Short Rounds is a bi-weekly column dedicated to spreading the love of short film. Every other Wednesday we’ll curate a number of flicks around a theme, from current Film Festivals to whatever is in the air. You know you’ve got the time.
What, really, is the goal of a horror film? Ok, so there’s the obvious answer: to scare the living daylights out of the audience. Yet there are so many different ways to inspire fear. There are horror films with a slow burn, leaving you with an eerie feeling that lasts well after the lights go up. Slasher flicks give you a series of high-octane shrieks, and the new trend in “torture porn” tries to build fear up with nausea. Moreover, is it equally important to tell a good story in a horror film, or does terror stand alone atop the list of priorities? What, really, is the essence of the genre?
Short cinema forces filmmakers to cram their ideas down into just a few minutes. The best of them take this restriction and run with it, using the limited time to accomplish a single, powerful cinematic idea. With a great horror short, that’s even more obvious. When there’s no time time to mess around with grander ideas or little distractions, the single goal is often to perfectly inspire a very specific kind of fear. This is the bread and butter of horror. It’s no accident that a of the best scary features seem to revolve around a single concept as well – Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Ring come to mind. James Wan’s Saw short impressed so much with its horrific simplicity that he was able to adapt it into a feature and then produce a franchise. And so in honor of Halloween here are five eerie, spooky and terrifying shorts.
Mamá, by Andres Muschietti
I’ll start things off with a film as potent and shocking a three-minute short can get. Two children, late at night, suddenly awake to discover that their mother has returned. You’d think this would be a good thing, but the atmosphere immediately tells us to be on the edge of our seats in fright. We are given absolutely no context, but none is necessary. The pacing is perfect, the sound is dead on, and Mamá herself is terrifying. Channeling some of the weird movement that shocked us in Pan’s Labyrinth, she will stick with you well after watching the clip. This summer word got out that Guillermo del Toro had discovered Muschietti’s terrifying little flick and wanted to produce a feature. According to imdb it’s filming now, with Jessica Chastain in the title role. If it’s even remotely as freaky as the short, we’re in for a treat.
The Facts in the Case of Mr. Hollow, by Rodrigo Gudiño and Vincent Marcone
There’s something inherently creepy about paganism, or at least the way it shows up in the movies. Maybe it’s the tattoos, or the sacrifices of various things, or it could just be all the hanging out in the woods. This eerie animated short has all of that and hints at even more. It’s a six minute examination of a single photo, taking us inside a mysterious event in rural Northern Ontario. Looking through a magnifying glass, little images become increasingly more important and the spooky tension grows. It’s a perfect example of how a single, simple idea can make you shiver without any unnecessary bells and whistles.
The Tell-Tale Heart, by Ted Parmelee
Edgar Allen Poe died in 1849, and this 1953 animated short is a testament to his legacy. Yet over the years it has become more than that. This surrealistic film caused quite a stir when it was released, earning the first X-rating from the British Film Board ever issued to a cartoon. It was also nominated for the Best Animated Short Oscar, thought it lost to Walt Disney (a common fate back in those days). Initially proof of Poe’s legacy, it has now become part of it. Since the short’s release it is almost impossible to separate the story from its animated incarnation, and for good reason. Poe’s words are oddly perfect for the weird artwork and dark narration that characterize the short, one of the best adaptations in cartoon history.
Electric Fence, by Matt O’Mahoney
Sexually transgressive and mostly just strange, this Fantastic Fest alum is unapologetically ridiculous. Yet in its absurdity it manages to combine real fear and a strange, uncomfortable humor that will leave you mildly traumatized. It goes right for the jugular of masculine anxiety, in a series of increasingly deliberate acts of violence. It’s like the odd, deranged twin of Teeth, following an unfortunate man who needs a transplant after an encounter with an epileptic prostitute. Suddenly he finds himself plagued with new and disturbing sexual desires, presumably as a result of his new equipment. We watch him psychologically crumble and try to escape his affliction with increasingly desperate means. It’s dark, freaky, and unforgettable.
He Dies at the End, by Damian McCarthy
It’s no small feat to give away the end of your film in its title and then still manage to completely destroy your audience with unease. As simple as any other film on this list, He Dies at the End takes place entirely in one little office. There’s just one character, a lonely man sitting in front of his computer when suddenly a mysterious program shows up on his monitor. It’s like Scream condensed into a single four minutes, without all of the irony. Stunningly tense, the easy manipulation of the camera turns into an essential exercise in the construction of fright and morbid anticipation. After watching this poor chump look over his shoulder in fright for four minutes, you’ll find yourself involuntarily doing the same.