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 - zero boys - ***
Directed by Nico Mastorakis. Starring Daniel Hirsch, Kelli Maroney, Nicole Rio, Tom Shell, Jared Moses, Crystal Carson. USA 1986 89 mins Certificate: 15
Out Now from Arrow Video.
Those of a certain vintage - and a leaning toward the two prolific sub-genres it borrows from - will doubtless recall THE ZERO BOYS from the VHS era. Given some HD love by Arrow Video three decades on from its original release, it’s a fun time-capsule piece and probably the most diverting “respectable” effort from Greek filmmaker Nico Mastorakis, whose career was destined to peak with the still-astonishing incest-fuelled shocker ISLAND OF DEATH. Scholars of film scores will also appreciate the synth-heavy score attributed to Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer – the latter at a crossroads in his career as he sought to develop a sound somewhere between the “Going For Gold” theme tune and the Hollywood blockbusters of the Bruckheimer-Simpson era.
THE ZERO BOYS opens with a relatively common bit of misdirection from a period in which genre films were becoming more self-aware and playfully toying with audience expectation. Just as contemporaries like KILLER PARTY and ANGUISH performed a similar introductory rug-puller, Mastorakis stages a faux-80’s action movie prologue complete with slo-mo, bandanas, a big bold ACTION MOVIE! logo, a high bodycount and a Nazi antagonist. This turns out to be a long tease when we realise what we have just seen is one of the regular jaunts for a group of macho 80’s men, indulging in protracted pissing contests on the paintball circuit to impress their ladies. On this particular jaunt, braless-yet-smart Kelli Maroney (she fucks on the first date) is the “prize”, though it’s tough to tell from stoic hero Daniel Hirsch (making the most of his single expression) whether or not he’s impressed.
The gang subsequently get spooked by the sounds of a woman in peril in the woods, and wind up taking refuge at an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. Happy to trespass, they end up staying the night, reasoning that, at worst, they are violating the privacy of “a bunch of faggots living in the woods”. They are slightly perturbed by the proliferation of skulls and human bones adorning the surrounding area, and soon catch a glimpse of a couple of threatening male figures lurking in the shadows, sporting large knives. The self-styled “Zero Boys”’ survivalist expertise proves inevitably useful in the face of a real enemy, and, yes, the line “It’s not a game anymore” does pop up. Twice.
Although its backdrop and one-note redneck antagonists position THE ZERO BOYS as one of many variants on DELIVERANCE in the period (the same year’s HUNTER’S BLOOD has a stronger reputation), it flirts more with slasher movie tropes. A reviving “corpse” shock is stolen from THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and a severed-head-in-the-freezer gag reworked from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, while the horny, cocky college-age characters are an echo of various slasher flick ensembles from the earlier part of the decade. Sloping off for unsatisfying shagging sessions (“Why do you always take it personally when I don’t get off?”) in between staging gratuitous fake-scares, they are not the most endearing bunch and – to the movie’s detriment – it’s an hour before the first fatality.
Jared Moses’ “Rip”, whose dubious white-streaked hair is perhaps the worst of a proliferation of dubious ‘do’s, memorably seals his doom by drinking a toast to Freud, whom he celebrates for confirming that the “dick is the centre of everything”. Mastorakis embraces slasher movie standards that were already considered clichéd by 1981: a prowling, subjective Stedicam, sex ominously observed by voyeuristic strangers via a peephole, cars that don’t start in a crisis, a mist-enshrouded woodland setting…and even thunderclaps and lightning strikes that occur with melodramatically precise timing like YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN!
Atoning for the fact that ISLAND OF DEATH wasn’t shy about explicitly showing all manner of atrocities on-screen (both goat and non-goat related), Mastorakis shies away from violence and gore, instead opting for an approach that does, on occasion, yield genuine suspense. An unsettling sub-plot involving the killers’ use of a makeshift snuff-movie studio both anticipates future genre trends and adds a more overtly unpleasant edge not present elsewhere. A barrage of pop culture references (MAD MAX, RAMBO, STAR TREK, THE TWILIGHT ZONE and even a namecheck for Jason Voorhees) reflects the growing trend of self-referential horror films in the mid-eighties, though the weak conclusion merely suggests everyone concerned hit an imagination wall and / or ran out of cash.
Mastorakis interviews himself in a bizarre, suitably self-aggrandising extra feature, reflecting on working with Frank Darabont while also erroneously claiming THE XERO BOYS to be one of the first three movies to use “found footage”. Elsewhere, Kelli Maroney discusses the director’s then-obligatory call for nudity and an unfortunate (albeit, under the circumstances, inevitable) 80’s hairspray incident. Chris Alexander joins the upbeat Maroney for an audio commentary, and there’s also a less diverting featurette with her co-star Nicole Rio to accompany the marvellously dated music videos.