My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To. Directed & Written by Jonathan Cuartas.
Starring Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, & Owen Campbell.
Dualist / Film Exchange
Not Rated / 90 minutes
Drama / Horror
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SPOILERS.
Turn back lest ye be spoiled!
As I’ve discussed before in previous essays on other vampire films, it’s tough for filmmakers nowadays to make a vampire story into unique horror, simply because the vampire—like the zombie—has been overdone so much in the genre, particularly in the past couple decades. When a film using vampire mythology comes along that manages to do something different it’s always on my radar. Such is the case with My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, from director-writer Jonathan Cuartas. While the film may not be considered groundbreaking in its use of vampirism it’s definitely a fresh take. Cuartas explores issues of family, morality, and sexuality through a vampiric lens, depicting three siblings connected by blood in far more than just the sense of their family bloodline as they grapple with the prospect of losing each other.
Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) are a brother-sister pair who’ve had to take up the care of their younger, sickly brother Thomas (Owen Campbell) in the absence of their parents. The older siblings have to do terrible things in order to make sure Thomas has what he needs—considering the fact that Thomas needs blood to survive. After Dwight starts to stray from his secretive family, he begins to wonder what a life might look like elsewhere. When Jessie sees that Dwight’s dedication to the family is waning, she does something that drives the two further apart instead of closer. Meanwhile, Thomas makes a simple little mistake that puts everyone in jeopardy.
One of the immediately fun things about My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is the way Cuartas plays with the concept of ‘blood.’ Here, the blatant blood comes in the form of Thomas as the vampire, and the buckets of blood his siblings extract for him. Because the characters of the film are a family this also takes into account blood as family. The three siblings aren’t simply tied together by their family’s blood, they’re chained to one another because of the youngest brother’s need for blood to survive, and Cuartas’s film can be viewed as a meditation on ideas of house/home through this decaying family. It’s in this sense that Cuartas further uses recognisable vampire mythology to spin a unique yarn about a vamp and his siblings.
In one pivotal scene, the film reverses the folklore of vampires needing to be invited into a house with Thomas inviting a kid inside his home. Of course this ultimately shatters the family’s frailly constructed existence, resulting in a moment of horrific, albeit expected violence against one of Thomas’s siblings. Great use of vampires, subverting the expectations folklore has instilled in audiences. We can extend this subversion to the film as a whole because the vampire in this story is confined to his home, rather than out seeking blood and hoping to be invited in someplace. Not only does Cuartas’s film play with vampire lore, it also works on the subversion of what we call house/home. House refers to a physical space, whereas home refers to a figurative place. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To takes the idea of home—a place where a family lives—and perverts it by transforming the home into, for all intents and purposes, a penitentiary; not only for Thomas, but for Jessie and Dwight, as well.
“Looks like a house”
“It used to be”
Vampires have historically been connected to sexuality in fiction, ever since Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1867 novella Carmilla with its sapphic vampire. More often than not, vampires and their sexualities are implicitly, or explicitly, queer. In My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, the vampirism doesn’t so much represent sexuality as it helps to construct a claustrophobic environment in which the sexuality of the story’s human characters becomes a prime focus. Dwight seeks solace from outside the family and, though there’s no actual outright indication of anything incestuous, there’s an incestuous jealousy that seems to build in Jessie because of it. The whole thing is an intricate, if not complicated web, too. Dwight wanting to leave the family would mean Jessie gets left to do the murdering and bloodletting for Thomas; I have no doubt she could do it, but obviously it’d be a more strenuous task on her own. However, the fact that Dwight seeing a sex worker frequently is tied up in his wanting to move away from the family, and their murderous deeds, is significant. Jessie fixates on the sex worker before she knows Dwight uses the woman’s services, yet after she finds out she’s further compelled to kill the woman. Even the way Dwight says “We shouldn‘t be doing the things that we‘re doing“—and he’s obviously talking about the murdering—carries with it an eerie undertone of incest. Dwight sings Helene Smith’s “I Am Controlled By Your Love” on the karaoke machine at one point in anger, and in spite of the fact we can interpret the lyrics as love between siblings, the song itself is about two lovers. Again, though there isn’t anything overt here to suggest Jessie and Dwight were ever sleeping with each other, the potential hints of incestuous behaviour are there, and if purposeful then it’s always possible Cuartas was using that more as a way of speaking to the family’s isolated existence.
My favourite use of vampirism here is how the film shows this fractured working class family using the classes beneath them to keep the family, via their brother, alive. In a way, Cuartas’s film is a depiction of how a capitalist society tears apart not just families but whole communities. The victims we see Jessie and Dwight capture then kill for blood are mostly identifiable as part of vulnerable classes, whether it’s the houseless—who seem to be the family’s primary targets—or a motel sex worker. Thomas as vampire then becomes representative of the system itself, the lethargic, hungry vampirism at the heart of capitalism; the thirsty monster at the heart of all the bloodlust. Not only do Jessie and Dwight have to do regular work in order to keep their literal, physical house going, they further have to shed their morality in order to keep Thomas and their family/figurative home alive. Similar to capitalism, Thomas’s hunger for blood causes Jessie and Dwight to completely debase themselves, to the point of murdering society’s most vulnerable, in the name of keeping the monster alive under the guise of survival.
If you include the murder, incestuous undertones, and all the emotional drama packing a serious punch, Cuartas’s My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is like a Shakespearean tragedy with a vampire thrown into the mix. There are plenty of interesting themes bouncing around within this little film. The juxtaposed occasional sweetness of the film’s family with their brutal acts of cold-blooded murder makes for an unsettling experience. Fugit, Schram, and Campbell also carry the weighty emotions well; the finale is bittersweet, to maximum degree, and Fugit’s acting steals the show.
Cuartas’s film is beautiful, bleak, and brutal. The subverted ideas of family and home are compelling, and the way vampirism facilitates a discussion about them is no less interesting. Most of all, the parallels between vampirism and capitalism ring strong for me. Often vampires are portrayed as upper class, bourgeois monsters, and this works quite well. Cuartas, intentionally or not, shows vampirism—and, in turn, capitalism—through a working class perspective, depicting how monstrous a force it can be even within the family unit. It might not be more evident than when Jessie bleeds out in the bathtub and offers up the pooling blood to her sickly vampire brother: “We shouldn‘t waste it.” Even when Jessie’s at death’s door she’s still trying to feed the monster, just like so many real people working themselves to death to feed a monstrous market that’s never satisfied, always hungry, always feeding.