The majority of successful horror movies use fantastical concepts to highlight issues that exist within contemporary society. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) famously highlighted the fact that women lacked agency in 1960s America by telling the story of a woman who literally has her baby stolen away from her by Satanists who subtly pressure her to follow along with societal conventions. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To aims to follow in its wake and use the concept of vampirism to make points about the sacrifices that families have to make when raising their children. Like other horror films, it does face obstacles in its efforts to make the audience take it seriously, in spite of how unbelievable its concept is. Fortunately, it makes most of the right moves in forcing the audience to accept the fact that the teenager at the centre of an unusual family simply is a vampire and there isn’t going to be a scene where we hear a bunch of gobbledygook about ectoplasm and magical spells. This sets things off on the right note and forces audiences to get past all of their preconceived, Twilight (2008) related notions about sparkling pretty boys. 

We are introduced to Thomas (Owen Campbell), a teenager vampire, when he is completely incapacitated as a result of having not consumed enough human blood. We do not know how he got into this situation, but we quickly come to understand that his siblings have to murder human beings and collect their blood in order to keep their brother in a functioning state. His sister Jessie (Sophie Ingrid Schram) is a diner waitress who is deeply concerned for her brother’s wellbeing and tries to prevent him from engaging with the outside world for fear of him being hurt or their secret discovered. His brother Dwight (an unrecognisable Patrick Fugit, best known for Almost Famous) takes a very different approach to caring for him and also seems to have a desire to break away from the family. There is tension between all three members of the family and their conflicting desires ensure that Thomas feels unhappy with his lot in life, as well as painfully lonely.

The film is fairly light on plot and most of the film consists of scenes in which this complicated family dynamic is explored. The actors also work with very little dialogue and have to convey emotions through facial expressions and body language. This is not a talky chamber piece and this allows director Jonathan Cuartas to avoid directing this like a Playhouse 90 production. He doesn’t have to offer the actors a self indulgent close-up when they deliver a big monologue and there is never the feeling that dialogue is being delivered for the sake of filling time. There is more emphasis placed on the cramped quality of their house and the outlets that they have for their anger and frustration. 

Cuartas does employ long takes to make the point that their nights together seem to stretch on forever, rather than being marked by short bursts of vigorous movement or the feeling that day turns to night relatively quickly. The lack of camera movement lets us into the world that Jessie and Dwight are living in, where every moment away from Thomas feels wasted and every moment in his presence is miserable. The camera unflinchingly settles on the living room and does not turn away when Jessie’s efforts to start a conversation are ultimately unfruitful. The silence is the point and most of the horror is derived from the social situation that these people are trapped in. Vampirism could serve as an allegory for many of the life-threatening diseases that leave people in a state where they could die at any moment without constant care and treatment. 

Beyond its efforts at capturing the emotions of suffering parental figures, it also succeeds in presenting their criminal activity in a harsh light. It does not look away when they kill innocent, defenceless homeless people who are murdered by those who claim to be interested in helping them. The searing performances make these scenes particularly difficult to watch. Hearing the soft, reedy voices of the victims is enough to drive home their pain and suffering and Cuartas smartly refrains from using too many close-ups. We know just enough about them to be horrified when they are slaughtered, but also get a sense of how efficiently Dwight is able to pick them up and then murder them. It is chilling stuff and it will likely satisfy horror funs who want to explore what can be felt before somebody kills a person who has invested a lot of trust in them. 

When it begins to disappoint, there is a feeling of the air being let out of the bag. The introduction of various shocking plot developments feel like too much of a deviation from the character-based drama of the first two acts. The toned down, gentle approach had worked wonders for a story that could have felt silly, so it was upsetting to see the film give in to a measure of sensationalism. Additionally, the actors fail to adjust to the tonal shift and seem ill-equipped to deal with the new level of intensity that has been brought into the mix. Everything ends up off-kilter and the last few scenes take audience members on a rough ride. They have to feel out what the director’s intentions are and comprehend the fact that the film wants to be about five different things at once. Cuartas does such a good job of building up tension that the ending seems like a let down. The script has been smartly plotted up until that point but we are left with the feeling that it did not amount to much. This is a shame, because it taints the previous scenes and diminishes their impact. Ambition can often produce daring, thoroughly engaging films and yet, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To would have been more successful if it had more modest ambitions. This would not be the first example of a horror movie that over-reached and ended up paying the price for it. 

Rating: ★★½

In Theatres and VOD/Digital Platforms on June 25th, 2021