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.
FILM Review – IT ****
Directed by Andy Muschietti, Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard. Horror, US, 2017, 135mins, Cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Warner Bros. Pictures on 8th September 2017.
New Kids On The (chopping) Block.
Back in 1990, Tommy Lee Wallace (HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH), directed and co-wrote a 3 hour TV mini series adaptation of Stephen King’s gargantuan 1986 novel ‘It’. Over the course of its 900+ pages (in hardback form), ‘It’ chronicles the tale of a malevolent shape shifting alien entity lurking in the sewer drains of Derry, King’s fictional go-to small-town. Rising from its subterranean hellhole every 27 years, it terrorises the town’s children, feeding on their fears and dragging them down to the cavernous underground tunnels where they’ll float – just like one of the balloons it offers as bait whilst posing as a monstrous clown called ‘Pennywise’.
27 years after Wallace’s mini-series, mirroring the titular character itself, ‘It’ resurfaces again, this time in the guise of a big-budget cinematic remake split into two separate chapters. Unlike Wallace before him, current helmer Andy Muschietti (MAMA) and his screenwriters appear to have been afforded the comparative luxury of more than 4 hours in which to condense the sprawling narrative of King’s literary doorstop - given that ‘Chapter One’ arrives in a massive (for a horror film at least) 2 ¼ hour package. Dropping the original structure which cut back and forth between events originally set in 1957 and the 80’s – 2017’s IT ‘Chapter One’ is focused solely on the events of 1957 (now retro-updated to the late 1980’s), where we get to spend the entire running time with the pre-teen versions of ‘The Losers’ Club’ - a misfit bunch of school kids who band together to fight the clown. (Chapter Two will tackle events 27 years later when they will be forced to return to Derry to confront Pennywise’s evil as grown-ups).
IT (2017) ‘Chapter One’ plays like a cross between STAND BY ME (itself based on King’s novella ‘The Body’) and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS with Bill Skarsgård’s scarily re-imagined Pennywise as the Krueger-like ringmaster. Just like little Georgie Denbrough’s wax-coated paper boat, the terrific young cast are the wax that keeps the film afloat whenever it teeters and threatens to sink beneath its three-ring circus storm surges of CGI-enhanced Pennywise manifestations. Not that the filmmakers are clowning around, the level of onscreen violence and gore quota is surprisingly high, as evidenced right from the get-go with the graphic playing of the iconic storm drain encounter. (There’s also a brief but literally jolting slaughterhouse sequence which I wouldn’t expect in a ‘15’ rated major studio release). A geyser of blood erupts from a bathroom sink reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s deathbed splurge from the original ELM STREET, whilst the symbolism it represents, given the character it explodes over, references King’s own ‘Carrie’.
Bill Skarsgård’s version of Pennywise is darker and less playful than Tim Curry’s much-loved impish 1990 incarnation. Inevitably some will argue Curry’s iconic (clown) boots are too big for Skarsgård to fill (hey, ask Jackie Earle Haley how that feels like after the ELM STREET remake), but he stamps his own imprint on the character, particularly in eye-rolling close-ups, and sufferers of coulrophobia would still be well advised to give his interpretation a wide birth.
Resetting the first chapter in the late 80’s enables the makers to tap into the current hysteria for STRANGER THINGS, even down to casting Finn Wolfhard from the show as wise-cracking Richie Tozier, alongside 80’s iconography such as the GREMLINS bedroom poster and the local movie house’s coming attraction; NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD (in keeping with the film’s whole ELM STREET vibe). The late 80’s switch also allows for a great ‘New Kids On The Block’ running gag between the fat new kid on the block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and the object of his affection, Beverly (the excellent Sophia Lillis). Ben’s unrequited love for Bev is endearing and sweet, and young Taylor’s playing of the character yields a dignified pathos a million miles away from the broad slapstick of say ‘Chunk’ in THE GOONIES.
Turning one’s attention away from the children’s performances, it must be conceded that
IT is far from perfect. Muschietti over-cooks the numerous jump scares, which rarely land their punches (at least on this jaded reviewer), whilst the score over-bakes just about every beat. The finale confrontation is muddled and slightly underwhelming (although it does afford the arresting image of the ‘floating’ to which Pennywise keeps cracking on about). And despite agreeing they are safer together, the kids frequently wander off down the sewer tunnels / haunted house on their own (groan).
But these quibbles aside; this is still a far better initial stab at King’s magnum opus than one would dared have hoped for given recent King inspired misfires like THE DARK TOWER and THE CELL. The stellar performances of the fantastic young cast that compose ‘The Losers’ Club’ ensure we care about them even before that horrid old clown pokes his grease painted red nose into their world. And as a result, I for one - for once - wasn’t siding with the monster.