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
DVD REVIEW - The Wicked Lady - ***
Directed by Michael Winner, Starring: Faye Dunaway, Denholm Elliot, Alan Bates. Period drama. UK, 1983, 95mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD on 4th July 2016 by Second Sight Films.
“To your duties, all of you! Sluts! To your duties!”
After delivering commercial success for Cannon Films with DEATH WISH II, director Michael Winner turned his attention to remaking one of his favourite films from his youth. Based on an eighteenth century legend about a noble lady who becomes a highwaywoman by night, the original 1945 version of THE WICKED LADY starred Margaret Lockwood in the title role. Winner cast wild-eyed Faye Dunnaway, as ‘Lady Barbara Skelton’. Dunaway attacks the role with as much camp gusto as she had in her previous Razzie award-winning turn in MOMMIE DEAREST, this time swapping wire coat-hangers for pistols and horse whips with deranged aplomb.
Directing from his own adaption of the 1945 screenplay, Winner stands and delivers copious amounts of heaving bosoms, full-frontal nudity and soft-core bonking campiness in a near breathless romp of ludicrously entertaining proportions. With the breakneck speed of the narrative, it appears as if veteran director of photography Jack Cardiff is pulling out all the stops and frantic zooms just to keep pace with Winner’s don’t-spare-the-horses direction.
In this endeavour he is helped in no small way by an extraordinary cast willing to climb aboard the bawdy kitsch-fest highway to hell and back. Stalwart Denholm Elliot plays the wealthy landowner Sir Ralph Skelton. Sir Ralph is (implausibly) engaged to the gorgeous doe-eyed doormat Caroline (Glynis Barber) who invites her best friend Barbara (Faye Dunaway) to be her maid of honour at her wedding despite the fact that: “She’s more than pretty. Barbara has the most beautiful green eyes - like emeralds.” If only she’d listened to snooty Aunt Agatha (Joan Hickson) who retorts: “Cats have green eyes. I don’t like cats...”
Within about 5 minutes Dunaway’s green eyes (of envy) seduce Sir Ralph and promptly steal him away right from under the (far prettier) nose of his former fiancée! At the wedding reception, the brand new Lady Skelton has already turned her lustful green eyes in the direction of the smoulderingly handsome Oliver Tobias, who will eventually seduce the dumped Caroline, who in turn, (utterly preposterously), remains in love with Denholm Elliot. (With me so far?) Anyway, Denholm Elliot will in eventually come to see the colossal error of casting aside the unconditional love of Glynis Barber for the maniacally manipulative Dunaway, who by that time has hooked up with another highwayman (Ralph Bates), who in turn makes the fatal mistake of cheating behind Dunaway’s back with a gypsy-like wench described in the credits as: ‘Jackson’s Girl’ (still with me?).
Let’s take a pause for breath here to note that that girl hastily jumping out of Ralph Bates’ bed stark-naked is none other than Marina Sirtis, best known as ‘Counselor Deanna Troi’ from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, making her feature-film debut in the buff. It’s a minor role, but certainly a memorable one for she then unwittingly goes on to cause censorship problems with the BBFC when her bare-breasts are horse-whipped to bloody effect by Dunaway (more of that in a moment). She also gets the last line in this memorable exchange as Dunaway’s highwaywoman bursts in on Sirtis and Bates:
(Bates) “Barbara! She, she means nothing to me.”
(Dunnaway) “This wench. Cheap though she looks, will cost you dear”.
(Sirtis): “Who the fuck was that?”
Marvellous stuff! As I said above, Sirtis and Dunaway later on get into a bodice-ripping whip fight at a hanging (as you do). The sight of Sirtis’ bristols being bloodily whipped caused censor James Ferman to positively foam (at the mouth). Not taking it lying down (unlike most of the actresses in the film) Winner screened the (allegedly uncut version) of the film to fifty of his fellow film makers and industry insiders, who rallied round in support of the film not being cut at all, and some even suggesting a lower rating than the proposed ’18’! Ferman caved in, but the subsequent home-video release did suffer the originally proposed cuts to this scene. Needless to say Michael Winner wasn’t the greatest fan of James Ferman, describing him in his 2004 autobiography as “a disaster”, and as someone who: “delighted in making ridiculous cuts all over the place that no other civilised country would have considered.” A judgement I for one fully share. But I’m very pleased to report that Marina Sertis’ whipped breasts are now fully restored to their perky original uncut state on DVD for the first time!
I haven’t even mentioned Sir John Gielgud’s pious old butler ‘Hogarth’ sporting a ridiculous wig and muttering pithy pronouncements about the easy virtues of the servants before he’s poisoned and then suffocated to death for good measure! And there’s still plenty more twists and turns before this wicked tale is told...
Miranda Richardson made a fine comedic stab at a similarly styled highwaywoman in the TV series ‘Blackadder’(most notably in her dislike of squirrels). Faye Dunnaway’s ‘Wicked Lady’ doesn’t display a similar aversion to the nutty tree rodents, but she does give a suitably nut-job performance as the bawdy bodice busting, booty looting, booby lashing ‘La Dama Perversa’ in Michael Winner’s pleasingly farcical lust-fest.