Simple Mistakes Afflicting Too Many Short Horror Films: No Characters, Just Actors

In the previous post on the subject of short horror films, I took some time out to gripe about short horror films that don’t even bother to tell a complete story, but instead start and end with (an often quite thin) premise. I wrapped that post up by sharing one of my favorite horror shorts, which actually features a full story, and as such has room enough to also give us at least one legitimate character, who undergoes about as much of an “arc” (something that, admittedly, I find a bit overrated these days in storytelling, but that’s something for another day) as one can in a 9-minute movie.

This leads me to the 2nd flaw I feel is hindering too many horror short films…

No Characters, Just Actors

In the prior entry, I referred laid out the following scenario for a story-less short horror flick:

“Undistinguished person X encounters some sort of inexplicable ghostly phenomenon, experiences an escalation of the threat posed by said phenomenon, then succumbs to said phenomenon. Cue credits.”

Undistinguished Person X, played by Actor Given Very Little to Work With, is a pseudo-protagonist who appears in several weaker short horror flicks. They are present solely to see something ostensibly scary, react to it, and possibly be killed by it, or left “presumed killed” by it off-screen. They are as generic, unimportant and forgettable as a character can be, so much so that they only qualify as a character in the strictest technical terms. They have no actual character or notable, defining traits or ambitions or qualities unto themselves.

The time constraints of a short film can understandably present a challenge to a filmmaker when it comes to crafting a half-decent, legitimate character. This is especially true with certain super-short horror flicks that last maybe 2 minutes or less from opening moment to closing credits. This same challenge can be overridden more easily in literary flash fiction because it can only take a few sentences to put you directly into the mind of the character, or give the reader information about someone that would be more clumsily delivered via film. 1 But you certainly don’t need an internal monologue or even dialogue to elevate people in a short film from mere participants to characters.

I’m probably cheating for my positive example of character work in a short film here, since the clip below is a game trailer, but it works perfectly as a short film nonetheless, and eschews dialogue in favor of other tools available to filmmakers to make us feel for the people caught up in the horror that surrounds them. Even though the action is presented in reverse, and I know how it must end, by the end of the video, I still find myself pulling for these characters to make it somehow.

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  1. Granted, this is sometimes accomplished by “telling” instead of “showing,” but that “Show, don’t Tell” rule of writing fiction isn’t truly a “rule” any more than “never use adverbs” is. You can crack open beloved, well-regarded and critically-acclaimed novels ranging from The Great Gatsby to The Friends of Eddie Coyle to Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk and find multiple examples of telling within the first few sentences. It’s just a matter of using it when it’s appropriate, and not using it when it’s inappropriate.