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 – VAMPIRA **
Directed by Clive Donner. Starring David Niven, Teresa Graves, Peter Bayliss, Bernard Bresslaw, Nicky Henson, Kenneth Cranham, Linda Hayden, Veronica Carlson. Horror/Comedy, UK, 88 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray by Fabulous Films on 14th August 2017.
When you consider that VAMPIRA starred a then-64-year-old David Niven and was released as OLD DRACULA in the US in order to grab some of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN’s audience then you can get an idea of the level of humour that the film should be aiming for, especially as VAMPIRA was a British production that also starred CARRY ON… stalwart Bernard Bresslaw, popular TV and film actor Nicky Henson and a few familiar faces from some of Hammer’s more notable movies. However, horror-comedies are a difficult balancing act and whilst Mel Brooks struck gold with his spoof on Universal’s monochrome monsters with a perfect combination of references for fans, broad jokes for those not versed in FRANKENSTEIN and a career-best performance from Gene Wilder in the lead role, VAMPIRA is an altogether different viewing experience, mainly because it isn’t very funny.
But that is not for a want of trying as when the film begins we are treated to a few in-jokes that many viewers would get as Niven’s Count Dracula is revealed to be a Playboy-reading gent (he reads it to look at the model’s necks) who prefers electric light to candlelight and who lives in his castle with his servant Maltravers (Peter Bayliss – FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE) where they perform vampiric acts for tourists, with Maltravers playing Dracula (and looking uncannily like Bela Lugosi when in his wig and make-up) as the real Count cannot possibly reveal himself to the public for fear that people will realise he is not a myth. It is an amusing setup and there are a few knowing chuckles to be had but the humour soon disappears as we get into the meat of the plot which if it were pitched today would likely get somebody fired from their job for even suggesting it; basically, Dracula wishes to revive his beloved Countess Vampira back to life but the blood he uses brings her back as a black woman.
Now, the natural reaction once you look at the time it originally came out in and who is in the cast is one of – at best – rolled eyes and the expectancy of a lot of mild racist language and crude humour the likes of which doesn’t make it onto television anymore, let alone into a feature film, but – and this is to the films credit – it doesn’t go down that route (well, not until the very end scene anyway). When you look at it, listen to the script and see where the film goes then the idea of Countess Vampira (Teresa Graves – BLACK EYE) being black isn’t really the point; it is the idea that Vampira is not the same woman that Dracula remembers as she not only looks different to her old self but walks and talks differently so now you have your story as Dracula tries to find a blood type that matches her old self and he can live forever with the woman he met all those centuries ago.
Alright, it’s not the best idea for a Dracula-based comedy but this was from an era when blaxploitation movies were at their commercial peak and BLACULA had already been a hit so in that context (and a bit of tolerance) then you can see why the filmmakers thought it might work, but despite having a high profile cast who all turn in pretty good performances the film falls flat very quickly as the script is just too unfunny to work on any level, be it straight, ironic or spoof. David Niven – who apparently had always wanted to play Dracula and so writer Jeremy Lloyd wrote VAMPIRA especially for him – seems to relish playing the Count when he has things to do but there are a lot of lengthy talking scenes where Niven looks like he’s drifting off and would rather run around like Christopher Lee in the Hammer movies than try and crack jokes that aren’t funny, and the whole blaxploitation angle just doesn’t work as 99% of the cast are white.
Despite the dodgy nature of the story VAMPIRA steers clear of the obvious and the offensive but in doing so it has nothing else to offer except lots of familiar faces trying their best to wrangle some laughs out of a stale script. There are one or two gags that will raise a chuckle, such as Maltravers crossing his fingers for luck much to Dracula’s disapproval of the symbolism, but Bernard Bresslaw – the natural source for jokes when he is in the cast – is given a thankless role that he cannot do much with while Peter Bayliss gets most of the best lines but they are pretty much done with during the first act. Unfortunately the final scene lowers the tone that the filmmakers had tried so hard to avoid to that point and while the intention is clearly not meant to be offensive it just comes across as ill-advised and the fact that it is 1974 does not excuse how crass it looks. Overall, VAMPIRA isn’t very good despite the talent involved with it, and while David Niven or vampire completists may rejoice in a Blu-ray release it is definitely a horror-comedy best laid to rest.