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.
DVD REVIEW – THE SECT – ****
Directed by Michele Soavi. Starring Kelly Curtis, Herbert Lom, Mariangela Giordano, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Tomas Arana, Donald O’Brien. Horror, Italy, 117 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray by Shameless Screen Entertainment on 5th December 2016.
Following on from their HD makeover of Michele Soavi’s THE CHURCH, Shameless Screen Entertainment have given the director’s 1991 follow-up movie THE SECT a similar release, complete with eye-popping cover art (which is reversible) and a neat audio and visual polish, all packaged up in the distributor’s trademark yellow box. But while tonally and visually THE SECT is very similar to THE CHURCH there is a difference as the latter film – despite Soavi’s protests to the contrary – is a slightly re-jigged entry in the DEMONS series, or at least it was intended to be during initial production. THE SECT, however, has nothing to do with bloodthirsty demons or Teutonic Knights looking for witches; instead the vibe here is satanic thriller in a similar vein to ROSEMARY’S BABY or THE OMEN, only this being made at the dawn of the 1990s by a noted Italian genre filmmaker there is a bit more going on than in the subtleties of the Hollywood blockbusters it is aspiring to be like.
Not that THE SECT is anything less than its own film, as Michele Soavi and producer Dario Argento have borrowed just enough from the more well-known occult horror movies of the previous two decades to keep in that tradition but without overtly aping anything we’ve seen before. The film opens in the US in 1970 (despite the song playing over the top being originally released in 1972 but hey ho…) where a group of hippies are living in the desert, painting each other’s breasts and generally not bothering anybody but they soon become the target of Damon (Tomas Arana), a nomadic character who wanders into their camp and proceeds to ritualistically slaughter everybody with help from the motorcycle gang who follow him.
The film then moves to present day and, after a tense and quite bizarre murder/suicide in Germany featuring Italian genre stalwart Giovanni Lombardo Radice (CANNIBAL FEROX/THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK), the main plot kicks in as schoolteacher Miriam (Kelly Curtis – TRADING PLACES) nearly runs over Moebius Kelly (Herbert Lom – MARK OF THE DEVIL), a strange and tragic old man who appears to have some sort of death wish, although it becomes evident that Moebius and Kelly’s meeting was no coincidence and Moebius’ odd behaviour is leading to some sort of diabolical plan coming to fruition.
And if you’ve seen ROSEMARY’S BABY then suffice to say the plan isn’t a million miles from the one that is hatched in that movie, although THE SECT plays things a little differently and doesn’t reveal where it is going until the very final act, and even then it doesn’t take the obvious route. Which is all very well as ROSEMARY’S BABY has already been made so THE SECT scores points for doing something different with the material, and it also scores very highly for looking fantastic and featuring some highly inventive camerawork – the sort that Dario Argento made his name with – and creating a superbly creepy occult atmosphere, the combination of Soavi’s visceral direction, solid acting from the cast and a script that doesn’t give anything away unless it needs to.
But THE SECT does suffer from a bit of a pacing issue, with the first 20 minutes of the film offering up a bizarre and frenetic smorgasbord of Italian horror tropes that features murders, Satan worshippers and a commuter stuffing human organs into his pockets… stuff like that. The introduction of Moebius Kelly is equally intriguing as he is obviously a man on a mission as he sets about taking a bus ride, but what that mission is we won’t know until nearer the end of the movie and before then we have to build up Miriam’s story and that is where the film sort of hits a wall. Once she has met Moebius and takes him home to clean him up after knocking him down the film goes dialogue-heavy and for about an hour not a lot actually happens. In certain places it works as Soavi sets up visually pleasing images – such as the well that leads to Hell – that keep you invested where the script doesn’t, as in trying to retain the air of mystery there isn’t a lot that is spoken that makes you care too much about Miriam or her friends that get involved with her plight.
However, the movie does make good on that early promise and the final act goes bonkers as there are explosions, more murders (of course) and some fine chewing of the scenery from Herbert Lom as Moebius’ full intentions are revealed and Miriam learns of her fate. But this being Italian horror the film ends of a slightly different note than what you would expect and on the one hand that is quite refreshing but, on the other, Miriam’s final standoff against Moebius is a little bit underwhelming. At least it’s different…
THE SECT is a fine entry into the satanic horror canon and this Blu-ray edition is well worth picking up if any of the previously mentioned occult movies tickle your fancy. Despite some OTT set pieces the film doesn’t go so crazy that it loses its aura, when it could quite easily have gone down the DEMONS route of total lunacy and in that respect THE SECT feels quite restrained but separate it from Michele Soavi’s other works and it shows a filmmaker trying to find solidify his own style after perhaps having to conform to expectation a little previously. There is a bit of a lag in the middle but the strong opening and closing sections that sit either side of it are worth sticking with it for and overall gives the film a relatively classier feel than many films of a similar thematic ilk or from the same filmmaking crew. And as this is the first full UK release of THE SECT expect those limited edition discs to disappear quite quickly, so best to pick one up if you can.