SHRIEKFEST 2013 SHORT FILM REIVEWS
by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor [October 21, 2013]
[HollywoodInvestigator.com] Shriekfest held its 13th annual horror & science fiction film festival from October 3 - 6, 2013, at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, hosted by founder & director Denise Gossett.
Short films screened on Saturday and Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m. As at any festival, the films were a mixed bag, ranging from the excellent and surprising, to unimaginative rehashes of horror clichés.
Here are the reviews of Saturday's short film lineup (with the better films first):
* Incident on Highway 73 (27 minutes)
A young couple, driving through the California desert, take a detour along abandoned Highway 73. The wife (Elizabeth Schmidt), a photographer, thinks it will be scenic. They come upon a forsaken van, its doors open, toys strewn about. What happened to the van's family?
At this point I worried, please don't let a pack of crazed redneck cannibals abduct our yuppie couple. Too many psycho-killer films have been shot in recent years, most of them sordid, mean-spirited and dull.
Thankfully, no rednecks here. Instead, Incident on Highway 73 kept surprising me. Maybe I should have seen it coming. Some viewers probably did. I didn't. This is an alien abduction tale, and a very good one. The acting (by Schmidt and Ian Alda) is first rate. So too the special effects, such as the storm cloud, and the brief glimpse of an eerie flying saucer.
As horror audiences become ever more jaded, suspension of disbelief becomes ever more difficult -- but Incident on Highway 73's engaging characters, slow dramatic build-up, and creepy atmosphere, allow for that necessary suspension of disbelief.
I love Fire in the Sky and The X-Files, and wish more horror filmmakers did aliens (especially grays), rather than zombies and psychos. Director Brian Thompson won Shriekfest's "Best SciFi Short Film Award" for Incident on Highway 73. The voters got it right -- it's my top short film pick at Shriekfest 2013 too.
* Killer Kart (15 minutes)
James Feeney's Killer Kart reworks an old horror comedy premise: innocuous creatures or items (bunnies, toasters, whatever) suddenly come alive and become crazed killers. Here it's shopping carts. Silly, but then, it's supposed to be.
Four grocery workers are closing up for the night when one cart turns killer. Its wire cage opens into bloody teeth, chomping down on victims. The special effects are crude but cute. Especially hilarious is when the cart severs a girl in two. Audiences will appreciate the reference to all the gory "severed along the torso" deaths in previous horror films. Also funny is the intentionally inane dialog delivered with appropriate seriousness by leads Ray Bouchard and Christine Alicia Rodriguez.
Their savage battle for survival transforms the petite, squeaky-voiced Rodriguez from frightened girl into grim cart-killer. The final shot has her armed and blood-stained, ready to fight the shopping cart apocalypse -- which has only just begun! Its an iconic image lifted from Resident Evil, an image that was previously satirized in Night of the Hell Hamsters (2006), with its armed and blood-stained girl ready to fight the hamster apocalypse.
But that's okay. Mimicking genre icons and clichés is what satires do. Killer Kart's satirical targets are unoriginal, but it's a funny and entertaining film, with fine acting and slick production values.
* Jack Attack (8 minutes)
A supernatural Jack O' Lantern kills a babysitter and boy on Halloween night. The Jack's method of mayhem evokes that in Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Not exactly, but close.
Jack Attack is a very short, one-note film, lasting only long enough to establish the victims, then kill them off horribly. Even so, the sick puppy in me enjoyed their gruesome deaths, while the aesthete appreciated Gordon Yu's beautiful, golden-hued cinematography. Art director Brett Norton did nice work creating an idyllic, autumnal New York City of the sort found in Meg Ryan romantic comedies.
Co-directors Bryan Norton and Antonio Padovan won Shriekfest's "Best Super Short Film Award" for their efforts. Another well-deserved prize.
* Juaritos (12 minutes)
This is clearly not a horror film, because it's too authentic to real life. Some will argue, wrongly, that that makes it more of a horror film. Actually, Juaritos is an indie film. The sort of "slice of life" profile of marginal lives seen on the Independent Film Channel or the Sundance Channel. And a good one.
In crude documentary style, Juaritos dramatizes the longtime problem of the many murders of poor women in Juarez, Mexico. Hollywood previously covered this issue in Jennifer Lopez's Bordertown. The situation was covered less artfully in the micro-budgeted Juarez, Mexico.
In Juaritos, a narcoblogger (anonymous bloggers who report on drug cartel murders) dares to walk the streets after dark. He (Gilbert Chayrez-Chavarria) buys some Red Bull from a store clerk (Prida Moreza), who dares to stay open long enough to serve him. Small things like operating after sunset require big courage. As he leaves the narcoblogger fantasizes about their potential future romance. Then he hears gunshots... What immediately follows is not surprising. What comes after that is.
Juaritos is a brutal, grimly unsentimental film. Not a horror film, but I suppose the Shriekfest judges thought people should see it. They should. But unfortunately, it likely won't change anything.
