An examination of co-dependency and addiction masquerading as a vampire film, Jonathan Cuartas’ “My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To” is a stunner from the start.
Similar to Natalie Erika James’ flawed-but-intriguing “Relic” from 2020, the movie takes a restrained approach as it reveals itself to be much more than a standard horror feature. Rather, the vampire premise serves as a powerful metaphor for the toll that caring for the terminally ill or infirm can have on caretakers who are shouldered with an unjust responsibility.
Patrick Fugat and Ingrid Sophie Schram are Dwight and Jessie, siblings who are emotionally shackled to their brother Thomas (Owen Campbell). Wan and frail, restricted to the confines of their deteriorating house, he requires constant infusions of fresh blood.
Picking off the homeless and others living on the fringe of society, Dwight harvests these unfortunates, bringing them home to slaughter and drain them so that his brother may have the sustenance to live.
Cuartas wisely rejects glorifying the film’s violence or rendering it gratuitously, instead grounding the scenes with a sense of realism that makes what Dwight and Jessie are required to do all the more horrific. There’s almost a matter-of-fact approach to the killings they’re obligated to commit, making their execution seem cold and calculated.
The emotional toll this takes on the caretakers is devastating, each of them suffering from a sense of alienation and loneliness that ultimately proves unbearable. Attempting to balance his love for his brother with the guilt weighing him down has eaten away at Dwight. He’s reached a breaking point that requires Jessie to become more active in these slayings, which will in turn begin to erode her conscience as well.
As they wrestle with this burden, Thomas longs to be allowed to leave the house and interact with those he perceives as his peers, the teenagers who populate the neighborhood.
The sense of alienation and loneliness each of them experience is intolerable. Cuartas paints a poignant portrait of life in stasis, the three siblings all unable to move on, everything around them stuck in time. This is underscored by their house, a modern gothic nightmare containing out-of-date décor — a place where, like their inhabitants, time stands still. Dickens’ Miss Havisham would feel right at home here, the television seemingly only getting broadcasts from yesterday, the furniture antiquated, the wallpaper dingy. It is a forgotten structure inhabited by forgotten people.
Vampires or vampirism is never mentioned; however, this is a situation that is draining the life from all of them. Cuartas underscores throughout the emotional toll this is taking on the trio, driving home the cost of the sacrifice Dwight and Jessie are making, coupled with the guilt Thomas suffers, knowing full well that he is a burden.
“Heart” proves hard to shake for a variety of reasons. The fact that Cuartas grounds the action in such a realistic manner and the work of the committed cast to make their characters’ plight so palpable help separate it from the sort of fodder that clutters the genre.
The film’s resolution is inescapable but no less affecting, an inevitable conclusion that leaves no one unscathed, its glimmer of hope tenuous. And it is because of this unwavering and unflinching look at the toll of co-dependency that makes it the year’s best horror film.