In the horror film “My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To,” troubled siblings Dwight, Jessie and Thomas, an ailing vampire, live in a “timeless and placeless” world, director Jonathan Cuartas said.
The movie’s mixture of vintage and modern cars, appliances, furnishings and clothing could set it anytime between 1975 and about 2010, and the nameless combination of urban and rural settings could place it just about anywhere in the United States.
But the place in the film (now streaming on Shudder and Amazon Prime) does have a name — if you can spot the clues. The skyline visible from the siblings’ porch doesn’t exactly scream downtown Salt Lake City, and the house’s architectural style probably isn’t only found near the University of Utah, but the entire movie was shot in the Beehive State.
When Cuartas decided to make a vampire movie, he felt it wouldn’t work to film it in his sunny home state of Florida. But the “dreary atmosphere” of Utah, as a friend described it, sounded perfect.
Cuartas used filming locations in his debut feature film intentionally, he said, to mirror what’s happening in the characters’ minds. Filmed during the especially rainy May of 2019, “My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To” shows Utah at its most “bleak and brooding,” he said.
It was a fitting backdrop for the story of Dwight — played by Patrick Fugit, who is originally from Salt Lake City — and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram), who are trapped in a never-ending nightmare as they care for their younger brother, Thomas (Owen Campbell).
Just about every night, they must go out, find some unwitting soul on the street, and kill that person for their blood to feed Thomas.
Dwight is increasingly horrified by what he and his sister are doing. Sunlight-allergic Thomas is tired of getting only glimpses of the outside world through small holes punched through the cardboard that covers their windows. And Jessie is stubbornly clinging to the only remedy that seems to help sickly Thomas at all: blood. They are all feeling the strain.
To convey that mood, Cuartas said he picked the house they filmed in carefully. Located up on a hill, back from the sidewalk, it had a “House on Haunted Hill” feel that seemed to separate it from humanity, he said.
“It just felt right because it was isolated enough where you could believe that they hide bodies there, but still close in proximity [to downtown] where it’s not really ideal,” he said. It nearly wasn’t ideal for the whirlwind 20-day shoot either, with the crew having to worry about University of Utah students potentially throwing loud parties.
In the film, though, loneliness hangs thick inside the dimly lit house. Dwight, Jessie and Thomas are often shot uncomfortably close up, as they try to live normal yet nocturnal lives, eating dinner off TV trays and playing a spooky old organ. The Christmas tree is just a facade, Cuartas said, left up months after the actual holiday by Jessie in an attempt to cheer up the place.
(The Christmas decorations and the rest of the house’s interior, by the way, are the handiwork of the director’s father, production designer Rodrigo Cuartas.)
Outdoors, Jonathan Cuartas and the director of photography, Michael Cuartas (the director’s brother), placed the characters in such stunning Utah landscapes including the Great Salt Lake, Heber Valley and Big Cottonwood Canyon. This was done, Jonathan Cuartas said, to make them seem small by comparison, “both literally and emotionally.”
“We wanted to isolate them, so they felt like they were alone,” Jonathan Cuartas said. “And especially in this big world, they’re used to such a small and compressed living situation that when they’re outside, they feel overwhelmed, especially with the task at hand.”
Other locations in the movie are less dramatic, like the diner where Jessie works (Amber Restaurant in South Salt Lake), the thrift store that Dwight visits (Needful Things in Murray), the hotel where he meets his lady friend (Metropolitan Inn in Salt Lake City), and the overpass where Jessie gets directions (the North Temple bridge).
Cuartas — who’s from Miami and said he’d never seen snow fall before coming to Utah — credits producer Jesse Brown and executive producer Kenny Riches, who both live in Salt Lake City, for the intel on Utah filming locations. Also local are executive producer Matt Wigham, composer Andrew Shaw, hair/makeup artist Anya Zeitlin, and much of the supporting cast.
“My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To” has very few fangs for a vampire movie — none, in fact. Cuartas said he followed two basic vampire rules with Thomas’ character: He needs blood to survive and he can’t go out into daylight. But the rest of the details about Thomas’ condition are left to the imagination.
“I really like not explaining things in the movie, so we went with that archetype,” Cuartas said. “But at the same time, I didn’t want to focus on vampirism and this magical thing in the Bram Stoker tradition. I wanted to treat it more as a sickness and more of this obligation and focus almost completely on the family dynamic and their rituals that they create.”
In order to do that in the film, the title of which is a line from the song “I’m Controlled by Your Love” by Helene Smith, Cuartas said he drew upon his own experience growing up in a Latino family. When his paternal grandmother was in hospice in 2016, he said he and his family (including his dad’s nine siblings) were all stuck in a small house together.
“We were all dealing with differences in opinion and different personalities,” Cuartas said. “And there was a lot of tension and a lot of alliances that formed within different pockets of cousins and aunts and uncles. And to me, it made it much more difficult to grieve and essentially accept the death of someone you love.
“But at the same time, we were still a family, and we still had the love and the blood that we shared,” he continued. “And so that was the dichotomy that interested me: It was the tension, but also the love.”
Five more recent horror movies made in Utah
Utah has long been a popular place to make horror films — from the cult classic “Carnival of Souls” (1962), which was shot at Saltair, to the fourth, fifth and sixth chapters of the “Halloween” franchise, which were shot in the Avenues and elsewhere.
Here are some recent horror films that were shot in Utah:
“Snatchers” (2019) • In this horror-comedy, a teenage girl wakes up to find herself nine months pregnant, one day after having sex for the first time. Turns out she’s expecting a bouncing baby alien. Watch “Snatchers” on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.
“Behind You” (2020) • Two sisters stay with their aunt, and discover all the mirrors in her house are hidden away or covered. When one of the sisters finds a mirror in the basement, she unwittingly releases a demon — as if we needed another reason not to look into mirrors at night. Watch “Behind You” on Hulu.
“The Wolf of Snow Hollow” (2020) • Set in the fictional Utah town of Snow Hollow, this horror-comedy was filmed in the real-life Utah towns of Kamas, Samak and Coalville. Jim Cummings, the writer-director, stars as a stressed-out sheriff’s deputy battling local rumors about a series of killings being the work of a werewolf. The movie features Robert Forster, who died in 2019, in his final role. Watch “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.
“The Nameless Days” (TBD) • According to this film’s trailer, “The Nameless Days” are five days of the Aztec calendar that “belong to no month” and are a time when evil spirits hunt people who are trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. This film is “coming soon,” according to the Utah Film Commission, but doesn’t appear to have a release date yet.
“Deadstream” (TBD) • A disgraced internet personality attempts a comeback by livestreaming himself annoying the ghosts in a haunted house, which he agrees to spend a night in alone. According to DeadstreamFilm.com, the horror-comedy was filmed in a real-life haunted house. The Utah Film Commission says this film is “coming soon”; no release date yet.