* The Hourglass Figure (12 minutes)
A mother (Michelle Davidson) finds an hour glass that gives her an extra hour of free time every day. Turn it over, and the world stands still as she continues to move, doing whatever she pleases.
It's an old horror/sci-fi short story premise, seen in The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Darkside, among other places. A common ending is for the device to break, leaving the world frozen around the protagonist. That's not how The Hourglass Figure ends. To its credit, the ending was surprising and horrifically satisfying. This film pulls no punches, and is not afraid to end on a dark note.
The IMDb categorizes The Hourglass Figure as "horror comedy," but I fail to see its humor. Maybe director Patrick Rea wanted to put his film under every possible category to maximize its exposure?
Acting and production values are professional all around. Lead actress Davidson also co-wrote the script with Amber Rapp.
* Iris (6 minutes)
In the near future, people carry holographic identity cards, projected from their rings. A mating ritual at a singles bar starts with a man (Carl Stjernlöf) and woman (Claudia Graf) examining each other's cards. Ascertaining that each is an Ivy Leaguer with a high status job, they begin dating. Then we learn the woman carries a counterfeit I.D. so as to snag a rich husband. What of the man?
One IMDb reviewer called Iris an "amazingly original" film. I don't see that. On the contrary, lying about yourself to catch a desirable mate is an old premise. Really old. This dystopian sci-fi film updates that premise with some slightly futuristic effects, but there's nothing new here.
Even so, Graf turns in a strong, poignant performance as a woman who, remorsefully, sells her body to afford the counterfeit I.D. Iris's strength is not its premise, nor its special effects, but its ability to sketch an engaging character in a very short time.
This USC student film by Justin S. Lee also boasts strong production values.
* Liebe (aka Love, 4 minutes)
Cameron MacGowan's horror comedy is a one-joke film, but the joke is both funny and original. And at 4 minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome.
In a bucolic meadow, amid enchanting music, a young beau rhapsodizes on his love for the maiden in his arms. Although this is a Canadian film, his voiceover is in German, evoking a Brothers Grimm, fairy tale ambiance. Suddenly, a troll (or whatever) rushes the lovers, butchers the girl, and abducts the man. Then this hideous beast rhapsodizes on his love for the horrified man, speaking identical words, albeit in his troll language.
Nicely photographed, Liebe plays like a funny Saturday Night Live or Mad TV skit. As with the best of such skits, it can be watched repeatedly and still enjoyed.
* Eaglewalk (30 minutes)
Rob Himebaugh's student film is an explicit homage to 1980s summer camp slasher films. Although the killer is Bigfoot, all the old icons are here. There's the summer camp with a bloody past about to be reopened, the cross-section of horny teen/camp counselors, and gory deaths.
Thankfully, Eaglewalk is no self-referential, hipper-than-thou, quasi-parody like Scream. Eaglewalk throws no knowing winks at viewers, has no satire, offers nothing new. It's straight horror, as might have been done in the 1980s. It's as if Himebaugh wishes he had been around back then, directing "killer in the woods" films like The Burning, Sleepaway Camp, The Final Terror, The Prey, and the Friday the 13th series.
However unoriginal, Eaglewalk is skilled at what it does. Shocks and gore abound. Make-up effects are good. So too the acting, photography, and sound. It's entertaining, if unexceptional. It even won for "Best Student Short" at Screamfest last year.
Himebaugh uploaded his entire film (not just a trailer) onto YouTube, which you can view above.
* Maid of Horror (18 minutes)
Emma (Stacie Mason) is the ultimate frenemy. A maid of honor who is insanely jealous of the bride and will do anything to hijack the wedding for herself. Her methods are predictably gory as she lets nothing, and no one, stand in her way toward realizing what used to be every woman's ultimate dream fantasy -- the perfect wedding.
Maid of Horror is supposed to be funny, and it is, but in an obvious way. Caitlin Koller's satirical targets are very stale. Emma's is a 1950s fantasy ideal. Films -- horror films included -- have been satirizing traditional suburban aspirations and lifestyles for decades (e.g. Parents). Sure, one can parody 1950s more, but unless one injects something new, why bother?
Production values are decent. Scenes are appropriately colorful and brightly lit, in a TV sitcom sort of way. The acting is serviceable, neither awful nor great. Maid of Horror entertains as it runs its expected course.
* All You Can Eat (4 minutes)
A one-joke film, but admirable in its execution. A clown entertains some neighborhood kids with his juggling. Looks innocent, but when you see a clown in a horror film, you know it can't be good.
The punchline is sickly humorous, if not entirely unexpected. What raises Tommy Groth's (director and star) film another notch is that the entire film is one long shot. It ain't easy doing a four-minute shot, especially as it starts inside the house, tracks through it and out into the yard, then down the street.
The film itself plays in reverse, so the clown appears to walk backward into the house. This visual effect leads neatly to the punchline inside the house, but the real production challenge was shooting it all in one take, regardless of the sequence of events.
A cute, clever, sick little film, skillfully shot. Just the right length at four minutes.
