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 – SHOCK TREATMENT ****
Directed by Jim Sharman. Starring Jessica Harper, Cliff De Young, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Barry Humphries, Rik Mayall, Charles Gray, Ruby Wax, Nell Campbell. USA / UK 1981 94 mins Certificate: PG
Released by Arrow Video on 21st August 2017
By the early 80’s, 20th Century Fox were understandably keen to replicate the enduring cult following of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. Alas, the frosty critical and commercial reception greeting Richard O’Brien’s “equal” (not sequel), SHOCK TREATMENT, was a harsh wake up call to remind them that a) you can’t just order a “cult” movie and b) ROCKY was not an immediate success story. Of course, this wasn’t some hastily contrived sequel either – it was a bold and fabulous musical in its own right, reuniting much of the cast and crew of ROCKY but with no pre-existing stage show to prepare an unsuspecting audience and with a concept that proved (unfortunately for us misery-laden 21st century citizens) frighteningly ahead of its time.
At the heart of SHOCK TREATMENT is a determined, relentless puncturing of the American Dream, represented by the artificial suburban utopia of Denton, “the home of happiness”. Years after surviving the mayhem of ROCKY, Brad (now played by the long-underrated Cliff De Young) and Janet (Jessica Harper stepping into Susan Sarandon’s shoes) represent old values in Denton and have their imperfect marriage thrust into the spotlight when recruited as contestants on Denton TV’s game show “The Marriage Maze”, a grimly exploitative exposure of faltering relationships masquerading as fun for the masses. At the heart of all of this is the smarmy, handsome Murdoch-like magnate Farley Flavors (De Young again), who has a very specific plan for our heroes…and, given that his ident closely resembles a Swastika, his intentions are clearly not good.
Denton, with its picket fences and grudging tolerance for “the ethnic races”, is established via a show-stopping, hugely ambitious opening musical number, “Denton USA” – “the Mecca of America, the Bethlehem of the West!” – which also confirms the musical union of O’Brien and Richard Hartley was no one-trick pony. Charles Gray, as Denton’s leading social scientist, once again provides an off-kilter Greek chorus, while O’Brien himself and Patricia Quinn are reunited to scene-stealing effect as the peculiar siblings overseeing the institution in which Brad is destined to spend most of the film. Jessica Harper, following key roles in seminal 70’s genre movies PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and SUSPIRIA, is a dynamic Janet, tracking her evolution into a manufactured sex symbol via a makeover that merges her into a consumerist Hell, complete with copious product placement. Barry Humphries, with his maniacal grin, convincingly awful catchphrases and grating faux-Germanic accent, is suitably grotesque as the host of The Marriage Maze, and the supporting cast has plum roles for Ruby Wax, Rik Mayall (looking very young and handsome as an intern), the glorious Nell Campbell as a saucy nurse and even a pre-“Toyboy” Sinitta.
O’Brien’s concept acts as an unforgiving feature length lament of the kind of then-emergent trends that now swamp our existence. Television is portrayed as a poisonous, all-consuming and controlling force, reflected by the live studio audience of mouth-agape, brainwashed drones, lapping up the misfortune of others in the name of “entertainment”. The movie, of course, anticipates the cruel 21st century wave of reality TV, while also aiming deserved pot-shots at the medical industry, pharmaceutical companies and the treatment of the mentally ill, specifically the concept of “Take away therapy”.
These themes are brought to vibrant, rousing life via the terrific song-score, with a consistently inventive array of original tunes that are arguably equal (and often superior) to ROCKY’s beloved touchstones. There’s a knowing ode to American masculinity (‘Faggots are maggots…Thank God I’m a man…’), a stand-out hymn to consumerism entitled “Bitchin in the Kitchen” (‘Dear knife drawer…’), and the bravura, addictive title number itself. Was there ever a greater movie musical song title than “Look What I Did To My Id”? Was anything in the 80’s as wonderful as Richard O’Brien leading us into “Little Black Dress”?!
It’s a visually more dynamic and imaginative movie than ROCKY, with Sharman’s staging often striking – notably the single-shot song “Lullaby”, performed via an extended, voyeuristic pan across adjacent bedroom windows – and appropriately garish stylised sets. It’s a bold, subversive and endlessly entertaining movie whose portrayal of our culture’s amoral, relentless pursuit of fame and success has long ceased to be a mere prediction. “Sanity for today” indeed… If you’re lucky enough to keep yours, watch this on repeat in your Nuclear bunker.
Arrow have given this movie its first ever Blu-ray release in a HD release that really shows off the movie’s vastly impressive production design and visual detail. The addition of the complete soundtrack on CD will seal the deal for fans of the movie. Alongside archival and fan-made extras are new featurettes offering a general overview on the movie’s evolution, music and reception, with Quinn, Sharman, Hartley, De Young and others mulling over the original ROCKY sequel concept (Janet carrying Frank N Furter’s baby) and Sharman noting how it felt “too savage, too unsexy…” at the time but now feels like the world in which we live. Particularly fun is Mark Kermode’s BFI interview with Patricia Quinn, wherein the actress is characteristically hilarious and bizarre, deriding THE TRUMAN SHOW for stealing the film’s plot and delivering a marvellous anecdote about showing a double bill of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and SHOCK TREATMENT to a bunch of eight year olds..