If Edgar Allan Poe had written The Tell-Tale Heart in the 21st century, he might have taken a cue from the culture of the days and set his tale in a corporate environment with a female anti-protagonist narrator. Maybe this narrator is supposed to present a PowerPoint pitch to a small group of stereotypically bromantic male chauvinist pigs. And maybe, just maybe, she gets the pig presentation gig as a result of some less-than-heroic action that her guilty conscience won’t allow her to banish to the back of her mind as the PowerPoint slides roll forward. Maybe then her conscience gets the better of her, causing her to finally crack up in front of the pigs as the hideous heart of her earlier misdeed beats loud in her ears.
Alas, Poe lived in the 19th century, and would not recognize much of the modern technological landscape of gray-walled cubicles, flickering fluorescent lights, computers, and mobile devices chirping away in people’s hands and from their pockets. Fortunately for 21st-century horror fans, Poe’s legacy falls into Sunshine Boy Productions’ capable hands in the form of their short horror film titled Heartless.
Directed by Kevin Sluder, Heartless tells the story of Shelby (Stacy Snyder; My Crazy Ex, Feeding Time), a put-upon generic corporate drone who is brought into a presentation project by an ambitious, cut-throat superior. An unfortunate incident that is Shelby’s fault ends up placing her in what she presumes is a position of power: presenting the PowerPoint in place of her superior. The belittled Shelby is further belittled by the insensitive bro culture and dismissiveness of her three-man audience, who are crowded around a table in a soulless company conference room. As the presentation continues, Shelby’s guilty conscience begins to catch up with her and combines with her irritation with the bro pigs and kindles the fire that leads to her boiling point.
In Heartless Sluder, who is one-half of Sunshine Boy Productions along with his spouse Jennifer, has created a compelling short gore-fest that almost perfectly captures the spirit of the original Poe tale. The cinematography is exceptional, as are the makeup and the effects. Snyder’s Shelby character displays the lovable vulnerability of a Goldie Hawn or a Drew Barrymore but is wholly capable of going Kathy Bates or Christian Bale on your ass if you press the wrong button. Snyder’s portrayal along with the expert camera work, effects, and edits make Heartless fun to watch.
There are a few things that don’t seem to work. One of them is the choice of music that begins the tale. The metal choice seems wholly appropriate for the end credits after we’ve seen what unfolds in the conference room. It doesn’t seem right for the beginning when the viewer presumably knows nothing about what awaits. No music or something that builds appropriately to the opening scene might have been a better choice there. Also, the bro dialogue in the conference room comes off as unnatural. It is appropriate to the characters, but the actors around the table seem uncomfortable saying those lines. It’s almost as if the writer wanted to hit the audience over the head with these characters rather than allow them to come to know their misogyny more subtly and realistically. To be clear, this is not a criticism of the ability of the actors, whose talents are on full display later in the film when Shelby confronts them. It’s a script issue.
Similar to making Shakespeare plays at home in settings like the present or more recent past, migrating an ever-relevant to the human condition piece like Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart to modern times shouldn’t be a difficult task. The original story’s narrator is timeless. He is a neurotic man whose anxiety over his roommate’s oddity of an eyeball ultimately causes him to hack the older gentleman into pieces and dispose of the body beneath the floorboards of the house. In his characterization of anxiety, panic, and guilt, one might even argue that Poe was ahead of his time, that The Tell-Tale Heart’s narrator is even more familiar to the modern human than he would have been to readers of Poe’s own time.
Although it is not difficult to relate to Poe’s original character, Heartless does an admirable job of updating the classic character for a modern audience. So far, the film has two HorrorHound Film Fest nominations (Best Director Short and Best Short) for 2018 and will screen at the festival on August 24. It is worth a watch.