For generations, The Tell-Tale Heart by legendary horror author, Edgar Allan Poe, has awed and inspired countless horror writers and filmmakers. Most fans are drawn to the themes of madness and guilt, metaphorically represented by the incessant pounding of a dead heart. Premiering at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival in August is the latest genre short film based off of the popular story, Heartless...
…Produced through Sunshine Boy Productions and written/directed by Kevin Sluder, Heartless tells the story of Shelby (Stacy Snyder), an overlooked associate who struggles to complete a corporate presentation which she is doing in place of her boss, Clare (Joanna Sotomura), for a group of misogynistic assholes while a horrifying secret eats at her conscience.
Hats off to Snyder, who deserves five out of five bloody, beating hearts for her ferocious performance as the deranged Shelby. She immediately sets an eerie tone from the opening shot as she shakily applies makeup and orders herself to get it together. Snyder wears a wonderful mask of shy vulnerability, which makes it all the more frightening when that mask slips and she reveals a face of pure rage and insane glee. It isn’t easy to slip back and forth between such opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, but Snyder accomplishes this flawlessly. Sluder gives her plenty to work with as well, by placing such an unhinged character into the center of attention for a group of sexist executives (played by Matt Mercer, Blaine Vedros, and Ron Morehouse). These guys are obnoxious, the kind of rich kids who grew up off of mom and dad’s bank account without ever earning anything on their own, and their disrespect of women and Shelby is so strong, that I cannot properly describe the satisfaction that comes when the last twig holding her mind together finally snaps.
Like any proper loose adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart, Sluder’s film focuses on a descent into madness. For the most part, Sluder does this well, with a film beautifully shot by Mike Testin. Intercut between Shelby’s presentation and a flashback to the deed which has corrupted her sanity, Sluder does a great job of merging the two, so that the flashback, the GUILT, begins to merge into Shelby’s reality. Macabre imagery that isn’t really there begins to fill the projection screen, taking over Shelby’s presentation and giving us a glimpse into her deteriorating mind. We as the audience are forced to step into the slimy shoes of the male execs, putting us right there in the room with Shelby. It’s like standing next to that always on edge boss you expect to suddenly turn on you, or that ex who you still sometimes worry is going to show up at your door in the middle of the night. Heartless is a near heart attack of intensity that will have you hearing the beat of your own heart pounding in your ears.
Though Sluder and Snyder do a great job of putting the audience on edge as a tribute to Poe, my one gripe with Heartless is that it borrows a little TOO much from The Tell-Tale Heart. I’m not attempting to spoil anything, but if you’ve read Poe’s story, then you have a pretty rough idea of what occurs in Heartless. Most of the references work well, including the title, but certain moments, such as Shelby screaming about the beating of a hideous heart, fall flat on their dead faces. In Poe’s story, the narrator goes mad because, after the murder of his roommate, he hides the body under the floorboards and is then visited by the police. It doesn’t take long before his guilt drives him to imagine the beating of his victim’s heart underneath their feet. In Heartless, however, the “evidence” of Shelby’s crime is nowhere near the office where the film takes place, and so the idea that she’s being driven mad by the beating of a heart feels less organic and comes off as forced. Sluder clearly felt the need to reference that iconic moment, but to be quite honest, it just isn't needed here. I also wish we were able to spend more time with Shelby so we could truly understand what leads to her breakdown during her initial flashback, but with a short that has a running time of around ten minutes, you can’t expect a lot of character development, and I give credit to what Sluder is able to do in the short time he has.
And for gorehounds who are less interested in psychological horror, don’t worry, because Heartless has a little something for everyone. Russell FX provides plenty of effective, gory FX that'll make you cringe with delight. Some of the bloodier moments are surprising in just how satisfying they are. Heartless doesn’t shy away from showering the screen in blood, going more over the top than you would imagine for a loose adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart. The effects are reflective of a film which mixes in a fun, humorous tone with horror that had me laughing for all of the right reasons.
As a short-film, Heartless is an entertaining, gory sprint through the mind of a madwoman that will have you laughing and screaming from beginning to end. Some of it may not feel organic, and the script can get a little messy at times, but Heartless is a pulse pounding good time.
You can catch Heartless at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival on August 15th at 11pm EST, ahead of the feature Cursed Seat, located at Savor Cinema on 503 SE 6th St, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301. Get your tickets for the Popcorn Frights Film Festival here!
By Matt Konopka