Simple Mistakes Afflicting Too Many Short Horror Films: All Premise, No Story

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 in the next three posts, 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 usually 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 can’t wait to show off. Here it is merely, 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 the next post.

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About That Crimson Peak Trailer…

Over on the BNC, I wrote about the trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (if you haven’t seen it, you can watch it at the bottom of this post). Having rewatched it now, I feel like there a few more things I want to mention.

This cast is interesting. It occurs to me that I’ve only seen Hiddleston as Loki and in Midnight in Paris. So while my initial reaction is to say he’ll be great, I don’t have a very large body of work to personally base that opinion on. Jessica Chastain is a force. First thing I saw her in must have been Take Shelter, and she’s been good to excellent in everything since. Charlie Hunnam has a presence to him. I’m not going to hold the last few seasons of Sons of Anarchy against him, any more than I’m going to hold Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland against Mia Wasikowska. I don’t know how big of a role Jim Beaver will have in this–in a way he feels like the odd man out–but he might be my favorite actor in the cast. All in all, if the film doesn’t live up to its potential, it doesn’t appear that performances will be to blame.

Speaking of Tim Burton, I think his Dark Shadows might have been the last big budget, major studio release to take on the Gothic horror genre. That was a parody of the genre though, and between now and October, the recently released (and critically well-received) What We Do in the Shadows, which also has some fun at the expense of Gothic fiction elements, should reach a wider audience. I can’t remember the last time a notable, serious and unabashed take on Gothic Horror hit the big screen. The recent remake to The Woman in Black comes close, but doesn’t fully commit. Crimson Peak looks more reminiscent of films such as Black Sunday and House of Usher, both of which came out over fifty years ago. It’s hard to predict how audiences will receive Crimson Peak based on this. I’m hoping that people will appreciate it for something different from what they’ve grown accustomed to in horror movies.

And hey, speaking of October, am I wrong in thinking that this trailer seems to have a very early official release for a horror film? Last year at this time, Annabelle was still filming, and still received an October release. Its first teaser didn’t come out until July. Granted, that was a very different film, far less ambitious, but nonetheless highly anticipated. Two years back, The Conjuring had its first trailer officially drop in February as well, but that was in advance of a June release. We’re over half a year away from Crimson Peak coming to a theater near you. I actually find this promising. Somebody at the studio has faith in this picture; they’re giving it the blockbuster marketing treatment, at least in terms of building anticipation well in advance.

Overall, the Crimson Peak trailer has me eager to see it, but I’m even more excited by the talent surrounding the film, and the potential it has to be something unique in today’s film and horror fiction landscape. More often than not, studios use October as a dumping ground for quick-buck horror flicks–some of which are still good, but most of which are crafted specifically to capitalize on the Halloween season. This time it looks like we’re getting a picture that has every intention of being truly magnificent. 

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Good and Terrible: 8 Movies Featuring Exorcisms

In a blatant, shameless attempt to garner more hits, I’m  making a topical post referencing the recently released film The Last Exorcism. And so I present to you an entirely subjective list of 4 good (and 4 terrible) movies featuring exorcisms.

Exorcisms would seem to be a pretty popular topic in the horror genre, and yet it’s not explored  as frequently as other common horror tropes such as vampires, haunted houses or zombies. I think it’s a bit harder to make demonic possession fun or sexy–too many people take it quite seriously. I’ve never met anyone who believes in the walking dead, but I have met a couple of ardently religious folk who swear they know someone who was possessed and think any fictional “entertainment” employing the subject is appalling. The good news is that this means demons are still a long way off from becoming de-fanged and romanticized. You won’t be seeing “Team Pazuzu” t-shirts in Walmart anytime soon, I’d wager.

On to the lists…

I could easily overpopulate the entire “Terrible” list with Exorcist knock-offs from the 70’s and no-budget DTV flicks, but what’s the fun in that? At the same time, it would be remiss of me to completely ignore these movies, so we’ll kick off the list with…

4. Beyond the Door


A common complaint leveled at Hollywood in the 21st Century is that they’re constantly producing inferior remakes of great foreign flicks–often horror movies. But there was a time when foreign directors were the primary purveyors of hot, steamy cash-in remake action. And they often didn’t even bother with little details like “rights” and “permission” when making pseudo-sequels and Asylum studio style knock-offs. Beyond the Door was the movie that got sued by the creators of The Exorcist for jacking such signature signs of demonic possession as projectile vomiting and head-spinning. It’s about as bad as you’d expect it to be, but it’s also a 70’s Italian horror flick, so at least it has ridiculous audacity going for it.

