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 – COHen AND TATE– ****
Directed by Eric Red. Starring Roy Scheider, Harley Cross, Adam Baldwin. USA 1988 86 mins Certificate: 18
Out on Blu-ray from Arrow Video December 5th 2016
Eric Red’s offbeat but fascinating career has been characterised by stripped-down, unpretentious B-movie scripts that are equal parts cruel, thrilling, witty and cynically hilarious. His feature writing debut was THE HITCHER (1986), a still-remarkable subversion of slasher and road movie clichés with a distinctive quasi-supernatural undercurrent, a propensity for mean-spirited twists and a unique dynamic between its two leading men. That film’s strong reputation led Red to a memorable partnership with rising director Kathryn Bigelow (NEAR DARK, BLUE STEEL), while he crafted a series of self-directed, engagingly off-the-wall riffs on familiar genre concepts, including the flawed werewolf picture BAD MOON, the scary, clever ghost flick 100 FEET and the batshit-crazy mad-science of BODY PARTS.
His directorial debut COHEN AND TATE remains his most consistently satisfying work as writer-director. It opens with a faux-“True Crime”-style crawl that nimbly sets up the premise, accompanied by Bill Conti’s deliberately old-fashioned orchestral thriller score. The opening is a masterclass in escalating dread, with remarkable use of sound, minimal dialogue and a wide open, sun-drenched backdrop that’s in stark contrast to the rest of the movie. We witness the unravelling of the Oklahoma “safe house” of an FBI-protected family under witness protection, culminating in the arrival of a pair of unforgiving hitmen and an unflinching massacre. It’s strongly reminiscent of the extraordinary introduction of Henry Fonda’s steely-eyed assassin in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (though in that film, juvenile characters fare far less well); in Red’s commentary on the disc, he highlights the influence of a catalytic sequence in John Ford’s equally well regarded THE SEARCHERS.
Fleeing the scene of the ultra-violence, nine year old Harley Cross is captured by the hitmen in question – trenchcoat-clad veteran Roy Scheider and leather jacket-sporting young hothead Adam Baldwin. They form a delicious anti-buddy movie dynamic as, following instructions from their superiors, they escort the kid on a 359 mile road trip back to the Mob in Houston, where he will most likely be killed. Red’s fascination with intense road-movie scenarios is again exercised, with the resilient kid making valiant efforts to escape his bleak fate, following an 80’s genre trend for smart adolescents outwitting dangerous but not infallible adults. He eats crucial maps and plays the mismatched pair off against each other in a determined bid to save his bacon.
Red indulges in his familiar, tasty stew of gruesome violence, vehicular carnage, black comedy and coarse, pithy dialogue as the film transforms into a three-hander within the Plymouth grand Fury, becoming ever more fraught as a bloody showdown looms.. The movie anticipates the post-Tarantino trend for sardonic, brutal hitman movies, and boasts a marvellous double act. Scheider underplays the role of the jaded veteran beautifully, subtly conveying humanity (a smartly used hearing aid, a discreet postal missive to a loved one) while leaving us in no doubt of his extreme capabilities. Meanwhile, Baldwin plays it broad as the twitchy, deeply unstable, vulgar rookie assassin. He’s all nervous bubblegum-chewing energy, whether enthusing about roadkill, telling awful jokes or cackling as he jests about blowing away a baby in the car in front. The sustained tension of the trio in the car is the movie’s trump card.
Red cannily – and characteristically – avoids copping out from this volatile premise. He isn’t interested in sentimentalising the kid, and, although the blood-drenched, thrilling oil-field climax is telegraphed, its flippant abruptness is marvellously disarming. The final showdown is also capped by one of the most satisfying closing lines of 80’s cinema: “Well…How. About. That.” It’s the perfect end to a long-underrated, nerve-wracking slice of contemporary pulp fiction.
Arrow’s welcome release of this movie provides its first British home video release since the late 90’s. The extras are ported over from the Shout Factory U.S. release of a few years ago. A 20 minute retrospective rounds up – among others – Harley Cross and an enthusiastic Red, who describes his adoration of Peckinpah but also his fondness for heightening certain scenes of extreme violence by keeping the detail off camera. At least one interviewee expresses dissatisfaction with the OTT nature of Baldwin’s performance. The movie has a complicated history and encountered notable problems with the MPAA prior to its release. It has only ever been screened and released in its censored R-rated version, and that remains true of this release too, though a deleted scenes montage unveils the uncut versions of the two affected scenes. The farmhouse assault at the start offers more graphic shots of shotgun blasts and extended suffering for the mother who perishes off screen; more substantially, the oil-field confrontation offers substantial extra detail in the gory multiple shooting of Tate, enhancing the brutal edge of an already hard-as-nails picture.