By Rod Lott.
If you have run across Gregory Hatanaka’s name, it most likely was affixed to Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance, his well-intentioned, but ill-advised sequel to the legendarily bad 1991 movie he didn’t make. If it’s true you can’t make a cult movie on purpose, that 2015 disappointment serves as a textbook case; followings happen organically.
Since then, the prolific Hatanaka has directed seven more films, four of them this year alone! The straight-faced one at hand is titled, for no discernible reason, Heartbeat. Although it is not intended to be a cult movie, I can see Heartbeat becoming one, if enough people lay eyes on it. To cut to the chase, let’s call it The Room of serial-killer thrillers.
Like The Room’s Tommy Wiseau, Birdemic’s James Nguyen or Fateful Findings’ Neil Breen, Hatanaka is something of an enigma. Unlike those guys, however, he doesn’t stick himself in front of a camera, so all viewers can react to is his art, rather than the artist’s giant, delusional ego – a smart move, even if no strategy actually exists behind it.
Hatanaka’s casts embody a repertory company whose recurring faces include this movie’s lead and co-writer, Nicole D’Angelo. She plays attractive business journalist Jennifer Sutton, whose recent article concerns a cash crisis at Rigby Meat Products. When two Rigby employees suddenly are murdered, flummoxed police detective Santoro (co-writer Chris Spinelli) calls on Jennifer for help. After all, she has a track record for knowing where to dig for the dirt; as Santoro says of an earlier case, “You knew the murderer left a bag of jelly beans behind. That wasn’t even public knowledge!”
Heartbeat’s body count fails to stay low for long. See, someone with the giallo uniform of black gloves and a straight razor – plus a love of taunting his/her victims with rhymes delivered in a singsong voice with auto-reverb – is actively thinning the Rigby talent pool. However, with that established, the movie becomes less about the murders and more about Jennifer going about her days and nights, until nearly all of the 73-minute runtime passes.
In between, so many characters and threads are introduced, only to go nowhere. Some clearly serve no purpose within their single scene, as if Hatanaka had promised speaking parts for investors and other favor-givers, and shoehorned them into the movie, as opposed to into the plot. When the man playing Jennifer’s boss struggles with the English language and delivering dialogue – “Calm down, don’t make the troubles here, fuck out of here” is a direct quote – do we even need to meet him? Who is the Asian guy behind bars who can’t eat ramen noodles convincingly? What’s with the door-to-door drapery salesman? These and other urethra-burning questions are answered in minute never.
The baffling choices extend to setting and production design. Why does Jennifer’s newspaper office look like a multilevel-marketing cosmetics organization? The nearby bar is just someone’s apartment, isn’t it? Has a popcorn machine ever merited this much attention, on- or offscreen?
By now, it won’t surprise you to know deficiencies infect basic filmmaking tasks as well. For starters, several shots aren’t in focus. Ultimately, Heartbeat possesses as much depth as the 1986 Don Johnson radio hit of the same name.
And yet, here’s the thing: I was never, ever bored. Because Hatanaka and company operate on their own brand of cinematic logic, the experience of watching Heartbeat is an unpredictable, unforgettable one. First, you won’t believe what you’re seeing; then, you’ll want to rope as many friends in as possible to disbelieve it, too.
Its best-representative sequence is also its choicest: the climax between Jennifer and the killer. Without giving his/her identity away, the murderer screams, “This is your last deadline!” only to be attacked by Jennifer’s cat, leaping (thrown?) through the air multiple times, intercut with clips from the 1976 martial-arts classic Master of the Flying Guillotine.
Here, I’m not yet persuaded the editor didn’t have a seizure at the Avid and forgot to fix things later. Whatever the truth, I relish the jolt of insanity its final form provides, and now want to say, “Oh, hai, Greg!” to everything Hatanaka has made. Join me.
Rod Lott runs the genre film website FlickAttack.com. A former professional journalist, he has written for Psychotronic Video, Something Weird Video and numerous books.