There is something terrifying about the idea of “family” – the undeniable, invisible bonds that connect parents with their children, brothers with their sisters. Family will do anything for family, history has told, simply by virtue of these bonds. The protection of the family is a necessity made known in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy (1972 – 1990), where violence, however immoral or bloody, is freely enacted in the name of the Corleone family.
In Jonathan Cuartas’ debut feature, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, siblings Dwight and Jessie (Patrick Fugit and Ingrid Sophie Schram) go to similar, terrible lengths to honour their responsibility to their younger brother, Thomas (Owen Campbell). Sickly and weak, he needs blood to stay alive – his vampirism might as well be a disease. By day, whilst Thomas sleeps, Dwight and Jessie taken alternate turns to find him victims, typically rough sleepers and people on the margins, who are then driven back to their sheltered house and killed. Once Thomas has fed, the bodies are buried in the yard, and the mundane routines of Christmas, TV dinners and learning to play the piano continue as before.
But whilst Jessie is firm in her duty as guardian and butcher, their secret weighs more heavily on Dwight, and she is forced to remind him of their obligation: “He’s our brother … it has to be the three of us together, do you understand?” The situation doesn’t rest easy with Thomas either, who is drawn to the sounds of children playing outside his window – the signs of a happier life, far from his own.
Cuartas’ feature is an unusual, quietly affecting take on the genre, managing to resist the romance and gore of mainstream horror, whilst casting the vampire in a new light. Although produced by Dualist Films, it is the sort of film that might be associated with the output of indie studio A24, particularly with its understated tone. Having made his name in the horror genre with several short films, Cuartas revisits the narrative of his graduate film, Kuru – concerned again with family obligations to a dangerous sibling – for the premise of this deeply unsettling feature.
The sheer oddness of the family unit in My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To might remind some of The Addams Family, and the insular, somewhat undeveloped context leaves almost too much room for interpretation. Nevertheless, Cuartas directs his feature with confidence and flair, and there is much to glean from this minor triumph.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To will be available on Digital Download from 28th June.
Writer/Director: Jonathan Cuartas
Stars: Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Owen Campbell
Runtime: 89 minutes