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
book Review - CULT CINEMA: AN ARROW VIDEO COMPANION ****
Edited by Anthony Nield. Published on 28th March 2016 by Arrow. 246pp.
Arrow Video have consistently led the way in the realm of UK Blu-ray distributors, carving out a remarkable niche for themselves with stunningly presented releases of cult movies as diverse as Tobe Hooper’s coke-fuelled LIFEFORCE and perverse giallo masterpiece WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? Their first foray into the world of book publishing is a compendium of thirty essays covering a diverse range of their releases. Long-term Arrow fans should be aware that this is a beautifully presented coffee table book, complete with cover illustration by the estimable Graham Humphreys, but two thirds of the essays have been previously available via the booklets included in the corresponding releases. Needless to say, they are worthy of being a valuable part of a stand-alone compilation and are joined by ten first-class new offerings.
Ben Wheatley’s introduction sets the tone and neatly puts Arrow’s benchmark releases in the context of a movie-loving life in which equal pleasures could be derived from a crappy Betamax tape of ALIEN as from a correctly presented and intelligently introduced screening on the BBC’s late, lamented MOVIEDROME. He also quite rightly equates the scarring, harrowing WATERSHIP DOWN with the grimmest of the so-called “video nasties” that were meant to be (but weren’t) corrupting and depraving the minds of the nation’s children.
The pre-existing essays feature major genre scribes offering typically perceptive commentary on some very famous movies. Tim Lucas offers a characteristically informative and engaging insight into the emergence of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF THE USHER at the outset of the 1960’s. Stephen Thrower enthuses about ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS, Alan Jones waxes lyrical about DEEP RED and Maitland McDonagh refreshingly cuts through the giallo trappings of DRESSED TO KILL to find sympathetic stories about “throwaway women”. Vic Pratt wonderfully finds parallels between the title characters of WITHNAIL AND I and the comic duos of legend, namely Laurel & Hardy and Morecambe & Wise while Kim Newman offers an amusing analysis of festive horror, filtered through his affection for the splendid CHRISTMAS EVIL.
Of the new essays, Mike Sutton offers a poignant and respectful dissection of Wes Craven’s career, defining four of his movies as “iconic”, while giving deserved praise to the too often undervalued DEADLY BLESSING and THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS. “Horror’s Great Sociologist” is an enjoyable celebration of Romero from John Kenneth Muir, Michael Mackenzie (a recurring and original voice on Arrow blu-ray extras) offers an insightful, considered ode to the giallo and David Del Valle delivers a suitably affectionate and personal breeze through the key works of Vincent Price.
All told, a vast range of topics and sub-genres (from the Spaghetti Western through to Blaxploitation and even “food horror”) covered within the attractive pages are reflective of the diversity of Arrow’s catalogue. It’ll look very handsome next to the vast Arrow blu-ray collection that has already done substantial damage to your wallet over the last few years.