The Tell-Tale Heart is easily one of the most well known and recognizable stories of Edgar Allen Poe and, arguably, one of the greatest horror short stories of the Victorian Era. The story of a man driven to madness by his employer, who escalates his mania into murder and, eventually allows that guilt ridden insanity to be his undoing is timeless. So it should come as no surprise that for 175 years it has been the source of numerous stage and screen adaptions with its themes and overall narrative experience. During the Women in Horror Film Festival audiences were treated to an extremely modern, timely, and graphic re-imagining of the classic tale in the form of a short film called Heartless.
Heartless, a production of the Sunshine Boy Production Company, is the story of a young, professional woman struggling to advance her career in an environment of chauvinism and extremely aggressive competition. You might even call it "cut throat." Shelby (Stacy Snyder) finally has a chance to get ahead in her career and has worked herself to the point of exhaustion. The night before the big presentation her boss, Clare (Joanna Sotomura) begins to belittle and berate her and the quality of her work. What starts out as a bit of work place bullying quickly becomes a cathartic murder that will carry from Clare's kitchen into the board room the next day. Written and directed by Kevin Sluder and executive produced by wife Jennifer Sluder, Heartless brings Poe's classic tale into the 21st century and carries with it an important social commentary.
I had the chance to speak briefly to the husband and wife team during the festival.
Dan - What were some of the cinematic inspirations for the look of Heartless?
KS - It was always American Psycho. During filming there were a lot of (Brian) De Palma influences that came out, especially Carrie.
Dan - I'm a practical effects fan and I loved some of the stuff in the board room, especially the heart. But my favorite was the ghostly apparition. A lot of folks focused on the heart but that doesn't seem as challenging as having an arm fly off of an actress.
KS - That was the most challenging part. We shot it four times to get the different looks of it going back and forth and landing in the office. I will say that the shots that we used when she jerks back was the first take and then when she goes forward that was the second take. Part of the apparatus for the arm began to show so we did have to use a bit of CGI to hide that. The arm and all the blood is definitely practical.
Dan - So what's the takeaway, what's the message for Women in Horror?
KS - I think it's more a message for people on the job. Be nice to people. Be respectful. You never know what they did the night before. There's a lot to say about the workplace, about the modern female executive. It's a commentary on belittlement and harassment in the workplace.
Heartless has a wonderful mixture of rage, horror, and dark comedy about it that will make you cringe as well as laugh. It's very much a thought piece, however, when it comes to the way women are treated in professional circles, not only by men but by other women who see them as either competition or as a hindrance to their own advancement. Elements of style are taken from American Psycho and Wall Street giving it a very 80's retro feel while some of the narrative interaction between Shelby and Clare takes on a Single White Female and Carrie texture. Of course, the story itself is inspired by Poe but is most definitely an original and modern tale of a woman pushed to her breaking point with a cast of characters who quickly find themselves at the mercy of a woman scorned.
Heartless also has a tenuous connection to another brilliant film from the Women in Horror Film Festival: What Metal Girls are Into. Both films have a male antagonist played by the incredible Matt Mercer. In both films Mercer is a chauvinist ass who you feel little sympathy or compassion towards and who brings a great deal of joy to audiences with his ultimate end. The sign of a great actor, everyone who worked with him on both films sang his praises as a great, fun, and respectful person which is wonderful to hear considering the characters he portrays. In both films, his characters utter an eerily similar line of dialogue that will, ultimately, be their undoing.
"You'd be a lot prettier if you smiled."
I feel like I covered this in my first article about WiHFF 2018 but let me just say it again: this is not an okay thing to say, guys. And, by guys, I literally mean guys. Every woman in attendance during both films had the same reaction to those words. Disgust. Anger. While it sounds like a compliment on the surface, the truth is that the statement is one of belittlement suggesting that the worth of the woman is in her appearance and her ability to look as if she is enjoying whatever horrible thing she is having to endure. If Heartless does nothing else, it should encourage audiences to think before they speak and to consider the weight of their words. After all, you never know what someone might have done last night.
Heartless is an amazing film and it's making the rounds now on the festival circuit. Be sure to visit the website and follow the film, and Sunshine Boy Productions, on social media for updates on where you can watch this fun, bloody film.
Dan is an author, editorialist, podcaster, and horror culture & lifestyle correspondent from the Southeast. You can find Dan's stories at Danno of the Dead Blog and through PDI Press.