Tuesday, 10 September 2013


Director: Bob Keen
Writers: Vlady Pildysh, Warren P Sonoda
Producers: Kate Harrison, Lewin Webb
Cast: Meredith Henderson, Nathan Stephenson, Robert Englund
Country: Canada
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener DVD

On a stormy night, two high school students find themselves in hospital. The white, female one, Sarah Wexler (Meredith Henderson, who starred in The Adventures of Shirley Holmes ten years ago and recently played Shania Twain(!) in a TV movie) was injured trying to commit suicide by standing in front of traffic; the black, male one, Walter (Nathan Stephenson), has stab wounds which he is keen to point out are not gang-related.

Also in the hospital is Sheriff Berger (horror legend Robert Englund: A Nightmare on Elm Street and, erm, Mind Breakers) who has brought the recently fried body of convicted serial killer Chambers (stuntman John Binkley, who had a bit part in Land of the Dead) for autopsy. But Chambers is not dead; he has supernatural abilities and he is searching for Sarah Wexler. And there ain’t no-one or nothing going to get in his way.

Now, we all have our bugbears when it comes to movie mistakes. For some folks it’s sound in space, for others it’s people holding guns sideways. Here’s one of mine. Local coroner Doctor Hitchens (Michael Cram, who was in two episodes of the 1990s Outer Limits) takes Chambers’ body into a laboratory clearly labelled ‘pathology’ where he lays him out on an autopsy table and proceeds to slice him open - until Chambers, to nobody’s surprise except Doctor Hitchens’, sits up and rips the other man’s heart out.

Folks, I have worked in a hospital pathology lab - four years spent sweating over a hot auto-analyser - and let me assure you that pathology has Nothing At All To Do With Dead People. Pathology is the study of chemical pathways inside living people. The path lab is where your blood, urine and stool samples go to be analysed so the doctors can work out what is wrong with you. If you’re dead, most of those chemical pathways shut down fairly swiftly and it’s extremely bloody obvious what’s wrong with you on account of the lack of heartbeats.

There is something called ‘forensic pathology’, which involves studying the chemical mishmash inside dead folks but that is an entirely different science. Unfortunately, lots of people think that it’s the second word in that phrase which means ‘dead folks’ when in fact it’s the term ‘forensic’ which refers to the deceased. To sum up: medical autopsies are performed in hospital morgues. Anyone lugging a dead body into a path lab and slicing it open would be asked to leave.

That Hitchens is not asked to leave may be due to the fact that there are no pathologists in evidence. In actual fact, this entire hospital seems to survive on a staff of six (or seven if you include Hitchens): two nurses, one doctor, one janitor and a couple of guys who are presumably porters. All of these except for Nurse Grafton (Laura DeCarteret, who had a small role in the Dawn of the Dead remake) are despatched fairly swiftly by the supernatural killer. But there seem to be no other medical staff, no support staff, no admin staff, not even a receptionist. There are also no patients, apparently, apart from Sarah and Walter plus the victims of a traffic accident who also disappear from the story very quickly. Sarah’s mother (Lori Hallier: My Bloody Valentine, Thomas and the Magic Railroad) completes the roster of bodies.

What we end up with, fairly swiftly, is Sarah, Walter and Grafton hiding from Chambers, who has some sort of psychic link to the girl and needs her body to host whatever demonic entity possesses him because she is “the one in a million”. Apparently. A moving scorpion tattoo transferred itself from Chambers’ arm to Sarah’s when they shared an ambulance but this is never explained and barely features.

Disappointingly, there is little of the chase in this film. Chambers seems most concerned with wheeling the bodies of his victims around on a trolley for some reason and the others have only to keep out of his way. Only one sequence generates real tension and thrills, with Sarah purloining plasma from a blood bank (which looks about as realistic as the path lab) only to be cornered by Chambers.

The blood is needed because Walter suddenly, without explanation, starts losing a great deal of blood from his stab wounds. Nurse Grafton, who must have the worst bedside manner in the Northern hemisphere, repeatedly tells the young man that he is going to bleed to death but Sarah saves the day with an impromptu, and remarkably easy, transfusion.

