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 TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 ****
Directed by Tobe Hooper, Starring: Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Jim Siedow. Horror, US, 1986, 101mins, Cert 18.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray on 21st August 2017 by Arrow Video.
“The saw is family!”
Belatedly following up his seminal 1974 original, Tobe Hooper completed the third of his three-picture deal with Cannon Films in 1986 by delivering a (very) 80’s sequel. Eschewing the gritty grind house aesthetic of the original, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (TCM2) is very much a glossier product of it time, with yuppie Reagan-era politics now being satirised, a distinctly generic-sounding electronic horror-film soundtrack replacing the disconcerting farmyard cacophonic soundscape of TCM , and a generous ladleful of 80’s gore effects from Tom Savini.
After inadvertently recording the buzz saw deaths of 2 affluent rich kids on her live phone in request show, DJ ‘Stretch’ (Caroline Williams) comes to the attention of the Sawyer family, and patriarch Drayton Sawyer (a much welcomed returning Jim Siedow) sends ‘Leatherface’ (Bill Johnson/Bob Elmore ) and brother ‘Chop-Top’ (Bill Moseley) to her radio station to chainsaw her broadcasting forever. Meanwhile, a revenge-hungry Stetson sporting former Texas Ranger, Lieutenant Boude "Lefty" Enright (a deranged Dennis Hopper), the uncle of Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother Franklin from the original TCM, is closing in on the Sawyer family, and he’s packing a veritable arsenal of chainsaws himself...
Understandably, no other director was willing to take on the unenviable task of helming a sequel to Tobe Hooper’s classic, so producer Hooper eventually took up the directorial reins himself. Sagely realising that he couldn’t capture lightning in a bottle twice, Hooper turned up the humour dial to ‘11’, and (miraculously, given the shooting deadline) delivered to Cannon Film’s Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus a film that censors both in the US and the UK collectively failed to appreciate the dark humour amidst the gore. Faced with an ‘X’ rating, Cannon released the film unrated (commendably intact for sure, but thereby hampered with both promotion and theatrical distribution). In the UK, the film never made it to initial release after the BBFC procrastinated over it for so long the distributor gave up the ghost. (It was eventually passed uncut on home video in July 2001!) Therefore, myself and fellow UK gore hounds had to resort to inferior 2nd generation video versions transposed from NTSC copies whose wobbly tracking and diluted colour palette didn’t help ones appreciation of the film one little bit.
Viewing it again through the rose-tinted luxury of Arrow Films HD transfer (supervised by Director of Photography Richard Kooris), there is much to admire about Hooper’s revised garishly gory cartoonish revision of the Sawyer family’s cannibalistic chain sawing exploits.
Bill Moseley’s deliciously grotesque Vietnam vet Chop-Top (the brother of the original hitchhiker ‘Nubbins’) constantly ‘hot-wiring’ his skull along a fissure in his metal head plate with the heated end of a coat hanger - whilst spitting out eminently quotable sound bites such as ‘Dog will hunt!” - is so memorable he often threatens to upstage Leatherface himself. Largely essayed by stuntman Bob Elmore after Bill Johnson struggled to convincingly wield the chainsaw, Leatherface is no longer a squealing lipstick/apron adorned maternal distortion, but sporting a newly stitched Tom Savini skin mask, he develops a sickly comical ‘beauty and the beast’ attraction toward plucky DJ ‘Stretch’ (Caroline Williams, so striking in her ultra short denim hot pants). His courting methods however leave a lot to be desired, firstly (in an obviously censor-baiting move) phallically caressing her splayed inner thighs with his chainsaw (impotently, but thankfully unable to start the saw as it approaches her crotch), and later, ‘romantically’ presenting her with the freshly skinned face of her radio station soundman as if it was a corsage for a high school prom date!
The Sawyer’s vast underground labyrinthine lair, set within the grounds of an abandoned theme park, resplendent with garish fairy lights and nicely poignant touches such as Franklin’s corpse and wheelchair, afford Hooper with the scope to dolly the camera right back during the restaged ‘dinner scene’, and to afford Caroline Williams with plenty of crumbling ghost train-like tunnelling to run from Leatherface.
Dennis Hopper’s bizarre turn as ‘Lefty’ culminates in a chainsaw duel atop the Sawyer’s dinner table which gives Tom Savini an opportunity to pull off another of his gory magic tricks following on from head-slicing and skinning mayhem. (There was also a sequence in an underground car park, cut by Hooper himself for pacing, which presented further opportunities for Leatherface to connect saw to flesh and bone and to demonstrate Savini’s penchant for inventive slaughter. This outtake is included in the extras, albeit in low-res VHS quality)
Part of the initial resistance to TCM2 was the absence of the original Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and the obvious transition to upfront humour and social satire at the expense of the unrelenting visceral terrorisation of its predecessor. But time has been kind to TCM2, and thanks to Arrow’s glorious Blu-ray, it’s a whole lot easier to appreciate Hooper’s vision for his sequel, and to, perhaps belatedly, feel the buzz.
Extras: A Texan farmhouse and roadside grill load of extras accompany this release including: 2 audio commentaries, one with Tobe Hooper, and one with stars Bill Moseley, Caroline Williams and Tom Savini; a comprehensive six-part documentary; deleted scenes, an interview with Bob Elmore; an insightful interview with horror chronicler Stephen Thrower; alternative opening sequence, behind-the-scenes gallery and original trailer.