Regardless of the length, a good film should hook you right from the start, and what better way to do that than an intriguing premise that establishes a mystery that you can’t wait to get to the bottom of. Last Orders does just this with a bartender (Alastair Parker), a gunman, and a mysterious man named Samael (Steven Elder) who knows far more than he’s letting on. The story is brought to life by the excellent, realistic performances from the leads and exquisite, professional production values that make the world feel truly lived in. Throughout most of the runtime it seemed as though Last Orders was on track to hit it out of the park but film is akin to gymnastics in that the flourishes don’t mean much if you can’t stick the landing.
I’m not saying that the incredible amount of talent on display is fully negated by an unsatisfying ending, but it does diminish the overall experience. It’s unfortunate to see such a well made film fall into the same trap that so many other movies (and to a greater extent TV shows) fall into by setting up an amazing premise that it isn’t able to fully deliver on. The film puts forward some very interesting ideas and while I can see where writer/director Jon James Smith was trying to go with it, the pieces simply don’t fit together to get it there. What I’d really like to see is a re-cut version that connects the dots and lets this become the great film it was meant to be.
Call me old-school but the idea of an A.I servant sitting idle and listening to your every word never sat well with me and I won’t have Alexa, Google Nest, or any of that weird, Big Brother shit in my house. While that no doubt sounds ridiculous to some, I’m clearly not the only one who has felt disquieted by the ubiquitous self-imposed surveillance of our modern world as films like L.U.N.A. deal with this very specific technological anxiety.
In the world of the film, the Alexa surrogate is called L.U.N.A and is a pyramid shaped device that technicians like Lilian (Fernanda Romero) spend a lot of time making house calls to repair. When she is summoned to the creepy old mansion that young couple Jamie and Sarah Cambell (Lauren Bair and Lauren Deshane) recently moved into she soon finds that this is far from an ordinary call.
Even more than the horror elements of this story the strangest thing about this reality is the reliability of the devices themselves. Apparently (according to the film) they break down so frequently and in such great quantity that technicians such as Lillian have to work from 6 in the morning till well after dark just to try and keep up with what must be an unfathomable amount of malfunctioning units. Given that the repair call itself seems to take less than five minutes, the surrounding community must be absolutely lousy with broken L.U.N.As that must be serviced in-person at all hours, from the break of dawn to the dead of night.
It’s just strange that a film that is so careful to logically justify so many aspects of the world would leave such an odd detail hanging. If the L.U.N.As themselves were built into the house or at least larger than a decorative paperweight, then there would have been more justification for Lillian’s job. Despite how much time I’m spending focusing on this particular aspect of the story, what’s most important is how well the overall components of the production work.
To that end, it’s an incredibly well-realized vision that wears its Giallo influences proudly on it’s sleeve (or in Sarah’s case, directly on her Inferno shirt). The creative camerawork, bold stylistic choices, pulsating synth score, and genuine tension all work in concert to deliver a very polished experience. In the end I was left wanting more, which was partly to the credit of the engaging story and partly because the abrupt ending was slightly unsatisfying. While the story did build effectively to its conclusion, it felt a bit more like the opening scene of a feature than a stand-alone short. Regardless, it’s a very well-made and entertaining piece of cinema and if it was to be expanded to a feature length production I’d happily line up to see it.
Coming in at a scant six minutes and forty seconds, The Visitor packs a lot into its short runtime. The story follows an unnamed writer who leaves behind his wife for the weekend to go to their country house and finish his book but encounters something very strange upon his arrival. One thing that immediately pops out about this film is director Mark Palgy’s choice to overlay a pulsating score over the entire runtime in place of any sound effects or audible dialogue. It’s a bold choice, especially since there is a significant amount of dialogue in the film which is instead conveyed through subtitles. This unconventional decision could have easily gone south, but in this case it works wonderfully and imbues the short with a life and energy that complements the visuals.
The 70s-style grain works well to contribute to the subtly surreal quality of the film which sometimes gives way to fully psychedelic imagery and bold color palettes reminiscent of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy. The only minor gripe I have is that it briefly plays into a convention I see entirely too much where a character experiences something that would be utterly mind-shattering but regards it with little more than a mild incredulity. Still, this is an excellent film with high production values in every aspect from the aerial shots and the production company logos to the special effects and the camera work. It very much succeeds as a stand-alone short but could also definitely be expanded into a feature that brings the simple yet chilling story to a global scale.
