Monday, October 08, 2012

30 Days of Nightmares #12: HEARTLESS (2009)

The Story: A socially awkward teenage boy, born with a stigmatizing birthmark on his face, sees a gang of demons wreaking havoc in his East London suburb.   When the gang murders his mother, he arms himself to fight back... but winds up making a deal with the devil instead.

Expectations: This is the second horror film from writer/director Philip Ridley, who made the oddly compelling vampire movie THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990), starring a young Viggo Mortensen.   That earlier film has a small but devoted cult following, owing to arresting visuals and emotionally-charged storytelling.  I remember being intrigued when I first saw it on video, but also a bit baffled by the lack of narrative logic.  Even though it didn't completely work for me, I was still very curious to see the filmmaker's second stab at horror.

Reaction: It's hard to react to HEARTLESS in a simple way, because nothing about it is simple.   The film establishes a compelling narrative, about a troubled teenager trying to cope with a heightened awareness of real evil (shades of DONNIE DARKO), but then struggles to develop this narrative in a coherent fashion.  Subplots and supporting characters come and go at random, never quite attaining a life of their own.  (That, perhaps, is the main difference between this film and the equally enigmatic DONNIE DARKO... The latter had several genuinely compelling characters.)  Even the film's central monster, a Miltonian devil who rhapsodizes about violence as a creative act, seems paper-thin.  He exists only to move the plot forward, and I got the feeling that the filmmaker didn't really know where the story was supposed to be going.

Another problem -- for me, at least -- was the changing tone of the film.  What starts out as a philosophical narrative set in a darkly naturalistic world becomes absurd and downright silly in its second half.  (Don't get me started on the devil's door-to-door weapons salesman, or the bloodthirsty little Indian girl who serves as his sidekick...)  I found it difficult to tell what was supposed to be significant vs. what was just supposed to be amusingly quirky, and so I started feeling like the whole story was essentially meaningless.  You know the feeling: I'm sure it meant something to the filmmaker, but he isn't sharing his meaning...

In spite of all these false notes, there are still a fair number of moments in the film that struck me as serious-minded and genuinely heartfelt, so I honestly never stopped rooting for the filmmaker to pull together all of the flotsom and jetsum into a sastifsying resolution or a coherent worldview.  Unfortunately, for me, it didn't happen.  The main character wasn't able to transcend the muddled narrative. 

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: There's a pretty gruesome scene in which our afflicted hero literally tears a man's still-beating heart out of his chest.  It's an arresting visual, but not as horrifying as it would have been if I actually believed the character was capable of doing this.

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