Modern horror cinema continues to evolve in new and fascinating ways in the 21st century.
Movies such as “The Lodge,” “His House,” “Possessor,” and “In Fabric,” are part of the redefining of the genre. Varieties of vampires have also been popular in movies such as “Only Lovers Left Alive,” “30 Days of Night,” “Let Me In,” and “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” Additionally, some recent vampire movies have displayed a wicked sense of humor, as in the cases of “What We Do In The Shadows” and “Vampires vs. The Bronx.”
The stunning and artfully shot, Jonathan Cuartas’ “My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To” (Dark Sky Films) fits into the dark and serious category. Sickly and sheltered Thomas (Owen Campbell) needs fresh human blood to survive. Too weak to hunt on his own, it falls to older siblings Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) to find sources from which Thomas’ nourishment can be derived.
The movie opens with Dwight on one such mission. He lures a homeless man into his pickup truck with the promise of help and a ride to a shelter. But once he gets him to the house he shares with Jessie and Thomas, he kills him. Jessie assists in the blood draining and then wakes Thomas so that he may imbibe. Meanwhile, Dwight buries the body in the yard and then throws his, and the dead man’s clothes, into the washing machine. This is the pattern of Dwight’s life.
The one variation is Pam (Katie Preston), a prostitute Dwight frequents at a nearby motel. Dwight, who knows that Thomas is sick and not getting better, has dreams of leaving his bleak existence for a place with a beach and sunshine. He asks Pam if she’ll accompany him, but her business is her priority.
Jessie, meanwhile, is an unsmiling waitress at a dreary diner. It soon becomes clear that with few exceptions, everything she and Dwight do is in service of keeping Thomas alive. This includes celebrating Christmas, with gifts exchanged, on a monthly basis.
Thomas, on the other hand, isn’t all that grateful. He wants to go outside when he hears people his own age talking and passing by the house. He wants to make friends. When his requests are denied, he intentionally knocks a bowl of blood off the table and onto the rug.
Following this setup, events take a considerably more ominous turn. Dwight, who is increasingly distracted, has a complicated and deadly situation with Eduardo (Moises L. Tovar), a homeless migrant worker he abducts. Jessie discovers that Dwight has been seeing Pam. She books a motel room next door to Pam, kills her and brings her body to the house, thoroughly devastating Dwight. Thomas’ attempt to connect with neighborhood kid Turner (Judah Bateman) goes horribly wrong.
In addition to being a non-traditional vampire movie, and a welcome entry into the contemporary horror genre, “My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To” is also an emotional examination of brother/sister relationships and sacrifice. The lead actors’ performances are exceptional, so much so that it wouldn’t be surprising to see Fugit, Schram and Campbell’s names mentioned when awards season comes around again.
Screen Savor is a weekly column from SFGN’s film critic Gregg Shapiro. Shapiro is an entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in regional LGBT and mainstream media outlets. Shapiro is the author of seven books including the 2019 chapbooks, Sunshine State and More Poems About Buildings and Food. Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.