Celluloid Screams 2012: Who Likes Short Shorts?

I was very kindly invited to be part of the jury selecting the best short films screening at Celluloid Screams 2012. Nothing to it, right? Still, while seventeen films might not seem like that much (particularly for those people who have to whittle countless submissions down to just eighteen), it's quite a handful for a festival that only lasts two and a half days. Three hours of back-to-back screenings in Sheffield Hallam University's The Void lecture theatre (yes, you read that right) and we'd argued it down to three, but with such a varied lineup I thought it might be worth going into the winners as well as the ones that got away. Ready? Let's do this thing.

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FAMILIAR (Richard Powell, Canada, 2011)

Familiar
(shown above) started out strong - a jaded suburban husband plots to break away from his family at any cost - but despite a decent stab at black humour and some good handling of pretty dark subject matter (there were audible gasps from the audience when it screened to the crowds) an abrupt lurch into out-and-out body horror really didn't come off too well. The voiceover tended to the hammy but the main actor sold a dual role fairly well, yet ultimately the goop and the tentacles towards the end stuck in the mind more than the drama, and that didn't feel like a good thing.

72 (Jorge Michel Grau, Mexico, 2012)

Part of me hopes I never meet director Jorge Michel Grau - he's probably a nice guy but I thought his handling of social issues mixed with horror was painfully ham-fisted and near tone-deaf in the over-rated cannibal flick We Are What We Are, and his short 72 was even worse. Based on a recent incident where Mexican drug cartels executed 72 villagers in cold blood this felt like an appallingly misguided attempt to glamorise or embroider real-world pain and suffering; the final dream sequence struck me as flat-out repellent, and the whole thing came off like the master documentarian Wang Bing (West of the Tracks, Fengming, The Ditch) robbed of every trace of objectivity and talent. One of the worst things I've seen this year.

3 A.M. (Lee Matthews, UK, 2012)

The director and producer of 3 A.M. were at Celluloid Screams 2012 to explain that they'd shot the film in a single day for not much more than pocket change, and you could pretty much tell. There was some definite craft here - most notably some very eye-catching shots of the English countryside - but this story of a woman haunted by every jump scare in the book never really went anywhere and limped over the finish line. The shocks hit home on occasion, despite tending to the cliched, but the repetitive, somewhat overbearing orchestral stabs didn't help and the lack of any distinctive production design was a negative. There was enough good here to suggest these guys might go on to do something better, but this was fairly forgettable.

THE OTHER SIDE (The Santoro Brothers, UK, 2011)

I'd already seen the Santoro Brothers' The Other Side at Grimmfest 2012 and my opinion remains the same - they're very talented directors and I would be very interested to see what they do next, but this isn't a coherent, self-contained film, it's a tech reel. The story of a young American nanny come to look after a baby for a couple cooped up in an ancient country manor house, and the mayhem that ensues, The Other Side plays more like a series of vignettes - something nasty in the woodshed, a serial killer, a moonlit drive - than a story which makes any sense. Check it out if you get the chance, but prepare to be left pretty confused.

CERTIFIED (Luke Guidici, US, 2011)

Certified was anther film to fall into the category of "Yes, and?" - a pleasant little diversion, very nicely shot, but with about as much impact as a puff of air. Loosely based on a semi-horror story by the Edwardian author H. H. "Saki" Munro, there was nothing of the subtlety to the script or the performances you'd really need to sell something written in such a literary style. Stripped of Saki's textual quirks and mannerisms you've just got a fairly lifeless elevator pitch of a film which none of the cast or crew had quite enough talent to make into something better.

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PLAY DEAD (Andres & Diego Meza-Valdes, US, 2011)

Play Dead
(shown above) was yet another attempt to keep the shambling corpse of the novelty zombie genre vertical as long as possible, and despite straining very hard to impress (look at us! Aren't we novel? Aren't we funny?) it did actually hit the mark surprisingly often. This was another of the shorts that improved when watched again in front of a crowd - a zombie apocalypse seen from the point of view of a motley crew of lost dogs, while the gags were mostly pretty obvious they always raised a smile, there was some solid effects work, a real sense of scope and scale and Play Dead did get a couple of gasps out of the audience. (Strange how seeing animals in peril pushes so many people's buttons so easily.)

