Director: Jimmy Lee
Cast: Barry Wyatt, Jake Henry, Francine Lapensée
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
One of the things that really interested me in doing this project in the first place is how, for all its tropes and rigid formulaic structures, the slasher genre is astoundingly elastic. Filmmakers can make a slasher elegant or prosaic, campy or deadly serious. They can center the story around the victims, the killer, or the authorities protecting the former from the latter. They can be supernatural or perfectly mundane, and the slasher genre generously allows everyone to participate.
Throw in over 100 films in the first three years of the 80's that covered a lot of ground which any slasher filmmaker wanting to be unique might wish to avoid. That might put you somewhere close to the headspace of Korean-American filmmaker Jimmy Lee when he set out to bring Hanging Heart into the world, a film so vigorously unique that it didn't even get released in the US. I don't have full insight into its VHS release, but it looks like it got distribution in Poland and Brazil and not much of anywhere else.
Lucky Poland and Brazil.
Hanging Heart is the tale of young up-and-coming stage actor Denny Curtis (Barry Wyatt), who is starring in a homoerotic play directed by a woman! Specifically Joanne (Valerie Swift). He has an affair with his co-star Cathy (Debra Robinson) on the set, which is just a mattress on a black box stage so really who can blame them. When she is strangled with a pair of pantyhose immediately afterward and the authorities assign hardened cop George McGill (Dan Zukovic) - who is introduced spin-kicking a gun toting perp - to the case, things begin to look grim for young Denny.
I couldn't possibly write a better following line than Letterboxd already has, so I'll just deliver it to you here: "Homoeroticism ensues, blatantly and everywhere." More on that later. All you need to know right now is that the man he is renting a room from, Elliot Scott (Jake Henry) is also his lawyer, and very clearly has the hots for his hunky new roommate. Denny is aware of this, though he has complicated feelings about it, possibly because of something in his murky past. Don't worry, he still sleeps with plenty of women though, including his director and his other co-star Julie (Francine Lapensée of Hollywood's New Blood). But wouldn't you know it, they begin to be targeted by a killer too!
OK, everyone. This is not a drill. I've seen plenty of homoerotic slasher movies, from the "men are shirtless constantly for absolutely no reason" variety like The Majorettes and Girls Nite Out to the "holy shit, just make out already" entries like A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge and The Hitcher. But on the scale from 1 to Cruising, this is just one point below full marks.
Aside from the implications of Denny living with a full-on sugar daddy, the film is constantly putting him into intimate situations with gayness, whether in his play rehearsals, in his nightmares, at home, in prison (he gets strip-searched and then has to share a cell with two other men who are fucking against a wall), or even in an institution (he is whipped with a belt by a long-haired Adonis for literally no reason). Reader, I loved it.
Unfortunately, this being a queer-related slasher in 1983, it also means that the ending is both problematic and incredibly easy to predict (ie. whoever is the gayest is the killer, and once he is defeated everyone is safe to be straight again. You gotta watch out for those nasty Others, folks!). Considering that fact, the film probably shouldn't have contorted itself into a narrative structure where predictability would be its greatest downfall.
Hanging Heart desperately needs to be a good whodunit, because it's not a particularly interesting slasher film. It very quickly takes on the burden of being a courtroom thriller on the side, which means that in order to keep everyone properly suspicious of him, the killings will only happen when Denny is out of prison, which is appallingly little of the time. Plus, the killings themselves are entirely bloodless and essentially all use the same tired M.O. During the 20 to 30 minutes of cuttable wheel-spinning before the final reveal, Hanging Heart gives us almost nothing to occupy ourselves with except for a couple of crudely shoehorned-in dream sequences.
It's a shame that so much of the real estate of the third act is occupied with being completely tedious, because given the sheer amount of random, off-kilter mayhem that's packed into the rest of it, the film was this close to being a bona fide camp classic. There is an electrically weird kind of Wonderland logic to a lot of Hanging Heart, a film that finds it wise to introduce the Denny-Elliot roommate situation while Denny is using a rock-em sock-em robot dummy of Ronald Reagan to punch himself in the face, or thinks that heterosexual sex involves rolling on the floor back and forth from wall to wall and giggling for 45 minutes. The scenes set in reality get us a great deal more off-kilter and perturbed than any of the third act nightmares do.
Hanging Heart has a lot of aesthetic potential, too. This is astonishingly well-mounted for such an unknown slasher, where even simple process scenes have a little extra zip to them. Is a character driving? Why don't those street lines zip across the frame diagonally, creating jagged slashes across the blacktop! Two people are making out on a beach in a wide shot? How about a car window rolls up in front of the camera, devilishly revealing that somebody has been watching them the whole time! The cinematography is frequently beautiful and never anything less than interesting.
All told, the good outweighs the bad in Hanging Heart, even though the slasher elements at its core are by far the least engaging element of the movie, and that stultifying third act tries dearly to ruin any potential goodwill the audience might have stored up. I'm certainly glad to have seen it, even if I have no urge to ever watch it again.
Killer: Elliot Scott (Jake Henry)
Final Girl: Denny Curtis (Barry Wyatt)
Best Kill: The kills are all the same, but there's a moment where a broken bottle gets ground into somebody's hand that is more squirm-inducing than any kill could be.
Sign of the Times: The mullet on George McGill's partner would make Billy Ray Cyrus weep with jealousy.
Scariest Moment: Julie wakes up with a man standing over her bed.
Weirdest Moment: There are just so many to choose from, but I'm going to have to go with the random subplot with Elliot's dad in a nursing home, which is straight out of The Naked Gun. He is only in two scenes, but in the first, his son leaves to take a phone call and his wheelchair rolls down a ramp and into some garbage cans. In the second, a soccer ball beans him on the head out of nowhere. Neither of these incidents is ever mentioned again.
Champion Dialogue: "What do you want me to do? Touch you and make love to you and say thank you?"
Body Count: 4
- Cathy is strangled with pantyhose.
- Joanne is strangled with pantyhose.
- Guard is strangled in a dream.
- David is shot.
TL;DR: Hanging Heart is pretty good looking for a slasher of its vintage, but it really should be more interesting considering how much wacky shit it's pumping out.
Word Count: 1279