Short Fuse: Severe Fantastic Fest Shorts!
This year’s festival collection of horror shorts was generally above-average mixed bag. There are four, in particular, that simply astounded me, and the seven remaining films varied from decent fun to pointless exercises in horror standards. Following are my brief takes on all the films shown.
Dara: Dir. Timo Tjahjanto & Kimo Tjahjanto, Indonesia, 2009, 26 min
This film, about a mysteriously quiet and adorable chef with a Saw-sized secret, does a good job of avoiding your typical torture porn route. Set up as your standard man-meets-woman, man-wakes-up-in-woman’s-torture-lab scenario, Dara is pleasantly self-aware. Though the ending is far too obvious and trite (come on, she is a chef that butchers people), the bulk of the film is great at being funny while keeping a straight face.
Else: Dir. Thibault Emin, France, 2009, 16 min
Possibly my favorite film of the collection, Else is a beautiful piece of body horror and a surprisingly touching romance. It’s a story of a man and woman, completely in love and trapped in their apartment as a mysterious epidemic grips the world. Early context clues give the film’s world integrity, but the short never leaves their apartment. The simple story follows the woman’s infection and the couple’s attempt at coming to terms with the implications of her disease. More than any other short, this film feels most like being dropped into a new world and carried along for the ride.
Excision: dir. Richard Bates, Jr., USA, 2008 18 minutes
Another favorite of mine, this short is a portrait of a young, awkward high-school graduate who is as much an outcast to her family as she is to the rest of the world. The cast here is impressive, but the protagonist shines through as a fully realized, and sympathetic, character. The film’s only early glimpses of its horror undercurrent are the surreal, grotesque, and apparently sensual dreams the girl experiences. The rest of the short plays like the beginning of a coming-of-age drama, but it ends with a truly dramatic gesture that is at once funny, horrifying, and touching.
Full Employment: dir. Thomas Oberlies & Matthias Vogel, Germany, 2008, 12 min
This is a piece of pretty good, flimsy fun. It’s shot as promotional look inside a new government program, which allows young people to help old people do their jobs. The twist, because duh, is that one wheelchair-bound old man’s occupation happens to be zombie hunter. The short looks cheap, and the zombie-mayhem could have been less erratic, but for a 12 minute joke, Full Employment is at least a good time.
Inside: dir. Tracie Laymon, USA, 2009, 14 min
Inside is a dreary short with a nonetheless disturbing climax. Unfortunately, the piece seems to be completely designed around the climax, with stock characters spouting stock lines and the protagonist standing around complaining about his abdominal pain. The slow realization of what’s to come adds needed tension, but the short unfortunately doesn’t amount to much beyond one horrifying, relatively unearned, image.
Mama: dir. Andy Muschietti, Spain, 2008, 3 min
Props to Mama for doing what Inside couldn’t and being only 3 minutes long. It opens with a little girl waking her sister and warning her that mother is home. And like that we’re off. There’s not much to review here–the short is effectively a small cat-and-mouse piece. But the makeup/computer effects on the mother are admirably creepy, and, by playing off the daughter/mother relationship, the piece manages a good amount of tension in its short running time.
My Love Lives in the Sewer, dir. Manuel Arija De La Cuerda, Spain, 2009, 18 min
This short is awesome. It involves a man communicating with a sewer dweller–she inexplicably gets messages onto his toilet paper, and he flushes messages right back down. The two form a relationship, even managing to have intercourse through the sewer pipes, and it only gets more bizarre from there. Once the relationship turns sour, the story really benefits from the film’s outlandish internal logic. Viscerally filthy and shot in stunning black and white, the look alone is enough to recommend this film.
Road to Moloch, dir. Robert Glickert, USA, 2009, 19 min
Maybe it’s just my propensity to root for the underdog, but this big-budgety, Hollywood-influenced short was probably my least favorite. The story revolves around a small team of US soldiers who talk exactly like movie soldiers always talk, even poking fun at the woman soldier for being a woman. They come across an Iraqi in the middle of the desert, are naturally suspicious, but let him lead them to a cave where they find a massacred group of soldiers. Turns out it’s a demon, who easily pops from one soldier to the next and is an unstoppable killing machine. Queue a series of unsuccessful and strained gotcha! and hell yeah! moments. You can clearly tell the filmmakers have high aspirations here, but the writing just is not up to snuff.
Shapes, dir. Alan Brennan, Ireland, 2008, 5 min
Shapes is a clever little scarer about the things we think we see when the lights go out. Claire wakes up her friend because she thinks his rucksack is a terrifying no-eyed creature, which he not-so-gently refutes. Like Mama, Shapes is a “creature feature” in the most straightforward and literal sense, but does manage a commendable bit of character sketching as well. Good acting and good creature effects.
Sinkhole, Eric Scherbarth, USA, 2009, 13 min
The abandoned coal mine is a wonderfully literary setting, but with a high creep factor. Though dubious when the film opened with a Nietzsche quote, this short talky won me over with its clever character pairing and intellectual approach to the “monster”. An ambitious land developer comes to said coalmine to purchase it from its lone occupant, a grizzled and stoic old man. The two talk, while the land developer draws on every drop of ambition he’s got to keep it together. Both performances are nuanced and captivating enough to carry the piece, and, though not revealed until the final shots, the horror of the mine is more than enough to leave a lasting impression.
Strates: dir. Yohan Guignard, France-Belgium, 2009, 9 min
The last film of the collection was this surprisingly touching short built around a single image. A man is plowing, and in the wake of his plow he catches site of a filthy naked woman seemingly growing out of the ground. There is no dialog, only the quiet interaction between the two, but Strates ends up being just as eerie and five times more mournful than the rest of the shorts.