Horror and comedy so often go hand-in-hand but the key to executing the combination effectively is to ensure that its not just the jokes that land but the scares, too. Sleep Tight portrays a scenario that will no doubt strike a familiar chord with parents of adolescents as a father tries to get his teen son to turn off his video games and go to sleep. The tone is light but there is an inherent truth to the interaction as the father comes to grips with his maturing son, who in turn takes every opportunity to petulantly age-shame his father. When the horror does come, it’s the real deal and writer/director Lewis Taylor does a great job of not only building tension but also following through with well-crafted costume and effects.
There is a great sense of life and movement in the camerawork which is important, especially when confined to a single, small location. The humor isn’t exactly laugh out loud but it mostly works and I appreciated the subtler touches such as the posters in the background for films like Slenderman 2: The Slendering. The only part that really sticks out as a strange inconsistency is a particular shot involving the Necronomicon that feels bizarrely out of place in the world of the story and seems to be little more than a throw-away joke made at the expense of maintaining a cohesive reality. While it may not be perfect, Sleep Tight is still a fun, well-shot film that delivers on the horror and a damn fine way to spend eight minutes.
A successful story is one that develops as it progresses, bringing new twists and revelations as it builds upon itself. When the story in question is a short, then it’s important that the movement occurs quickly and meaningfully. Director/co-writer Chris Guzzo finds that balance with Family Bond which starts out on a tense but innocuous domestic scene and develops into something far more menacing before long. Its difficult to really talk about the short’s plot without giving spoilers but there are other things to discuss. The acting for one is good, it’s not the best I’ve ever seen but it still manages to bring the characters to life and gets the job done. Within its brief run time the film is able to throw in some major twists and surprising revelations which is difficult to do within such a limited space. Those twists however do rely heavily on the acceptance of a certain fact that, while possible, is unlikely enough to remain dangerously close to implausible. Still, an overall interesting story that efficiently sets up the characters and the world and will take you on an engaging ride that builds to a fittingly dark climax.
“Show, don’t tell”, an old adage that rings especially true for the visual medium of film and one that writer/director Anthony Cally has fully embraced with his dialogue-free short, Waiting. It’s a credit to Cally and everyone involved that his story about a group of people waiting in a bar was so engaging that I wasn’t even cognizant of the fact that no one had spoken a word until after the film finished. It’s a bold move to try and communicate a concept without words, but the brilliant acting, gorgeous, professional production design, and the exquisite use of sound to guide the narrative all work in concert to create a stunning final product.
The story itself is very clever and while it might take viewers a couple of watches to pick up on exactly what is happening, all the clues are provided if you look carefully. As more information is revealed the tension becomes palpable as this seemingly innocuous location is clearly anything but normal. While it does function perfectly as a self-contained story, the world was so engaging that I would love to see it as a springboard into a feature-length continuation. At just about six minutes, this bite-sized short left me hungry for more and as soon as it was finished I immediately had to watch it again. Here’s hoping we see a lot more of Anthony Cally in the future, and that we’re not left waiting too long for his feature debut.
As we rely more and more on technology to make connections (especially as the ever present quarantine isolation marches on) it makes sense that tech based horror would become more prevalent in the genre in new and interesting ways. Just as Host did last year, Filtered is able to effectively communicate horror and anxiety in the simple yet brilliant format of video chat. With a runtime of less than six minutes, writer/ director Vincenzo Nappi doesn’t have a lot of time to establish characters or backstory, yet is able to make both Jasmine (Jasmine Winter) and Marco (Marco Carreiro) immediately feel genuine and real with the sparse information provided. This goes a long way to making their initially mundane conversation all the more familiar at the start and therefore more frightening by the climax. With simple yet effective imagery that recalls the classic David Lynch shortThe Alphabet at times, this is an amazing piece of bite-sized horror that feels very apropos to the moment.
Typically in short films it’s best to dive right into the action and Forced Entry does just that as it plunges you into the world of psychotic drifter duo Arthur Maddox (Tom Lodewyck) and Donovan Hatche (James Bett Jr). The film follows the pair on a brutal killing spree over the course of a couple of days and was inspired by real life murderers Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris who raped and killed five young women in 1979. Even though brief footage of the real killers is shown at the end, the connection they have to the film probably wouldn’t have been clear to anyone who didn’t have the luxury of reading the highly detailed press kit. Even so, the shots do still serve to illustrate the point that our real world is filled with brutal, sadistic violence that usually occurs without much motive or rational explanation.
