Horror and Guilt

By Tim Winterstein

“I felt that I must scream or die!—and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!—

‘Villains!’ I shrieked, ‘dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!’”

So ends Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It had been a long time since I had read that story, and in my mind it was guilt that drove Poe’s narrator mad: that he couldn’t take the guilt of what he had done, the evidence of which he had hidden. But reading it again, it does not seem to be guilt that drives him to confess, as much as the—to him—unacceptable idea that others knew about his crime but pretended not to. “[T]hey were making a mockery of my horror!”

Poe inverts the understandable impulse of the non-psychotic criminal to tell, to confess, to be free of the burden of one’s crime. The narrator doesn’t want to be free of his crime, but of the “agony,” “derision,” and “hypocritical smiles” of the police who sit in his house “chatting pleasantly.”

As one of my friends said recently, pastors tend to have a darker sense of humor. So I appreciate it when filmmakers are able to capture horror and comedy at the same time, because both are so hard to do well. Of the films that get submitted to the Newport Beach Film Festival (for example), well-made horrors are rare and comedies even rarer. Comedies depend so much on writing, acting, and timing in combination, and it takes a lot for a horror to be anything more than merely derivative.

I can think of two recent films, one a feature-length and one a short, that manage to be both horrible and funny: Bloodsucking Bastards and Heartless. Both of them are set primarily in office buildings, making use of both horror and comedy tropes to satirize modern, cubicle-and-boardroom office stereotypes. Bloodsucking Bastards is often funny, but vampires become a metaphor for the soul-sucking, seemingly pointless sales work that no one is enjoying. It’s filmed entirely on a floor of a real office building, windowless and dark—the perfect environment for vampires to slowly take over.

Heartless is, on the surface, a bloodier (unless you count the exploding vampire in BB) and more concentrated satire of office ambition. (Apparently, the office took a long time to clean afterwards.) Because of its length, it is necessarily more compressed, but in spite of its dark humor, there is a lot of subtlety and quick wit embedded in its 12 minutes. There are a number of lines in the film that are almost past by the time you see the humor in them. (“Knock ’em dead, Shel,” for example. Indeed.)

(As a side-note, the writer/director of Heartless, Kevin Sluder, and his wife, Jennifer, who make up Sunshine Boy Productions, are two of the nicest people I have ever met, and their character, along with the name of their company, are completely incongruous to their films. So I wonder if it’s akin to how often people working in comedy are beset by darkness and depression. Maybe it goes the other way, too: happiness makes for good horror films?)

Like its inspiration in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the violence and murder in Heartless is born of frustration and the scorn of those close to Shelby (a creepy, cold-hearted Stacy Snyder). What’s most interesting to me is how’s Shelby’s frustration at being constantly overlooked—whether it’s by her immediate supervisor or the guys in the boardroom—leads to her removing all the limits to what she will do to advance in the company. It is satire in that it takes her ambitions to their extreme, but it also is a sort of horror companion to #MeToo and subtle (and not so subtle) sexism. The guys to whom she’s making the presentation are named Deano (Matt Mercer, a frequent collaborator with the Sluders and another really nice guy), Brandt, and Tripp. Of course they are. So we get the catharsis of her revenge on the smug and the condescending (especially in the final line, which I won’t reveal in case you have a chance to see it). And we also get the horror of unbridled ambition.

In some ways, films like this require both comedy and horror in order to make a film something more than simply heavy-handed “messaging” or just another crazy slasher film. Poe is obviously probing the mind of a killer for the feelings that drive him. At what points might we sympathize with what drives killers to kill, even if we never carry out the act? Isn’t that what makes revenge, for example, cathartic—which ought to make us uncomfortable with our own desires and horrible thoughts, since we recognize in these fictional worlds what motivates us in the real world? (This function of fiction and film is teased out brilliantly by David Foster Wallace in his essay on David Lynch. Man, I feel inadequate to say any words about any movies after reading that.)

Heartless manages to avoid being heavy-handed because of its humor, but it also probes, like Poe, the uncomfortable truths about the logical ends of our own thoughts and guilt and motivations and desires. I don’t want to put too much serious weight onto the film. It can certainly be just a darkly humorous horror. But it also does what all the horrors I appreciate do, which is expose the darkness that lies in the hearts of all of us (whether that heart is lying on the boardroom table or not).

If you’re at all interested in horror, look out for anything by the Sluders. I can’t imagine them doing anything but getting better.