I always find it interesting to see filmmakers take horror films to different places; that’s not to say I always enjoy what I see, but the attempts, when genuinely and passionately done, pique my curiosity — “Ah, someone’s trying to press beyond the ‘accepted’ boundaries”. As I’ve said before, I tend to be a bit of a horror purist, but I try really hard not to cross that line into being a horror snob. Though I’m not a huge fan of horror/comedy or horror/fantasy, I acknowledge that there are such films that are very good, and have myself found a lot of enjoyment in many of them.
Canadian writer/director Stephen W. Martin’s short film, Dead Hearts, is definitely one of those.
Young Milton is going to die — we’re told that at the outset — but it’s all right; after all, we’re all going to die. What’s unique about little Milton’s story is that death isn’t the end of his journey…but he has a journey, nonetheless. As we traverse his life with him, we learn about the family mortuary business, the troubles with bullies at school, and the first (and only) love of his life. We share his triumphs, and his greatest loss…but most importantly, we learn the power of his heart. Some things, we learn as we travel along with him, time doesn’t seem to wear — there are horrors that seem to have pursued him throughout death (and even undeath). Can love, in the end, conquer all? After all, we’re all going to die…but must true love share in such fate?
From the opening frame, I was caught up in the tale; the opening scene is a storybook, letting the audience know from the beginning that what we’re watching is a fairy tale of sorts…granted, it’s not the kind of fairy tale most of us grew up with, but it’s a fantasy peppered with darkness, whimsy, and genuine humor that fits the bill nonetheless. The photography is beautiful, maintaining a fantasy atmosphere without being overpowering, and the use of a narrator is made to feel quite appropriate without being intrusive. That same narrator is the only dialogue that you’ll hear, although I have to give props to all of the actors for transmitting everything that we the audience need to know with stellar performances — and this is most evident in the young actors portraying Milton and his friends. I was blown away by the nuance and emotiveness of the children playing their parts, and completely bought into the tale, my suspension of disbelief (despite the fantastical situations) complete.
I know, I know — you Fellow Fans are asking “Where’s the horror, dammit?!?” Well, despite the “fairy tale” elements, the film does fit into the genre — you’ve got spurting blood, corpses (both the stationary and ambulatory kind), and the specter of death hanging over every frame. The film is like Forest Gump done by Tim Burton with Greg Nicotero as a technical advisor…and it’s absolutely brilliant.
It’s a romantic comedy, a horror story, and a coming of age film…it incorporates kung-fu (yes, you read that right), spewing blood, and redemption. That’s a tall order for any movie, much less a short, to fulfill without just becoming a mess and alienating audiences by trying to be too much. It’s a very rare thing for a film to come along that’s so well written, shot, acted, and directed that it folds all of these facets together organically and seamlessly — and in doing so becomes a delightful combination of humor, horror, and fantasy that can appeal to everyone.
Dead Hearts is such a film.
It’s so far won a laundry list of awards from film festivals all over the world, including the St. Louis International film festival, Screamfest 2014, Toronto After Dark 2014, and MonsterFest 2014. As the cherry on top, it’s in the running for the 2016 Academy Awards — all totally deserved. I certainly congratulate Stephen Martin and his cast and crew on their successes, and wish them all luck in the future!
I’ll throw in the whole nickel for this one.
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