Written and directed by Jonathan Cuartas, MY HEART CAN’T BEAT UNLESS YOU TELL IT TO (2020), streaming on Shudder, is a terrific lo-fi horror film about how far we go for love, and whether we’re willing to do evil in its selfless pursuit. I liked this one a lot.
Three adult siblings live in a house that’s seen better days outside a town that is similarly barely making it. Dwight (Patrick Fugit, the kid from ALMOST FAMOUS all grown up and still able to articulate a wide range of emotion from minor changes in facial expression) is lonely and yearns for freedom and a better life. His sister Ingrid (played with fierce intensity by Ingrid Sophie Schram) wants to keep the family together at all costs. And their brother Thomas (Owen Campbell in an example of perfect casting) is their frail younger brother who happens to be a vampire, a man who has lived in isolation so long he’s heartbroken and still childlike in many ways.
Each night, Thomas has to be fed to stay alive, a parasite existing not only on the victims but on the lives of his siblings who support him.
It’s a similar setup as my novel SUFFER THE CHILDREN, so I was very interested to see what Cuartas did with the concept. He did great. The occasionally awkward dialogue, drab tones, tight focus on the central conflict, and grisly but almost mundane horror elements all serve a purpose, and he nails the ending. While it’s a vampire story, the real story is in the family dynamics. Familial love holds the status quo together, but everything–the strain of killing, isolation, and loneliness–threatens to tear it apart. Thematically, some reviewers saw parallels to people caring for loved ones with a terminal illness, and while I guess it’s there if you want it, I found that too narrow. For me, it was really about the larger theme of self-sacrifice for someone you love, and how far you’d go for that love, even into the realm of doing evil not just once but as a matter of daily routine. Anyway, horror fans should note this is not a thrill ride; it’s a family drama.
For me, MY HEART CAN’T BEAT UNLESS YOU TELL IT TO is a perfect example of indie horror showing how if you can’t go big, go deep. Tell an affecting human story with horror elements rather than the other way around, in this case what feels like a very realistic and emotionally jarring story about what a vampire’s life would really be like.