UK Horror film “Heartless” was barely released in 2009, then dumped to video a year after an aborted theatrical run, which is a shame because director Philip Ridley delivers a small, but entertainingly atmospheric morality tale of dealing with the Devil against the backdrop of post-millennial gang violence in the inner cities of England. With youth gangs and knife-crime at an all time high, British indie cinema was at that time obsessed with telling tales of hooligans running around council housing, and “Heartless” does indeed have all the trappings of a Channel 4 gangster drama. But “Heartless” spins into its own dark orbit when a local lad is made an offer he can’t refuse by a mysterious criminal, and by keeping things lean and mean, earns it’s place as part of our 31 Days Of Horror.
Jamie (Jim Sturgess) is a painfully shy young man who walks the streets of East London hiding his face. He is still a virgin at 25 because a lifetime of bullying have left him unable to make friends or attract women. Unfortunately, Jaime’s been cursed twice: once by a huge heart-shaped birthmark covering one side of his face and twice by recently losing his father. He works as a photographer with his older brother and cares for his ailing mother in their run down apartment, which is “Heartless“‘s way of saying he’s really got nothing to lose. One day while developing photos, he notices a disturbing face looking at him from the window of a house. Investigating, he follows a suspicious man to a group of hooded vandals around a fire, who emit eerie shrieks, and Jamie is shocked to see they have demonic lizard-like face masks with huge pin-like teeth. Over time Jamie becomes aware of a series of horrific murders by fire that have been occurring in the neighbourhood. A witness to one of the murders tells a TV reporter that they weren’t wearing masks; the demonic faces were real.
Jamie and his mother are walking in the neighbourhood when they are attacked by the demonic gang. His mother is immolated while Jamie watches helplessly, and he is savagely beaten and left for dead. While unconscious in hospital he glimpses a man in a dream who says he’s waiting for Jamie. Later, he receives a phone call from a man with the same voice, and is guided to the apartment of Papa B (Game Of Throne’s Joseph Mawle) and his assistant Belle (Nikita Mistry)…who looks just like the little girl from the TV report. Papa B offers a Faustian bargain: Jamie must fulfil Papa B’s desire for chaos with some occasional acts of …creative vandalism… in return for “everything he’s ever wanted”. Jaime accepts and quickly learns to be careful what you wish for.
Writer and director Philip Ridley is much like Richard Stanley (Hardware, Colour Out Of Space) in that he has only made a shockingly small number of films over almost thirty years despite clearly being a unique filmmaker, having only 3 directorial and one screenwriting credit (the classic gangster film ‘The Krays’) to his name. There is a broken, haunting beauty about “Heartless” that similar films of the time failed to capture, stemming from the director growing up in and around the areas the film were shot. Awash in a constant, depressing gray or oil-stained ochre, the film’s supernatural elements remain mostly in the shadows. The quick glimpses of shrieking demonic faces under hoods never lose their ability to shock through overuse, and the effects of arson and splashes of gore are even more striking against the film’s muted industrial palette. And while it’s obvious to us that our man Papa B is the devil, the film relies mainly on Joseph Mawle’s supremely menacing presence and creaking delivery to make us see his true nature. Sure, some of what comes in “Heartless” is telegraphed, but that’s part of the fun, as the film moves us to each plot point in unexpected ways with a heaping helping of gritty atmosphere.
It’s not a masterpiece, but “Heartless” is near perfectly paced throughout it’s runtime … save for a slightly slow start and a pre-final act falter with the sudden introduction of a villain who looks like a reject from Mortal Kombat, and even manages to be even a bit romantic in it’s depiction of Jaime finding confidence as a reborn version of himself…until of course he has to start murdering his neighbours. With strong performances throughout and a genuinely unique setting for a Horror film, “Heartless” deserves a watch by genre fans looking for something they may have missed. Check the trailer below, you can watch this one on Amazon Prime.