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 – GEORGE A. ROMERO: BETWEEN NIGHT & DAWN ***
Directed by George A. Romero. Starring Lynn Lowry, Richard Liberty, Will MacMillan, Ann Muffly, Raymond Laine, Bill Hinzman. Horror/Drama/Romance, USA, Cert 18.
Released in the UK in a limited edition dual format box set by Arrow Video on 23rd October 2017.
To mainstream audiences, the loss of George A. Romero earlier this year meant the death of the filmmaker who made those zombie movies; you know the ones, a bit like THE WALKING DEAD but older and not as popular with younger teenagers. But to those of us who knew better he was a maverick, a voice for independent filmmakers looking to say something worthwhile using the art of storytelling. Yeah, he flirted with the studio system here and there but ultimately – for better or for worse - he was a director unwilling to compromise his vision for the sake of the keeping the suits in cigars and power lunches.
And that is why we ended up with a box set like this one. A box set that is as uncompromising and unwilling to please mass audiences as the man himself, and that is not meant as a negative comment as Romero’s non-zombie output, whilst not as consistently entertaining or accessible as anything he made ending with the word ...DEAD, was never anything less than interesting. Here we are treated to three of the four feature films he made between the groundbreaking NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1968 and its equally-as-innovative sequel DAWN OF THE DEAD a decade later, namely THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA (1971), SEASON OF THE WITCH (1972) and THE CRAZIES (1973), and despite the varying levels of quality there is no denying that they show off Romero’s unique filmmaking voice as well as any of his better known horror pieces.
Of the three movies it is THE CRAZIES that, thanks to the 2010 remake, is probably more well known and holds the most interest for horror fans but before Romero delved back into horror after NIGHT... he tried his hand at a few other things, the first of them being THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA, a movie that presents itself as a romantic comedy/drama in the vein of THE GRADUATE but this being directed by George A. Romero there is an ever-present off-kilter edge, mainly thanks to his anti-authority/hippie mindset. The story sees a young man called Chris Bradley (Raymond Laine) unwilling to grow up and accept responsibility for anything, even when he gets involved with the older Lynn (Judith Ridley) and she falls pregnant. With Romero’s trademark swipe at capitalism and the values of the older generation being pushed aside for the free love attitudes of the era, THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA is an intriguing sideways look at relationships but is unlikely to trouble anyone awaiting their next fix of Richard Curtis-style romantic comedy.
However, 1972s SEASON OF THE WITCH is a step in a darker direction, albeit one that Roman Polanski already headed down five years previous with ROSEMARY’S BABY and, despite the end result being that Romero’s movie is a very different beast to Polanksi’s, there is an inevitable stylistic comparison between the two films. In this film, a bored suburban housewife named Joan Mitchell (Jan White) gets mixed up in the latest craze sweeping suburbia – witchcraft. With hallucinations of an intruder invading her home and getting attention from her teenage daughter’s college professor (Raymond Laine again) all thrown into the mix, the lines between reality and fantasy start to blur and Jan soon begins to spiral out of control, with Romero holding it all together (barely, if truth be told) with his usual commentary on changing social attitudes and what is really going on in middle America behind the twitching curtains. Again, it is an interesting idea and has some wonderfully weird moments but it does take some endurance to sit through without wanting somebody to get their guts munched just to liven things up a bit.
But thankfully Romero saw sense and returned to his horror roots with THE CRAZIES in 1973. For all intents and purposes this is a zombie movie but these ‘zombies’ are actually people infected with a virus (so 28 DAYS LATER was probably not as inventive as many people thought then...) that causes insanity and then death, eventually bringing a small Pennsylvanian town to its knees and causing the military to try and contain it before it spreads across America. Again, Romero uses his story to attack the military – something he would do again in both DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD – although here the commentary is more obvious, possibly ham-fisted at times, but no less potent. Focusing more on tension and suspense than splatter, THE CRAZIES serves as a bridge between the paranoid claustrophobia of NIGHT... and the gory action of DAWN... and still holds up as a surprisingly strong sci-fi/horror thriller despite some haphazard directorial choices and acting performances that wouldn’t be out of place on a daytime TV soap opera.
So those are the three films and, if truth be told, they are a mixed bag when it comes to entertainment value as, with the probable exception of THE CRAZIES, they aren’t really movies that you would want to put on for any other reason than to explore the work of a filmmaker not happy to merely go with the flow. But that subversiveness is why George A. Romero meant so much to so many genre fans and, apart from the obvious omission of 1978s cult classic MARTIN which would have made this box set an essential purchase (the DVD is long out-of-print and Arrow do not have the Blu-ray rights to it so don’t get your hopes up), the fact that these three titles have gotten HD restorations – 2K for THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA and 4K for the other two – at all says a lot about how revered the director was when he was alive (this set was announced before his death) and remains so after his passing. He would surely have approved.