My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is a 2021 horror drama and first feature film from writer-director Jonathan Cuartas. While the trailer might make this out to be a tense and terrifying horror, what actually unfolds is a slow-burning yet rather captivating family drama with a little vampirism thrown in.
The film opens in a rather non-descript mountain town in the US, on a homeless man picking through garbage from a dumpster. A pick-up truck approaches driven by Dwight (Patrick Fugit), and from an ensuing conversation between him and the homeless man in his truck, we learn Dwight has given him food and promised shelter for the night. They drive through the town and to a home, where we see Dwight render the man unconscious. Dwight brings the man inside and assisted by his sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram), they slit his throat and collect his blood in a bucket. The blood is dispensed into a bowl and fed to pale and sickly younger brother Thomas (Owen Campbell), whose fragile state is improved after he empties the bowl.
Thomas is young, childlike and confined to the house. We soon learn that he can’t cope with sunlight, is awake all night and is physically weak unless kept sated with human blood – that his siblings have to obtain for him. During the day Jessie works in a diner, on the lookout for potential new victims, while Dwight sells their victim’s belongings in a thrift store and secretly spends time with a local prostitute Pam (Katie Preston) with whom he fantasizes about running away with. Dwight is becoming despondent and begins to detest his murdering lifestyle, while Jessie’s ruthless nature becomes apparent as she does anything to protect her brother and cater to his needs. The pair’s deteriorating behaviours alongside Thomas’s insistence on attempting to live a normal life, lead to disastrous consequences.
My Heart… is a surprisingly enthralling film from the very start. From the cinematography of the unidentifiable town to the haunting score, this has dark and ominous overtones from the beginning that gives an overall unsettling feel that is further intensified by Dwight’s murderous actions. It’s helped by limited yet effective dialogue. Actions definitely speak louder than words in every scene, and the script is minimal but incredibly efficient in helping reveal everything we need to know. There is no unnecessary exposition, although I’d argue that maybe a little more information would’ve been helpful. We’re never told how Thomas came to be in his condition or exactly what his condition is – the word “vampire” is not once used which I found wonderfully refreshing. However, it would have been nice to find out more about the sibling’s parents and if their absence is down to Thomas’s condition. The ending too whilst heart-warming could have been less ambiguous.
This film does plod along at a very slow pace and is definitely not a terrifying, intense ride that the trailer makes it appear. Being a slow burner isn’t always a negative thing, however here it does make the film drag a little despite the fairly short run time. Fortunately, the performances help boost the scenes – from Patrick Fugit’s incredibly tortured Dwight to Ingrid Sophie Schram’s merciless Jessie and Owen Campbell’s almost innocent and childlike Thomas – it’s not often you find yourself feeling sorry for a family dealing with vampirism. My biggest criticism overall isn’t about the plot or content and is actually the fact that this has been filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio – watching on a large widescreen TV at home with two black bars on either side is not something I’ve experienced for quite some time and personally, I felt this detracted from the overall gloomy, intense and almost intimate style of the film.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is not the scare-fest horror I was expecting, but despite this, it is a surprisingly heart-warming yet bloody, well-acted drama with a unique take on a very well-known horror genre.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To will be available on Digital Download from 28th June
A contract manager moonlighting as a rather discerning film and book critic, with an almost fangirl appreciation for anything made by Christopher Nolan. When I’m not catching up on my latest read or watch, you can usually find me trying out my amateur baking skills – Bake Off here I come!