My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To will is available on Digital Platforms from June 28th
Over recent years the vampire has found itself embedded in horror/drama that has sought to reflect the burdens of vampirism as an uncontrollable and inescapable illness. This version of the vampire transcends the image created in Universal’s monster flicks and the technicolour gore of Hammer. Here, our vampire’s are everyday people viewed through a lens of pity, isolation, disease and addiction. Each one desperately seeking to control their unquenchable thirst and live a normal life away from the torment of others. For many, this version of the vampire was born in George A Romero’s Martin (1978) and further developed in Thomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008). However, while both films broke ground in humanising the figure of the vampire, many films over the years have played with the concept of vampirism as an illness, addiction or disease.
Let’s take, for example, The Hunger (1983), where David Bowie’s Tom realises too late that eternal youth does not come with eternal life. His choice to enter the world of the vampire wrapped in regret as the illness eats away at him. Meanwhile, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) focused on the isolation of the vampire and their inability to trust humankind. While more recently, Rose: A Love Story (2020) explored isolation and a partner’s need to protect their loved one at all costs. Jonathan Cuartas first feature-length movie owes much to Rose. His quiet and assured horror/drama wrapped in themes of family, protection and control.
Dwight (Patrick Fugit) lives for the night, prowling the streets in his truck looking for anyone who will not be missed; the homeless, street trade and lost souls all fair game. However, this is not a duty undertaken out of some sick pleasure. For Dwight, his nightly trips are a chore he must endure as he protects his reclusive brother, Thomas (Owen Campbell). His sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) awaiting his return each night as she cares for Thomas.
However, with each new victim, Dwight loses another part of himself. His life slowly vanishing into a pit of despair and uncertainty. But Jesse and Thomas need Dwight to continue his march of death and destruction. Their home a prison of no escape until one boy forces the bars apart; Dwight offered an escape route, but at what cost?
Cuartas frames his story in a tight 4:3 format, creating an oppressive atmosphere for the viewer. While at the same time bathing his audience in a subdued colour pallet that only comes to life as the blood drains from Dwight’s victims. Meanwhile, Andrew Rease Shaw’s score creates a sombre atmosphere as we watch Dwight’s life slowly unravel. His need for escape jarring with a need to protect his sister and brother at any cost. The result is a claustrophobic, edgy and dark world. One built on conversations around the interface between loyalty, family, love and self-destruction. Here, Cuartas reflects many of the same themes found in Rose: A Love Story. But, unlike Jennifer Sheridan’s festival favourite, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To occasionally lacks the foreboding atmosphere needed to elevate its tension and enhance its horror.
Meanwhile, the relationship at the film’s heart, Dwight and his far more ruthless sister Jessie lacks depth. The themes of resentment, control and power circling their relationship often hollow. This is not in any way a criticism of Fugit and Schram’s performance, both superb alongside Campbell. Still, it does point to a screenplay that needed slightly more development in reaching its potential. However, the fascinating character here is Thomas, the reason for his condition a mystery. And while Dwight may be a victim of his need to protect his brother, it could be argued the real victim of the piece is Campbell’s Thomas. The film’s final act allowing his vulnerability, pain and internal despair to fly free. His cage, created by a well-meaning family, finally ripped apart.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is an assured debut feature from Cuartas. And while it may not reach the heights of Rose: A Love Story in both tension and dramatic impact, its slow-burn horror is nonetheless impressive. Its final act both touching, horrifying and delicate as Dwight faces a choice of no return. Will it satisfy those seeking a horror full of jump scares? No, but it will satisfy those seeking intelligent horror that dwells in the psychological need for escape. Escape from oneself, the rigid family ties that imprison us and a need to care for another no matter the personal cost. While simultaneously earning its place alongside its cinematic contemporaries as a vampire story rich in the complexity, alienation and fear of a life lived in darkness with an insatiable appetite for blood.