Around this time, I realised what was wrong with Heartstopper. It’s a film set in a hospital written by someone who has only the most rudimentary idea of what goes on in hospitals. If characters didn’t keep using the word ‘hospital’, there would be almost nothing to indicate that this is where the film takes place. It is mentioned at one point that the building is a former insane asylum although this has no bearing on the story whatsoever and seems to be merely some sort of funding requirement for this sort of movie.

There are also no fire exits, so once the front door is locked (presumably by Chambers) there is no way out. A phone rings at one point but we don’t find out if there’s anyone on the line. Nobody attempts to ring out for help and nobody, apparently, has a mobile.

Getting back to lack of medical knowledge (as it were), the film’s title refers to Chambers’ preferred method of killing people: yanking their hearts out. The thing is, he yanks the hearts (or, I suspect, the same heart each time) straight out, in a move which would require him to plunge his hand straight through the other person’s sternum, one of the toughest bones in the human body (for various reasons, not least to stop people yanking your heart straight out). One can be generous and say well, he’s a supernatural demon-thing and so he must be able to punch through a breastbone or perhaps melt it in some way, but realistically this has all the hallmarks of an idea concocted by writers who thought it sounded cool without caring whether it sounded possible.

This is Bob Keen’s first feature as director since The Lost World eight years ago. In the meantime he has provided effects for films such as Wild Country, Dog Soldiers and On Edge as well as lots of videos, ads etc. His previous features include Proteus and To Catch a Yeti and he is currently attached to a remake of The House on Straw Hill aka Exposé. Naturally a gore-heavy film like this is well-suited to Keen and he handles the direction skillfully enough although his tendency to rely on flash cuts wears out its welcome quite rapidly and the endless flashing of lights (which may be lightning or may be electrical problems due to a storm) is a similar pain for the eyes. (At one point a character comments that the back-up generators will come on soon, even though there are clearly working lights in the room.)

But Keen’s direction can’t do anything with the frankly awful script or the sparse budget. Despite the lack of people in the hospital, Heartstopper has a surprisingly long cast list. However, most of those are in a flashback to Sarah being bullied in High School. If only some of that extras budget had been spent on getting people to put on white coats and run around screaming, the film’s main location might have looked at least vaguely like a hospital.

It’s not just the story, it’s the dialogue too. Chambers speaks in silly cod-biblical rhetoric which turns him from a serious danger into a sub-Freddy bogeyman. Freddy himself, Robert Englund, also has some corny lines but he gets away with them because, well, he’s Robert Englund and he’s done this sort of thing a million times before. Englund is always watchable, always fun and one of the best things about this film so it’s a shame that he’s killed off relatively early.

Also in the cast are Ted Ludzik (bit parts for Romero in Bruiser and Land of the Dead), Scott Gibson (The Skulls), John Bayliss (Terminal Justice, The Skulls III - yes, there’s three of ‘em apparently), Wayne Flemming (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), Amy Ciupak Lalonde (episodes of Mutant X and Battlestar Galactica) and Christopher Cordell (stunts on Warriors of Terra and Bulletproof Monk). Most of the cast have been in one or more episodes of the US remake of Queer as Folk. Cinematographer David Mitchell directed Nightmare City and The Killing Machine, editor Mitch Lackie was assistant editor on American Psycho and its sequel.

Producers Kate Harrison and Lewin Webb previously collaborated on Five Girls (or 5ive Girls - don’t you just hate titles like that?) which was written and directed by Warren P Sonoda, an established Canadian director of music videos. The other writer here, Vlady Pildysh, is a UCLA graduate who actually won third place in the university’s Samuel Goldwyn Writing Awards with the original version of Heartstopper. Maybe that was a great script, but that was way back in 1997. Eight years later Heartstopper finally got made and clearly something went awry in the meantime because this script would be lucky to win third prize in a competition with only three entrants. (This also, of course, explains the lack of mobile phones!)

To be fair, Heartstopper makes no claims to be a masterpiece or even to originality (although it does take itself seriously - there’s precious little light relief) and thus sort of achieves what it sets out to do, I suppose, which is to pass 85 minutes and showcase a bunch of horror effects (including a gruesome electric chair sequence at the start). With a few beers, a pizza and a couple of undemanding mates who don’t mind you shouting at the TV, this could work. But it could have been considerably better with a more focussed and, frankly, better thought out script. Maybe this could pass muster in 1997 but film screenplays, unlike wine and certain women, do not improve with age.

MJS rating: C+
review originally posted 12th October 2006

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