I am always eager to enjoy every short horror film that catches my interest. Whether the title grabs me, or the short description of the story, or the endorsement of a website or reviewer or friend whose tastes I generally trust, or a recognizable name behind or in front of the camera, if a short film gets me to click the “play” button, it has me ready to meet it halfway toward thinking it was pretty good.
Despite this, too many short horror movies lose me by the ending. Sometimes well before, despite the abbreviated run time.
I feel I must emphasize that I’m saying “too many.” Not most. I haven’t watched all short horror films there are in the world, so I wouldn’t be able to accurately make a statement about “most” of them even if I wanted to. I’m not even saying “many,” merely “too many,” which is, of course, subjective and relative. For instance, one punch connecting with my chin would be, from my perspective, one too many, whereas a dozen total punches landing in a twelve-round boxing match between two other people wouldn’t strike me as very many at all. Too few, in fact.
With that in mind, when I say “too many” horror shorts are afflicted with the problems I’ll be diving into, I’m saying that these problems are popping up in enough of these flicks to begin to drain my enthusiasm for short horror movies. Because instead of clicking play and solely being eager to enjoy what I’m about to watch, there’s a small part of me preoccupied with anticipating the pitfalls I’ve seen time and time and time again.
Let’s begin with probably the most fundamental element of storytelling, having a story to tell.
All Premise, No Story
“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”
So goes the infamous “shortest horror story ever written,” Frederic Brown’s “Knock”. Except that’s not really the entirety of Brown’s story, just the most famous lines, which happen to bookend the tale. Many people do consider those two sentences a complete flash-fiction story on their own though, and while I’ve never been sold on it completely, I won’t go so far as to disagree. It has a protagonist (last person on Earth, survivor in the post-apocalypse, likely resourceful, probably very lonely), it has a setting (the room which has a closed door and is likely the man’s sanctuary, at least in the moment), it hints at a background (whatever reduced the global population to one), and at least suggests a potential conflict, drama, or development courtesy of the knock on the door (coming from, presumably, an unexpected fellow survivor, or the thing responsible for killing every other person). It does probably leave many readers wondering, “And then what?”, but that’s a question that could be asked of virtually any modern story of any length ever told, regardless of how satisfying and complete its ending may be. That’s why some old fairy tales used to end with, “And they lived happily ever after,” to try to kill off that question.
It’s possible, then–though difficult–to tell an ultra-succinct story that’s barely more than a premise and leaves your audience wondering, “And then what?” But if you tell an ultra-succinct story that’s barely more than a premise and leaves your audience thinking, “Why, and how, and what, and where and who?”, there’s a chance you didn’t actually tell a story. You shared a formative premise. You’ve filmed a the beginnings of an idea.
Here’s a small test: ask yourself if your short film would pass for a satisfactory story if told to a bunch of elementary school kids around a campfire? Or would it, instead, come off like so: “There was a woman who lived in a house. And then one day, she saw a ghost. But when she looked away, the ghost wasn’t there. But when she looked again, the ghost was there again! But closer! But when she looked away, the ghost was gone again. But when she looked back, it was right in her face! And then I think she died! The end.”
In short horror films, this is often the tale that gets spun. 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. Often this unknown person has all of this happen to them suddenly in their home, which shows no signs of a recent move or anything else that would hint at the cause of a spirit or demon or what have you just randomly appearing in the house. Instead, the way it’s presented in the film, it just looks like this person’s been living here years with no problems, and then out of nowhere, “Oh shit, there’s something scary in the kitchen!”
I’ve stated elsewhere on this site that I’m a fan of ambiguity in horror fiction, but there’s a significant difference between a story that leaves some things unexplained, and a “story” that feels like the unfinished notes that should precede a first draft.
Granted, this is a challenge intrinsic to the short film format. Even the most anemically plotted feature-length film is all but forced to tell an actual story due to its length, even if it does so poorly. Short literature, meanwhile, can more easily bypass the “show, don’t tell” rule (which isn’t really a rule) of fiction. See the above story, “Knock.” Try to picture a film trying to match its brevity without resorting to narration.
Now, I’m not fond of bashing someone else’s work, particularly the work of aspiring artists who are behind most short films. So instead of singling out and sharing what I think is an example of bad storytelling in short film horror, I’m going to share what I think is an example of good, complete storytelling, The Maiden.
Again, in case someone’s mostly skimming through this and might have missed it in the preceding paragraph, the short film below is an example of good horror storytelling in a short film.
It’s not perfect, but it is a complete story, despite the questions deliberately left unanswered. There are some ultra-short horror films that would have cut off at the 45-second mark because they only exist to show off the cool effect that the director just found out he can pull off. Here, it is properly prologue. Because it tells a full story, it has room for more than one scare, and thus isn’t simply an impatient exercise in trying to execute one big payoff. It even has room for humor and actual character motivation, the latter of which I’ll be spending more time on in a future post.