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 – THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH ***
Directed by Sergio Martino. Starring George Hilton, Edwige Fenech, Conchita Airoldi, Carlo Alighiero, Ivan Rassimov. Horror/Thriller, UK, 100 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray by Shameless Screen Entertainment on 31st July 2017.
Shameless Screen Entertainment’s latest delve into the vaults of ‘70s giallo classics has resulted in Sergio Martino’s 1971 mystery thriller THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH (the ‘H’ was added after a real Mrs. Ward – no relation - complained about the name being used) getting the Blu-ray treatment, and what a treat it is as getting to see giallo goddess Edwige Fenech (ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK) in various states of undress in glorious HD is certainly one of the benefits of these excellent releases.
But THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH isn’t, like a number of giallo movies are, just a nudie-fest while a line of nubile young women get slaughtered by a mysterious black-gloved killer; granted, there is lots of naked flesh on display, young women do get killed and there is a killer who wears black gloves but director Sergio Martino (ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK/THE MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD) is, with all due respect, a less stylish director than the perceived masters of the genre – Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, et al – and this plays into his favour as his debut giallo is crafted with the story front and centre and a less fussy approach to the visuals. Not to say this isn’t a good looking film because the framing, camera angles and general structure all scream “GIALLO” the whole way through but there is a certain economical approach to much of the violence and the overall design of the film that doesn’t overload the senses like a lot of gialli do and lets the story unfold without too many distractions.
And the story itself is one of twists and turns as the titular Julie Wardh (Fenech) becomes a point of interest to several men, including her often-absent ambassador husband, her violent and sadistic former lover who seems to be following her and George (George Hilton – MY DEAR KILLER), the handsome cousin of her best friend Carol (Conchita Airoldi – TORSO), but there is also a killer on the loose in the local area who is stalking and murdering young women with a straight razor. When Julie starts getting blackmailing phone calls that threaten to reveal her affair with George to her husband she gets drawn into a world of deceit and murder, with all of Julie’s friends and lovers becoming suspects as the body count rises.
As plots go it follows the fairly standard giallo formula with most of the trademarks you expect but THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH manages to avoid falling into the trappings of the genre by keeping things scaled down and less spectacular than other movies in a similar vein, although there are times when the film does begin to drag as unimportant scenes are stretched out longer than they need to be, pushing the running time up to 100 minutes which is a little too long for a film like this. However, when most of that running time is filled with the stunning Edwige Fenech, her equally gorgeous co-stars and a memorable score from composer Nora Orlandi (KILL BILL VOL. 2) there isn’t too much to complain about, and the violent scenes are all shot very well, never going for Fulci levels of extreme gore but still being quite vicious and, naturally, the very red blood looks magnificent in crystal clear HD.
Packed with extras including interviews with Edwige Fenech and Sergio Martino, an introduction to the film from Martino, Edwige Fenech biography and a fact track by Justin Harries, THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH is certainly a unique entry in the giallo canon for its seemingly intentional lack of flair but it makes up for it in suspense and storytelling, all the while managing to tick all the boxes for what you want from a Euro-thriller from that era. It does slow down in places to the point where you wonder how it can pick up pace again but the plot is strong enough to overcome those moments, making it a great entry-level giallo for those yet to tread the murky waters but also an atmospheric and often beautifully bleak change from the lavish and often over-stylised genre standards.