ODOKURO (Aurelio Voltaire, US, 2011)

The stop-motion piece Odokuro tried hard to stand out, but despite some decent black-and-white photography the lofty pop-psychological narration came across as more hot air and platitudes than anything seriously thought-provoking, and though the technical side of it was solid enough the actual art and animation showed very little artistic flair. A bunch of antique curiosities come to life and stiffly, awkwardly do battle while Gary Numan (yes, that Gary Numan) reads someone's first-year philosophy essay in a sleepy monotone - it's hardly a disaster but there's very little here that actually reaches out and grabs you, and in a short that's even more of a black mark than usual.

THE HALLOWEEN KID (Axelle Carolyn, UK, 2012)

The Halloween Kid meant well - a small boy haunted by ghouls and ghosts, and the silver lining he discovers - but it's just such a nothing little story it was hard to feel much of anything in response. The great Derek Jacobi as the narrator can't save a lacklustre attempt to deliver a script that reads like classic childrens' nursery rhymes; there's no lyricism or magic here, just awkward stumbling through lines that never once sing out and production values that while competent, look less like cinema and more like a TV ad for a supermarket chain to tempt the masses into buying extra candy for the trick-or-treaters.

ZOMBIE CHIC (Todd Cobery, US, 2012)

Zombie Chic is another one-note joke, but while it's still funny there's nowhere near as much polish and enthusiasm behind it as other similar shorts (like Him Indoors) and it suffers as a result. The dead walk, barricade yourself in your homes, yadda yadda - but what if you simply can't bear to shift the priceless works of art you've furnished the place with? There's some decent gore here, and a few good laughs, but most of the running time is stuck in a single undistinguished location and none of it's particularly substantial; this is very much a film for the moment, not one you feel compelled to tell all your friends about once you're out of the festival.

THE CAPTURED BIRD (Jovanka Vukovic, Canada, 2012)

Jovanka Vuckovic was the editor of the horror magazine Rue Morgue for more than six years, and while it's clear she picked up some solid ideas about how the genre works in that time The Captured Bird never really brought any of them together into a coherent whole. A little girl wanders away from her parents into a sprawling, abandoned stately home, and unwittingly sets something terrible free; it's a decent enough idea, the direction is technically sound and Vuckovic works in some lovely images, but there's a frustrating lack of depth to any of it and the mediocre CG doesn't help.

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YELLOW (Ryan Haysom, Germany, 2012)

German slasher Yellow (shown above) did a lot right by its inspirations - this tribute to Italian giallo horror boasted some phenomenal production values, with stellar cinematography and art design, part Michael Mann, part Euro genre cinema. The score was brilliant, as well, fantastic compositions that fell halfway between Goblin's classic Argento soundtracks (80s synth parps and squeals) and more up-to-date Detroit- or Berlin-style techno. The big problem was the writing and pacing did little to justify the very lengthy running time (for a short film), with far too much dead weight despite how pretty the pictures were. There was very little sense of drive or conflict - a nasty flaw in a slasher - and little reason to care what was up on screen. These guys are unquestionably worth following, but for now they're very much running on style over substance.

METAL CREEPERS (Adrián Cardona, J. Oskura Nájera, Spain, 2011)

As a former headbanger I dearly wanted to love Metal Creepers, but ultimately this gruesome little comedy fails to evoke enough real emotion for the 80s nostalgia it's throwing around. Bringing back memories of all the Gremlins knockoffs on the straight-to-video market - ah, Critters, how I miss you - the story of a greedy manager, the second-rate cock rock band he manages and a satanic musical score starts out on just the right note of lunatic cheese but quickly descends into splatter for the sake of it, tired jokes and shoddy camera angles. The song isn't even that great, which in a film about heavy metal is one of the biggest sins you can commit. There's definite love for the subject matter here, but it's more for shits and giggles, as it were, than any real kind of artistic impact.

