on August 21st 2017
The “Video Nasty” fate of THE SLAYER in the U.K. tarnished it with a ridiculously undeserved tag, hurling it in to the random pit of the D.P.P.’s laughable list of the great, the bland and the eczema-inducingly rubbish. It also, of course, afforded it a longer shelf life than it arguably enjoyed elsewhere. Chances are, you may have experienced the movie in its censored 90’s Vipco re-release, with that company’s usual attention to quality control designed to let you experience the rollercoaster thrill-ride of a third-generation VHS dupe. In the race between rival Blu-ray companies to resurrect key films from the early 1980’s American slasher cycle, THE SLAYER now comes adorned with the bells and whistles of an Arrow Video release.
Conveniently positioned in the “Slasher” cycle, the movie certainly employs the expected tropes of the then-lucrative sub-genre. Present and correct are the omnipresent subjective camerawork, the obligatory Crazy Ralph-style “harbinger” character (here, a foreboding pilot) and, of course, a series of precision-tooled, creatively gruesome death scenes every 15 minutes or so, making inventively hideous use of oars, elevator doors and fishing hooks.
So much else, however, emboldens the movie to stand out from the crowd of interchangeable summer camp massacre movies. The title appears in big, bold red letters, the score by Robert Folk is old-school orchestral (and highly effective) rather than Carpenter-derived electronic minimalism…and there’s a drooly, toothy monster in the very first scene. The atmospheric central island location adds substantial ambient production value, as do the aerial shots of the expansive, remote locale. What’s more, the anticipated goofy teens in skimpy attire are here substituted by a quartet of grownups with grown-up professions, grown-up problems and sensible jumpers that ensure they do feel the benefit when they come back inside after investigating a strange noise.
Kay (Sarah Kendall, convincingly spacey and off-kilter) is one of the horror genre’s many terrorised, troubled artists. A turn toward surrealism has earned her critical ire, and she’s losing grip, reflected in her conviction of the power to impact reality via her nightmares – which have been recurring since a traumatic childhood. Kay’s husband (Alan McRae) proposes “one week away from the rat race” with her brother (Frederick Flynn) and his wife (Carol Kottenbrook) on a wintry, secluded island. As seemingly predicted by Kay’s dreams, a mysterious presence begins stalking and killing them.
Competent performances and some attempt at bonafide characterisation provides this movie with a more credible core than most, though it’s legacy is arguably the way in which (like the same year’s THE SENDER) it anticipates the invasion of “rubber-reality” horror in the post-NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET climate. The deliberately sedate first half hour offers visual clues of things to come (a shaving cut, the harmless line “You gotta have a hook…”), just as Kay’s paintings seem to predict the grim fate awaiting them all. The 80’s slasher cycle was always fond of imaginative deployment of severed heads (who can forget the head in the fish tank gag in at least two of them?!), but director Cardone favours a more surrealist bent, evidenced by the dream sequence visualising that moment when you’re snogging your husband…and realise you’re actually slipping the tongue to his blinking, dripping disembodied noggin.
The set-up of city-based professionals proving incapable of surviving the briefest jaunt in the natural wilderness errs closer to the American eco-horror cycle than it does the slasher sub-genre: one character echoes the sentiments of a typical ill-fated urbanite in DAY OF THE ANIMALS (amongst others) by lamenting “I don’t need adventure, I need sidewalks!”
That said, it’s very serviceable, and suspenseful, as a slasher film too. The murders are cannily staged: note the ominous shadow looming behind a dopey fisherman and the scattering of seagulls before he is bludgeoned. The most gruesome kill is a pitchfork murder fairly common to the cycle (c.f. THE PROWLER, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III, et al) that probably earned the “Nasty” tag on its own for the lingering detail of its exit from the female victim’s breasts. THE SLAYER, presumably realising the need to stand out in a vastly over-crowded marketplace, also bows out with a memorably barmy double-twist ending – only half of which features the enjoyably grotesque EC Comics-style ghoul from the prologue – but does so in a fashion that seems to fit the evolution of its protagonist, rather than the garishly random, studio-imposed monster ending of, say, Wes Craven’s DEADLY BLESSING.
Fans of the movie can’t really grumble at the extras package, the centre of which is a 52 minute retrospective documentary featuring Cardone and key cast / crew members reflecting on the Lovecraft influence, the intention to create a “psychological thriller” with an emphasis on suspense, the gore FX and the UK controversy. You also get the chance to experience by proxy the film’s retro screening in one of the film’s main locations (Tybee Island in Georgia) and there’s another witty, enthusiastic commentary by “The Hysteria Continues”, who are truly carving a niche for themselves with their talk tracks on a range of vintage slashers.