While it’s not incorrect to call Philip Ridley a horror filmmaker, it’s not entirely correct either. His film “The Reflecting Skin” was a well-regarded gothic horror flick from 1990 that oddly enough still hasn’t received a US or UK DVD release. He followed that up with “The Passion of Darkly Noon” in 1995 and then took a fifteen year hiatus from directing to focus on other projects. Other projects like writing screen plays and stageplays, working as a performance artist, photography, becoming a best-selling children’s author and writing poetry and songs for P.J. Harvey. Somehow in the midst of all this, Ridley found the time to get back behind the camera for his new film “Heartless” (which, unsurprisingly, he also wrote).
Jamie prowls the streets of East London taking photographs of the nighttime streets while hiding inside the protective folds of an oversized hoodie. The hoodie hides the heart-shaped winestain birthmark which covers much of the side of his face and shoulder and has caused him a lifetime of shame and solitude. Despite loving parents, Jamie can’t help but blame the birthmark for his isolation and his chronic lack of luck in love. In a London beset by hoodie-wearing chavs throwing Molotov cocktails and terrorizing old ladies, Jamie learns the truth while taking photos one night: these are no ordinary hoodlums but rather tyrannosaurus-faced demons, setting loose hell on earth.
After his mother and a friend have fatal run-ins with the dino-thugs, Jamie gets a gun, though he’s not sure if it’s for suicide or revenge. Vengeance wins out and Jamie finds himself in the lair of the mysterious Papa B, a demonic, web-fingered incarnation of the devil himself with an innocent-seeming, underaged girl as an assistant. Papa B makes Jamie a proposition: he will remove the birthmark if Jamie will spread a little chaos around the city. Nothing major, just some blasphemous graffiti, whatever. One of Papa B’s minions called Weapons Man will be by soon enough with further instructions.
Jamie takes the deal and revels in his no-longer-two-tone existence. He even manages to snag that sexy French girl he’s had his eye on. When Weapons Man finally shows up though, he’s demanding a little more than graffiti. He wants a newly cut out human heart, thrown on the steps of a church (any church, killer’s choice) before the stroke of midnight. See, the problem with making a deal with the devil is that the devil (much like credit card companies and cable providers) is notorious for changing the terms of the deal after you’ve signed up.
With its themes of demons, sex and disfigurement in an urban fantasy setting, “Heartless” is in many ways, the best Clive Barker movie Clive Barker had nothing to do with. It takes place in a London that on the surface looks mundane, but peel back a few layers of the decaying cityscape and you’ll find a modern-day grim fairytale filled with magic and monsters, some of whom don’t look that different from men.
“Heartless” is a well-considered spot of art-horror but it’s not an unqualified success. The first half is a draggy emo mopefest that takes forever to get going. The second half fares much better, even though the conclusion is disappointingly predictable and ordinary. At least I think it is. This is a movie that might require multiple viewings to sort out – unfortunately, it’s probably not compelling enough to garner a rewatch from most people. The film fares best when it strikes a darkly comedic tone. There are some great laughs when Jamie fumbles through his first murder and Weapons Man (played by British character actor Eddie Marsan) steals the movie with one short, hilarious scene. Despite the unevenness, “Heartless” is a worthwhile little horror movie with higher aspirations and a little bit of brains. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait 15 years for Philip Ridley’s followup.