‘My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To’
One of my favorite horror films of 2021 was this deeply moving, brazenly violent drama, written and directed by Jonathan Cuartas, about a frail young blood drinker and his sibling caretakers. Cuartas has said he was inspired by his family’s own difficult experience caring for his grandmother in hospice; the pain of that time comes through in his profound, empathetic film about mercy and what it means to be bound by blood.
Dwight (Patrick Fugit) spends nights luring loners and outcasts to their deaths on behalf of his homebound brother, Thomas (Owen Campbell), who needs fresh human blood to survive. Their sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) juggles her waitress job with her responsibility for keeping the close-knit family’s secret under wraps. As Thomas yearns to leave home and make friends, his blood thirst starts to overwhelm the family, and the consequences threaten to tear the siblings apart.
Cuartas does something smart with his film: He never uses the word vampire, and the characters struggle with emotions around sacrifice, sadness and resentment — not the stuff that usually drives a vampire narrative. Instead, the director and his brother Michael Cuartas, the man behind the film’s macabre cinematography, upend our expectations, and in turn offer a harrowing and brutal film that will break your heart.
A young mom (Najarra Townsend) drives down a desolate highway on a dark night as a storm approaches, her daughter asleep in the back seat. At a gas station, she agrees to give a ride to a young woman (Leah Lauren) that she meets in the bathroom. They don’t get far before a creature lunges in front of the car, and they discover that a doll has replaced the sleeping child. As the women try to figure out what’s behind the uncanny goings-on, they discover that their meeting wasn’t by chance.
This propulsive and creepy thriller from the writer-director Eduardo Rodriguez is more than just a monster movie — it’s a poignant exploration of the limits of compassion and what it means to parent through trauma. For a low-budget film set mostly inside a car at night, it also looks like a million bucks. Credit goes to the production designer Jason Fijal, who has a knack for realistically gross-out ooze and splatter, and the director of photography John De Fazio, who makes almost every shot look artfully sinister.
Struggling to make it as an actress, Laura (Lorelei Linklater, the daughter of the director Richard Linklater) returns to her small Texas hometown where her sister Winnie (Maddy-Lea Hendrix) disappeared 10 years ago on Halloween. There, she meets up with the identical twin brothers Charlie, the sweet one who prefers nerdy cardigans, and Vincent, the creepy one in black. (Kudos to the writer-director Riley Cusick for a bizarro performance as the twins.)
Now making a living as the proprietors of a haunted attraction, the brothers know what happened to Winnie that night, but they’ve kept the tragic event to themselves. That is until Vincent, a hothead obsessed with an owl mask, decides the secret has stayed buried long enough.
What kept me glued to this strange film were the shocking moments in which death came quickly and unexpectedly, as when a guy gets knifed at his surprise birthday party. Those and other out-of-nowhere gut-punch moments are what give the film jolts of terror, which it needs to balance the sleepier scenes. Carson Bailie’s cinematography is an eerie companion to the weirdness.
Have you ever woken up naked in bed with a stranger and wondered, “Who are you?” In this lurid thriller from Spain, that’s what happens to David (Pablo Derqui) and Sara (Marina Gatell), except they don’t just wake up next to one another — they wake up sewn together at the abdomen. And they have no idea where they are or how they literally got together.
It’s good that this film clocks in at 70 minutes, since there’s no getting around that this grisly meet-cute marriage of Brian De Palma pastiche and “The Human Centipede” is a one-trick pony. (It would be one heck of a stage play.) But Mar Targarona, the director, keeps tensions high and takes her time pacing the many reveals, making for a dynamic and engaging if ultimately melodramatic exploration of a relationship that really hurts.
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Derqui and Gatell together give an intensely intimate performance, especially when their characters are forced to share a trip to the bathroom. Talk about terrifying.
Jim (Gerald Chew) did something dumb at work and got fired from his engineering job in Singapore. He keeps the news from his wife and daughter for months, and to make money, he starts driving for a ride-sharing company.
One night, he drives a young man who tells him a once-upon-a-time story about a monster who terrorizes a village. The timing of the tale is weird, considering that Jim has been seeing ghastly figures and hearing devilish whispers since he lost his job. As Jim’s prospects for employment plummet, he has flashbacks to a playground incident with his sister that tortures him still, even at 50. Soon his personal demons become angry real ones.
This soapy horror-thriller from the writer-directors Goh Ming Siu and Scott C. Hillyard saves the best scares for the final 20 minutes, so be patient with its heavy-handed “Death of a Salesman”-like message about the destruction of a family man. (The horror might have landed better if Jim had been played by a more naturalistic actor than Chew.) The final scene is a spooky doozy.