* The Meeting (17 minutes)
Four serial killers gather in a church basement for a 12 step program. They relate how long it's been since they've killed a woman, how hard to resist the urge to kill again. Whereupon a beautiful, young housewife (Karly Warkentin) enters. Is she lost? Does she know where she is? She looks so sweet and innocent!
The killers try to dissuade her from staying. She instead sits down and passes around her home-baked muffins. She herself does not eat one!
This was halfway through the film and already I knew. Please do not let the muffins be poisoned!, I thought. That would be soooo obvious! But sure enough the muffins were poisoned. The housewife was a serial killer too!
I was deeply annoyed by this obvious ending; the sweet innocent who turns out to be a crazy killer.
Production values are professional. Actors gave funny, appropriately hammy performances. The dramatic setup held promise. The challenge was to come up with a surprise twist ending, Yet co-writers Karen Lam and Kelly A. Morris, together, failed to do so.
Disappointing, because it could have been better.
* Youth of Today (10 minutes)
Speaking of sweet innocents who turn out to be crazy killers, here's another one!
Three young hooligans travel the English countryside, when they come upon a sweet, little old lady (Eileen Dietz) who invites them to her mansion. An isolated mansion. With an ominous caretaker scowling outside.
Youth of Today is another dark comedy with no big surprises. It's just a question of what horror, specifically, the old lady will do to the young ruffians. And since they do attempt to burglarize the old lady, we can enjoy their inevitable comeuppance. (Hint: farm folk tend not to be vegetarians, and meat is getting expensive.)
This film has an old theme: If you think today's young folk are bad, just look at the elders!
Dietz is fun to watch. The other actors, as in Maid of Horror, are neither brilliant or terrible. Michelle Hand's film is professionally shot. Its story, however unoriginal and obvious, passes the time pleasantly enough.
* Xmas Miracle (6 minutes)
A cynical tabloid reporter (Mark Cramer), who writes fake stories, seems to hate everybody and everything, including Christmas. Then on Christmas Eve, he is kidnapped by a psychotic killer in a Santa suit.
This is a very short, one-joke film, with no real story. Just a lazy "surprise twist" ending -- one that is neither interesting, original, nor funny. Especially surprising is that two writers (Andrew Bird, Nick Roth) were required to conceive such a hackneyed, threadbare script.
Production values and acting are okay, if unexceptional.
Silent Night, Deadly Night is still the most famous "Christmas horror" film series, while Christmas Evil remains the best one. Britain's Don't Open Till Christmas is also noteworthy.
Director Micah Levin and his two scribes add nothing new to the subgenre.
* Therion (15 minutes)
A young boy has the werewolf curse. His parents pray for a cure. I saw the "surprise twist" ending coming up, though admittedly, not till two thirds into the film.
As with Xmas Miracle, co-directors Pepe Botias and Mario García, and their writer Víctor Galán, add little to the werewolf subgenre. Even so, Therion's acting and production values are quite good. And DP Rubén Guimarey's desaturated photography and shots of nature are powerful and compelling, creating a rustic, supernatural atmosphere that is the film's greatest strength.
* Lot254 (3 minutes)
Blink and you'll miss Toby Meakin's film. I almost did. A man (Adrian Schiller) repairs an antique film camera. He looks through its viewfinder and sees a ghostly image. Then the image appears behind him. Roll end credits.
Huh? End credits? Already?
I'd thought the film was just getting started. Production values are nice, but there's really not much to say about this one-shock film (which wasn't very shocking).
* The Dark (17 minutes)
Justin P. Lange's film feels incomplete, as if it's missing both a beginning and an ending. I felt I was dropped into the middle of the story, without a clue, and spent the entire film trying to figure out who was what, and what was happening.
A strange woman (or girl?) with black eyes and sharp teeth (Mina, played by Lex Friedman), kills a stranded motorist -- by staring at him. So, who or what is Mina? Is she a zombie or vampire? Some other monster? The victim of a plague? Are there many like her, or is she alone? Was the motorist trying to escape from monsters like her?
Mina finds a young man (Alex, played by Daniel Angeles) tied up in the back of the motorist's car. Alex's eyes are sewn shut. Why? Did Mina know of Alex? Is she a friend or enemy? At this point, I'd assumed that Alex's eyes were sewn shut to protect him from being stared at by monsters like Mina, but it later seems that Alex had been kidnapped by the motorist, and Mina had stumbled upon Alex. Whom she quickly (and unexpectedly) befriends.
I could go on with the problems. I puzzled out some stuff as events proceeded, but always had more questions than answers. Leaving some things unresolved or unanswered can be good up to a point (David Lynch is a master at this), but it's a risk. Rather than intrigue, such films more often confuse and annoy, which was my reaction. Lange is no Lynch.
I'm guessing Lange wants to keep us guessing. Or perhaps The Dark is an excerpt from a proposed feature film to show investors. In which case it's not really a short film, because there's no story, just a disconnected vignette.
Nice desaturated photography and good make-up effects, but not so mesmerizing as to keep me interested in the confusing events onscreen.