Monday, October 10, 2011

30 Days of Fright - 09: Heartless

When horror moves away from the simple morality of the slasher film, questions about the nature of hope inevitably arise. Situational as well as supernatural horrors present characters with massive challenges that take away hope for the future or for their happiness, and it’s the job of those characters to overcome those challenges. Rarely though does the triumph of the human soul win out in the end despite whatever takes place before the final credits roll. More often, no matter how it’s dressed up, what actually happens is that selfishness and self-preservation get’s the protagonist though things.

Shy photographer Jamie (Jim Sturgess) is out and about one night, prowling the gritty streets of inner city London in the opening scenes of Heartless (2009) looking for cool snaps to take. As he goes about his business he spots an unusual stranger who he follows to some waste ground by an abandoned house. There he hears someone screaming and upon further investigation sees that the stranger and their friends are actually a group of hoodie-wearing monsters who are in the process of brutally killing someone. Jamie gets away after being spotted by one of the creatures and tries to not to let what he’s seen get to him.


He’s massively unsuccessful in this endeavour as the news is filled with terrible details of brutal crimes and the world seems like a nasty hopeless place, even the local corner shop owner offers Jamie guns for sale if he ever wants some extra protection. Family life for Jamie doesn’t help as, loving and all as his mum and brother are, they are all grieving the loss of Jamie’s Dad and all their moments of happiness are tinged with sadness. On top of this Jamie’s nephew is at a difficult age and seems to be mixed up in something bad which adds an extra stress to life. Jamie’s mum is worried for him as he’s had a difficult time growing up and there appears to have been an attempt at suicide in his past. Jamie has a large series of birthmarks covering his face, neck, and one arm and he’s very self-conscious about it, often wearing hoodies to help cover that side of his face.

One night, Jamie and his mother are attacked by the gang of monsters who give Jamie a hiding but murder his mum by throwing a petrol bomb at her and letting her burn to death. After getting out of hospital Jamie swears revenge and picks up a gun for himself at the shop. As well as the shooter, Jamie gets a new neighbour, a young man who’d been a gang-banger himself but is now turning his life around and getting an education. They become friends and Jamie gets some insights into the gangs and the way their territories work.

Of course, as the world is conspiring against Jamie, the neighbour gets murdered too. While dealing with the shock of another loss Jamie starts playing with the gun and gets close to using it on himself until he gets a text message on his neighbours mobile phone that he’d left behind him in Jamie’s place. Surprised at this, Jamie follows the instructions on the phone and goes to visit a mysterious man called Papa B, who offers Jamie a deal. Papa B is a demon who claims to be working to advance mankind by creating enough chaos in the world to force people to develop themselves (much like the neighbour who was improving himself). Papa B offers to remove Jamie’s birthmark in exchange for occasional acts of graffiti and Jamie accepts, but as everyone knows, when you make a deal with the Devil, the Devil lies...

I'm looking at you... from under my big hood!

The making of Heartless was very firmly focused on the photographer character of Jamie (pun very much intended) and in this it paid off. Not often in a horror film do you encounter a character that’s as well developed (pun intended again) as Jamie – his relatively limited life experience has surprising depth that enables him to be a good photographer, he has recognisable personality traits, and he has hopes for the future that he believes are unattainable – like the house and the wife and the kids version of the future he thinks has already been denied to him because of his skin condition. Like all tragic figures he is the architect of his own misery and downfall. Jamie’s shy because he’s so self-conscious so in a very human way it’s his own behaviour that’s denying him the things he wants. When he and the audience are shown what really happened to him after making his deal his tragedy is only compounded by the realisation that the destiny he wanted was his to have if only he changed his point of view.

...but it's my strong hand, child!

 Jamie’s gain in terms of character development is everyone else’s loss. The other characters are totally undeveloped and merely there to fill the empty spaces with people that sound like they might belong there; generic characters like “Mum” and “Brother” and “neighbour” and “Bloke who runs the shop” – speaking of which, he was brutal and his dialogue was a fucking embarrassment. Papa B wasn’t bad, just going through the motions of being a demon in a shitty flat, the little girl was OK too but I admit I expected more from her character as the movie progressed. The best character after Jamie was definitely the “Weapons Man” who was sent by Papa B to assist Jamie fulfil his side of the bargain.  Madly over the top and completely foul-mouthed, I liked him. If there’s ever a sequel to Heartless I hope it features the Weapons Man in the lead role, maybe just following him as he goes about his business being vaguely threatening in that East London way.

The special effects in Heartless are reasonable. The CGI demons that feature are the kind of thing to be expected in a film of this vintage and are about as believable as any CGI effect can be (that is utterly unbelievable). I can’t decide if I liked the costume effect of the man who’d been burned with a Molotov cocktail as I’m not sure if it was realistic or not as I’ve thankfully never encountered anybody with third degree burns over 100% of their body so I’ve no frame of reference – from a distance it looked very good. The other burning effects were hit and miss, swinging between very realistic and not. The violent and gory scenes were well handled with one of the murders very well presented (just to be clear I’m talking about effects here and not the quality of a good murder – I have different blog for that!)

On the whole Heartless isn’t a bad story, just not a great one. The twisting nature of the final act of the film especially left something to be desired as it took a little while to determine what was actually going on in two or three threads of the story as they all got tied up. The bit about the girlfriend was a head scratcher but necessary in order to fill in the blanks left when Jamie realises what really happened to him, the piece about the gangster suffered from the exact same problem and when he turned up near the end I had to work to remember when he’d been introduced and just what the hell was he doing there.

A dark movie, Heartless is filled with tragedy and tells of removing hope from the already hopeless. In the telling of this story it succeeds but, if for no other reason than the nature of the content I would be reluctant to sit through it again. Even the closing scene, supposed to offer some hint at potential redemption is just to heavy handed and saccharine and totally at odds with the ninety minutes that preceded it that it felt like something tacked on to the end as the result of what some test audience said.

Horror can be a thrill ride, or a morality play, or horror can be truly horrific by simply showing the often brutal face of the world to us as it is. Whether Heartless really needed to add in a bunch of demons and a Faustian deal in order to drag this idea out of the realm of drama is open to some debate.

One Thumb Up and One Thumb Down for Heartless

Here are some heartless feckin links for ya:

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