The story here is definitely pretty bare bones as most of the twenty-four minute runtime is taken up with extended scenes of mean-spirited violence. That’s not at all a bad thing in this case though, because even without a more robust narrative, the film still manages to be highly compelling with some truly impressive practical gore effects and excellent performances from the victims. It also makes sense given the fact that K.M. Jamison (who co-wrote/co-directed with James Bett Jr) said in a statement that the film is intended to function as a kind of showcase for what will hopefully be turned into a feature someday. In that regard it’s highly successful and I’m very on-board to see this nasty little story get fully fleshed-out in all its blood-soaked glory.
It’s always a bold move to try adapting a piece of classic literature, especially one that has been done numerous times before. A director has to be very confident that their particular take on the subject matter has the chops to stand out from the other iterations and prove that there’s a reason for the story to be told yet again. Even though Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story has already been adapted to film over a dozen times, director McClain Lindquist still felt that there was something unique that his take could offer and frankly, I’m damn glad he did.
The story of a caretaker (Sonny Grimsley, credited here as “The Narrator”) who is driven to murder because of his hatred for his elderly employer’s one blind eye is told within a modern setting but with some novel tweaks. The Narrator himself seems to be a man out of time (the cops themselves note that he “talks like he’s in an old movie”) but this eccentricity works wonderfully well and justifies the preservation of much of the original language from the story. Despite its modern setting Lindquist adheres to the soul of the source material and although the violence is significantly more graphic than what is merely hinted at in the original text, it perfectly fits within the style of this adaptation.
The film is exquisitely executed with incredible camera work and special effects that visually guide The Narrator’s rapid descent into madness. There is also some excellent practical effects work and the judicious use of occasional graphic violence further enhances the horror elements of the story. Speaking of effects, I did find Lindquist’s choice to use prosthetics to age-up the actor playing the old man by about fifty years rather than hiring someone age appropriate a bit confusing but this may have simply been an issue of actor availability. Don’t get me wrong, the prosthetics themselves are excellent and very convincing but like pretty much every aged-up actor they end up ultimately residing in the uncanny valley.
Of course effects are only one ingredient here and it’s Grimsley’s mesmerizing performance that really steals the show. Although the performances of the officers opposite him fall a bit flat by comparison, they are still serviceable and Grimsley’s bombastic character is sure to draw the viewers’ attention regardless. Minor issues aside, this is an excellent adaptation that really leans into the horror and creates a unique experience that fully justifies the retelling of this classic tale. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this should be considered the definitive take on the material and certainly the first place any fan of the story should look.
Friend of the World exists in a very strange space. Originally penned in 2016, writer/director Brian Patrick Butler conceived of the story as a reflection of the political anxieties of the time. Now that it’s finally ready for release in 2020, this post-apocalyptic film about racial/cultural disparity, isolation, and paranoia feels almost painfully prescient. Some films are able to be an effective reflection of their time but the degree to which this one was able to accurately predict what 2020 would feel like is just plain unnerving.
The main story begins with a young black woman named Diane Keaton (Alexandra Slade) waking up in an underground bunker in a room full of corpses. After making her way out of the room and deeper into the bunker itself, she soon encounters a middle-aged white man named General Gore (Nick Young) who lives down there and seems to know more about the apocalyptic event that occurred on the surface world than he is letting on.
Given the short runtime it’s hard to say too much about the plot without getting into spoilers but suffice to say this is a strange film that gets more surreal by the minute. Much like the Lynch films that this is clearly drawing influence from not everything you see will have an immediate and obvious explanation but there is a lot beneath the surface waiting to be brought to light by further analysis and discussion. That being said, the narrative never feels lost or nonsensical and Butler effectively uses his unique visual style to communicate a feeling of accepted reality giving way to a nightmarish world of body horror and insanity.
A stylistic example of this is the choice to have most of the film in black and white while idyllic memories of the world before play out jarringly in full color set to a background score of an almost unrecognizably discordant version of ‘Ode to Joy’. There are also a lot of impressive visual techniques at work here that create an uncanny and menacing effect. From simple sped up visuals that give an eerie and unnatural sense of movement to full on face melding that looks straight out of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, there is a lot to love here visually.
It’s not just visuals at play here though as the conversations between the cigarette chomping alpha male Gore and the young, gay, activist artist Keaton are very engaging and packed with commentary and subtext. The small cast all do an excellent job but Young especially shines with his portrayal of the patriarchal Gore whose bravado and subtle menace make for a mesmerizing on-screen presence.
This is a piece of art that is very much of this moment and really taps into the surreal horror that we are experiencing in the world at large right now. When we look back on the quarantine days it will be films like this and Host that will stand as an artistic representation of the anxieties of the time. Hopefully we won’t be watching them from a bunker.