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 – TOP SENSATION – ***
Directed by Ottavio Alessi. Starring Rosalba Neri, Edwige Fenech, Eva Thulin, Ruggero Miti, Maud Belleroche, Maurizio Bonuglia, Salvatore Puntillo. Thriller/Drama, Italy, 90 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD by Shameless Screen Entertainment on 11th July 2016.
The first release from Shameless in a while, TOP SENSATION is an interesting title to dig up from the vaults, especially as it was considered incomplete for many years as storage conditions had degraded the master copies. However, this new assembly edit inserts those missing scenes and the uncut film has finally been given a BBFC certificate for the first time (it was refused a UK theatrical certificate back in 1970).
In true Italian style the plot makes little to no sense but it also makes watching the film that little bit more exciting. Bisexual Mudy (Maud Belleroche) is intent on helping her mentally unstable son Tony (Ruggero Miti) lose his virginity as she believes it will stable his mind so she takes him on a boat trip with her swinging friends Aldo (Maurizio Bonuglia) and Paola (Rosalba Neri) plus their **ahem** ‘friend’ Ulla (Edwige Fenech) in the hopes of making him a man. However, Tony jumps ship and escapes onto an island where he meets and falls for local farm girl Beba (Eva Thulin). The pair return to the boat where the naïve Beba is immediately pounced upon by the women, given a makeover and generally inducted into their decadent lifestyle but before long the drink starts to kick in and events take a turn for the worse.
An erotic thriller from 1969 starring Rosalba Neri (THE DEVIL’S WEDDING NIGHT) and Edwige Fenech (STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER) is unlikely to hold many surprises when it comes to content and TOP SENSATION is as bonkers and as sleazy as it sounds. Shot mostly on board a boat in the Mediterranean the film certainly looks fabulous and the ‘60s décor and fashions have certainly aged well, but TOP SENSATION doesn’t quite fall into the giallo category popular at the time despite sharing many of qualities that make up those twisted thrillers. This is because there are no black-gloved killers lurking in the shadows; on the contrary, the characters in this film wear next-to-nothing and everything is bathed in bright daylight, but there are some similarities as the plot does start to meander very quickly once all of the cast are back aboard the boat, plus what Italian thriller would be complete without a random scene of animal exploitation? This one has to be seen to be believed, although Shameless do provide an appropriate disclaimer after the closing credits.
Given that this is a restoration the quality of the film does jump about quite a bit, especially the English audio track which is quite muddy. It does change from English to subtitled Italian quite often and the difference in clarity is a bit distracting. The visual quality is also very poor during the restored scenes but don’t worry as you can still see all of the erotic action that was cut out from the original print and once all of Fenech, Neri and Thulin’s body parts start intertwining you’ll be hard pressed to work out any clear definitions anyway.
TOP SENSATION is a gorgeous film to look at thanks to its locations and sexy main cast, and the odd plot does have a sense intrigue that keeps you invested as you want to find out where it leads – although given the state of mind of most of the characters it’s no real surprise – but once all of the explicit scenes are over and the film has finished you reflect back on it and realise that it doesn’t really have as much substance as it should. It’s almost as if director Ottavio Alessi was fleshing the film out with overly-gratuitous shots of his two leading ladies in PVC bikinis as a distraction. Well, it worked…
But overall, TOP SENSATION is a solid enough Italian thriller with a slightly off-kilter story and enough bare flesh to stop your eyes wondering between plot points but in the bigger scheme of things it isn’t the hardest hitting murder mystery, perhaps due to the obvious lack of blood or on-screen violence. The disc also comes with a 30-minute featurette called OF BOATS & GOATS (so you can guess what animal was getting familiar with a female cast member) that features interviews with stars Rosalba Neri and Salvatore Puntillo, who both say positive things about making the film, and an alternate ending, as well as the usual Shameless presentation that makes all of their titles look so appealing when you load them into your player, so if you’re a collector then this complete version of the film is the one to get, although if you’re not an Italian cinema enthusiast then TOP SENSATION may be best left to those who can appreciate its seedier (in a good way) qualities.