Horror can be shamelessly shallow, choosing cheap scares and claret over plot and character, but this is part of its beauty and versatility. The genre can be hugely satisfying without being poignant. Yet when horror literature and cinema is created with emotional depth, there is arguably nothing more powerful.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To oozes that frightening power. It’s the tale of three siblings who live alone in the woody outskirts of the city. Thomas is sick. Anaemic, unable to step outside or walk unassisted, Dwight and Jessie must care for the little brother they love. But there is a problem: the only thing that sates Thomas is human blood. Dwight and Jessie are forced to commit atrocious acts to keep Thomas alive, driving them to the brink of madness.

To define director Jonathan Cuartas’ work here as a vampire film would be simplistic. This is a drama about the sacrifices and responsibility of family, using subtle cues from the vampire subgenre to explore — sometimes vicariously — morality, incest, euthanasia, and how we view marginalised society.

These themes are driven by incredible performances from Owen Campbell (Thomas), Patrick Fugit (Dwight) and Ingrid Sophie Scram (Jessie) that force the audience to sympathise with the characters and their conflicts. Thomas, with an endearing, childlike innocence, yearns for a normal life. Dwight, who is coerced by Jessie to abduct homeless people and sex workers to drain their blood, fights the crushing desire to flee his grisly duties. And Jessie, who maintains an emotionless façade, battles to keep the family together, whatever the price. The chemistry between the characters is fascinating. Watching their relationship dissolve is acutely desolating, and despite their crimes, it’s impossible not to feel empathy.

But it’s not just the cast that make My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To such a success. The movie is beautifully shot. Music, including the use of the organ, is sublimely utilised. The tension slowly builds. Every small detail effortlessly comes together to produce a formidable whole.

For those who like horror defined by emotional weight, such as A Ghost Story, Hereditary or The Orphanage, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To cannot be missed. Its transcendent power is guaranteed to haunt you.

Patrick Fugit
Ingrid Sophie Schram
Owen Campbell

Jonathan Cuartas

Jonathan Cuartas

28 June 2021

Posted by Jim Reader

Jim is a London-based journalist who has worked for a number of titles, including Bizarre, Vogue, Boxing News and the Daily Sport. He graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2009 and became a Master of Research in American Literature in 2010.