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
DVD REVIEW – the green inferno - ***
Directed by Eli Roth. Starring Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Aaron Burns, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Daryl Sabara, Sky Ferreira, Richard Burgi. Horror/Adventure, USA/Chile, 100 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray by Entertainment One on 22nd February 2016.
Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying that Eli Roth has left his mark on the horror genre in the 21st century, given the coverage that any new movie he makes receives. This is because, apart from the possible exception of Rob Zombie, Roth is a filmmaker that divides opinion and quite why that is remains unclear because one look at his directorial credits gives you such titles as the fun CABIN FEVER, the groundbreaking HOSTEL and the more satirical HOSTEL: PART II which, although not classics, are three films that have in their own way set a benchmark. Alright, he has put his name to a few dodgy things here and there as a producer but so have the likes of Guillermo Del Toro and Wes Craven and they don’t seem to generate the same levels of negativity. Perhaps he just has one of those faces...
Above it all though, Eli Roth is a fan of horror movies and THE GREEN INFERNO is nothing if not the work of somebody who has done their homework on cannibal movies. Anyone who has followed Eli Roth’s career knows his love of Italian gore movies, especially the works of Ruggero Deodato whom he got to cameo in HOSTEL: PART II, and THE GREEN INFERNO (the original shooting title of Deodato’s notorious CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) is his tribute to a sub-genre of horror movies that didn’t really have that long a shelf life but all became infamous due to their depictions of body mutilations, animal cruelty and sexual violence, some of which are still only available in censored form in the UK. And while Roth steers away from the animal cruelty and rape that marked out CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, CANNIBAL FEROX, DEEP RIVER SAVAGES and all the other notable titles that are namechecked in the closing credits, he does keep the gore level appropriately high, which makes some of his other directorial decisions a little weirder.
After learning about female genital mutilation and the tribes that still practise it, student Justine (Lorenza Izzo) joins up with a group of activists about to embark on a mission to the Peruvian jungle to stop a huge company from bulldozing their way through the rainforest and wiping out the tribes that live there. After initially being refused membership to the group she convinces their leader Alejandro (Ariel Levy) to let her come along and chain herself to a tree, despite warnings from her UN lawyer dad Charles (Richard Burgi) not to go. However, when they get there and have done all they need to do their plane crashes deep in the forest and the activists are captured by a primitive tribe of flesh-eating cannibals who proceed to munch their way through the members of the group, although for some reason the tribe’s matriarchal leader takes quite a shine to Justine, which may just give her the chance she needs to escape.
On first impressions THE GREEN INFERNO is a loving homage to the splatter movies that Roth loves so much and the film does give you exactly the sort of gooey, bloody violence that those old cannibal movies gave you, only in a cleaner, clearer and more expertly executed way. The special effects in this film are nothing short of superb and given the excellent photography we get to see all of it in gruesomely close-up detail; the scene in which the tribal leader pulls out the eyes of one of the group members and eats it before her subordinates go to work on the rest of his body is fantastically shot and satisfyingly horrific.
But underpinning all of the extreme gore and violence is the satire that Eli Roth feels compelled to inject into the film. When it works it works well - the scenes set in New York before the trip are full of Roth’s cynical eye passing comment on the social justice warriors that campaign against anything they see as wrong, or the supercilious nature of social media and the way that Alejandro is quick to dismiss Justine’s commitment to the cause simply because she questions his methods is as damning as it is entirely accurate – but, and this is possibly where a lot of the derivative comments towards Roth come from, for some reason he feels the need to throw in humour that is just inappropriate. The scene of one of the captive protesters getting diarrhoea is so crudely shoehorned in that it feels like somebody let the Monty Python team have a go at the script before the final draft and it doesn’t sit well amongst the brutality that is shown either side of it. It isn’t the only piece of silliness in the film but it is the biggest offender and unfortunately it is likely to be the most memorable about the movie, but for all the wrong reasons.
Roth knows his stuff and THE GREEN INFERNO is a very slick, very knowing tribute to those Italian cannibal splatter movies of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s but unfortunately the humour that Roth saw fit to put into the film gives it an uneven tone that does it no favours whatsoever. Had Roth stuck to the grim relentlessness that made CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST such an intense ride then THE GREEN INFERNO would be scoring a lot higher but as it is, it’s still an enjoyable film – if you find watching people getting their limbs amputated and eyes gouged out enjoyable – that looks fantastic and is a lot more fun than you think it’s going to be. But should a cannibal movie be fun?