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 – torso ****
Directed by Sergio Martino. Starring Suzy Kendall, Tina Aumont, Luc Merenda, John Richardson, Roberto Bisacco, Ernesto Colli, Patrizia Adiutori. Horror/Thriller, Italy, 93 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray by Shameless Screen Entertainment on 25th September 2017.
TORSO is a 1973 giallo from Segio Martino (THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH/ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK) that ticks all of the boxes for what a giallo film should include but there is something else going on here, something that isn’t quite tangible enough to say it straddles genres but there is a definite edge to the film that lifts it above many of the other black-gloved killer thrillers that were popular at the time.
Featuring integrated footage that had been missing from previous releases, this more complete version of TORSO has the usual group of attractive young women falling foul of a masked killer stalking their University campus who duly does away with a couple of victims before the remaining young women decide to disappear to a large house in the hills to get away from it all. But being beautiful, young and very loose of morals soon attracts unwelcome attention from the locals and the killer, who reappears to finish what he (or she) started.
So far, so very giallo but Sergio Martino goes a little more brutal with the kills here, adding the dismemberment of limbs with a saw and some gruesome eye-gouging that Lucio Fulci would be jealous of along with the required throat slashing and strangulation. The masked killer is shown fairly early on and whereas Bava’s A BAY OF BLOOD is often cited as the big inspiration for the American slasher boom that came along in the late 1970s, one look at the killer here and it is difficult not to think that Charles B. Pierce must have seen TORSO before making THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, for not only is the look of the killer very similar but one of the early kill scenes from TORSO was near-enough lifted for that movie.
And along with the graphic violence we also get plenty of nudity, and anybody who thinks that these movies exploit women would have a field day with how long Martino’s camera lingers on the plethora of naked boobs. To be fair, there are just as many men with their tops off and getting slaughtered as well so who says these movies are misogynistic? Anyhow, giallo movies thrive on their depictions of beauty and violence and any director worth their salt can combine the two to great effect, and with TORSO Sergio Martino brings together the voyeuristic nature of sex and sexual freedom with a sense of dread that anything can happen anytime to anyone; yes, Martino is well aware what we watch these movies for but gives it to us in a stylish and slightly less aggressive way than many of his contemporaries that makes it all the more enjoyable when the blood starts spraying.
But this isn’t just the sex-and-violence show as Martino also manages to conjure up an atmosphere of suspense that helps keep the story interesting and effective for the most part. The reveal of who the killer is isn’t really that much of a surprise but the final act of the film does ramp up the action after a bit of a lull in the pacing that even the likes of frolicking beauties with no clothes on doesn’t manage to pick up, and when that final act begins it does so magnificently in a scene that pre-dates the American slasher explosion by several years but wouldn’t look out of place in a FRIDAY THE 13TH or HALLOWEEN sequel, only more chilling.
Aside from the movie itself, the HD transfer of the film is particularly inviting to the eye, especially the exterior shots that are bright and colourful and leap out of the screen in a way that belies the film’s age. Extras include an interview with Sergio Martino discussing the film and its production that provides a few interesting insights, and coming complete with Shameless’ trademark yellow box and a reversible sleeve featuring some really cool artwork this release ranks as one of the finest Blu-rays that Shameless have put out so far.