BITE HORSE (Sam Walker, UK, 2012)

Sam Walker's Bite Horse was an odd one - all the judges felt it was both brilliant and simultaneously out of the running given it was more of a music video (set to a track by Mississippi Witch) than an actual short film. The whole thing positively dripped with style - part Mardi Gras burlesque, part Silent Hill, part bayou grime - and the track was a fantastic, grinding piece of guttural, swampy blues... but there was a real sense of its being somewhat out of place. There wasn't a plot as such and you couldn't make out any lyrics so it didn't suggest much beyond the immediate associations brought up by the imagery, and the overall feeling was whether good or bad, it didn't really warrant judging alongside everything else.

BIOCOP (Steven Kostanski/Astron-6, Canada, 2012)

Astron 6's new short - the Canadian outfit's first project after the lo-fi fan favourite Manborg - Biocop was another piece where although the judges loved it and it went down a storm with the crowd it felt a little too esoteric to deserve a mention. Pitched as a trailer for a non-existent Troma-esque action comedy, Biocop is an officer who survives a horrific accident with toxic waste and is left a dripping, tortured fleshy hulk spurting goo everywhere who just can't die. It's played to hugely funny, deadpan effect - the audience were practically in hysterics - and it would be great to see Astron-6 make the film for real, but it is aimed squarely at a very specific demographic and anyone else would probably be baffled.

The Winners:

Honorable mention: LEYENDA (Pau Teixidor, Span, 2011)

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And our winners! I am a sucker for the darker, grittier sort of magical realism, so the enigmatic Spanish short Leyenda stood out immediately as worth an honourable mention. This beautifully shot little fable sees a girl whiling away a long car journey reading about the legend of a child co-opted as a protector by a family of vicious wolves, who slaughter her family to steal her away from them. Then a strange woman wanders out of the darkness at a lonely truck stop, and you know things are about to get ugly - though it may surprise you precisely how. You can read it as a straight-up nasty little fairytale, or something richer and more nuanced, but Leyenda is a wonderful piece of horror nonetheless, one that stirs the imagination like a pot about to boil.

Honorable mention: HIM INDOORS (Paul Davis, UK, 2012)

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Our second honourable mention, Paul Davis' Him Indoors is less a short than a joke with a very long buildup (an agoraphobic serial killer tries to make a friend/land a date) but in its defence it's a very funny one that's expertly told. This is pure crowd pleasing fanservice, but two great performances from UK TV's Reece Shearsmith and Pollyanna McKintosh (The Woman), a sharp, very funny script and solid technical values mean it never comes off as smart-assed or elitist. The nods to classic horror sprinkled throughout are simply Easter eggs for the devoted fans - it's a beautiful piece of work whether or not you notice them.

Best Short Film, Celluloid Screams 2012: OTHER (Daniel Del Purgatorio, US, 2012)

celluloid screams_other still_detail.jpgAnd while we judges didn't all have Daniel del Purgatorio's Other at the top of our lists we liked it enough overall to collectively award it top honours. This retro-tinged piece of medical body horror was a beautiful little piece of film-making, fantastically shot, tightly written, yet open to interpretation in a multitude of ways. It works as the story of a mad scientist and his experiment gone horribly wrong - he's dying of cancer and his prospective cure turns out to have a major drawback - and there are a few Easter eggs in there for the dedicated fans, like sound FX borrowed from a particular cult franchise (naming no names!).

But there's also a very real subtext dealing with someone's struggle to cope with his imminent death, whether or not this counts for anything in the end and even what we leave behind us when we're gone. Other works as fantastic ghoulish entertainment, but it's also a haunting, hugely memorable work of art, from a director who seriously deserves the chance to make more films. Even the judges who didn't immediately think it warranted the top honours thought it stuck in their mind - in a good way - to much greater effect than films they initially felt they'd enjoyed more. A worthy winner, and Del Purgatorio is apparently planning on turning Other into a fully-fledged feature, so fingers crossed the wait isn't too long.

Celluloid Screams 2012 ran from 26th-28th October at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield, in the UK.
Around the Internet:
  • Daniel DelPurgatorio

    Thanks for the great review! We are honored to have been part of such an amazing festival.

  • Polly

    So glad you enjoyed Him Indoors but can you please correct my name to Pollyanna McIntosh? Thanks

  • jarviscockblocker

    Holy shit, Polyanna McIntosh is reading Twitch? Um, hi there!

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