3. Exorcist II


Warner Bros. did not decide to sue themselves for screwing up their own film property after releasing a sequel to The Exorcist in 1977. It would have been stupid, bizarre and self-defeating… kind of like the plot to Exorcist II: The Heretic. For this sequel the filmmakers decided that what a movie about demonic possession needs to spice it up are subplots about ESP, pseudo-science, collective consciousness and psychically telling swarms of locusts to stop devouring crops. The film’s aspirations are somewhere between laudable and laughable. It has some moments of visual flair but the story makes zero sense. Anti-sense, even. I’m tempted to go so far as to say the plot of this movie is a hate crime against sense itself.

2. Stigmata

Nobody likes a preachy ass movie, but a preachy movie preaching against someone else’s preachings disguised as a horror flick… that’s the kind of movie that especially deserved to be punched right in the credits. Stigmata, released in 1999, is ostensibly a religious thriller but reveals itself to be one of those movies with a “message.” A message borrowed from an apocryphal scripture, the Gospel of Thomas. The basic gist is that you don’t need to go to church to get closer to God. I’m not here to disparage any such argument or speak on defense of any churches, but I am going to say that if you’re going to make a “serious” movie about how the Catholic church might be a less-than-holy organization with a sordid past that is more than willing to allow innocent people to be harmed or even killed if it serves their own agenda… make and market that movie. Don’t give me a “horror” flick that is actually a plodding bit of unconvincing propaganda interspersed with moments of supernatural hi-jinks to keep audiences awake.

1. The Unborn

“Do you think it’s possible to be haunted by someone whose never even been born?” In the deceptively promising trailer for The Unborn, that one bit of quoted dialogue told me that despite a reasonably impressive supporting cast (Goldman, Idris Elba), an okay premise and an ostensibly good screenwriter in the director’s chair, this movie would ultimately drown in its own stupidity. Why would you offer a qualifying addendum to a situation most people would already believe is impossible? No, I don’t believe you can be haunted by someone. Whether or not they were born is pretty much irrelevant. You might as well ask if you think it’s possible to move objects with your mind even if you have a mild headache, or if it’s possible to run faster than the speed of sound even if your shoelaces are untied.

Sure enough the movie is up to its crown in stupidity, but at least the climax provides a decent set up for a joke: So a priest and a rabbi are trying to perform an exorcism…

Honorable Mention: Repossessed – the current crop of spoof movies are flat out horrible, but at least they’re not 17 years late in satirizing their primary target.

4. Beetlejuice

Ya know, it’s a bit difficult finding really good movies that prominently feature exorcisms. Beetlejuice on the surface is a bit of a stretch. So the titular ghost claims to be a “bio-exorcist” who gets rid of the living. Does that really qualify?

Yes. Yes it does. But even if it didn’t, there is also the film’s climax where the new homeowners are essentially exorcising the ghosts played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis not only out of the house, but clean out of existence. What’s interesting about this is that both forms of “exorcism” are played for screwball laughs but, if it had been given the “serious horror” treatment, they would be absolutely horrifying. A specter who makes it his business to remove living people from the premises by any means necessary (imagine if a flick like The Others had introduced that angle)? An exorcism that completely destroys the soul? Within the context of a grimmer film this could be a source of abject terror.

But it’s Beetlejuice, so instead we got Michael Keaton dancing toward some sort of brothel full of female ghouls.

3. [REC]

Hmmm… ummm… spoiler alert?

At the end of [REC] comes the revelation that the catalyst for all of the mayhem that has transpired is the apparently botched exorcism of a “possessed” little girl by a Vatican official . In a relatively clever twist on the subject matter, the “demonic possession” is actually the result of a virus which has spread to everyone else in the apartment building and turned them into ravenous “zombies.” The sequel (seriously people, there are spoilers about) shows that the “virus” is some sort of demonic, sentient organism and while the execution is a bit clumsy, the idea is intriguing. A second sequel and prequel promise to expand on the idea and more than likely ruin the hell out of it with some half-assed explanation of what’s going on shrouded by pseudo-scientific / pseudo-theological technobabble.

2. The Exorcist

I’ll readily admit, I’m probably getting cute here by not putting this at number one. Then again, I’m not really assigning much value to these “rankings” anyway. Besides, if I made The Exorcist the number one flick featuring exorcisms what could I write about it that hasn’t already been covered more than The Beatles? The Exorcist is the grandaddy of ’em all, the Rose Bowl of supernatural horror flicks. So what other movie could I possibly have listed ahead of it?

1. Requiem

“Oh for the love of… really Compton? Really? You’re putting some foreign mocku-drama 99% of the people reading this haven’t heard of at the top of your list? You are such a hipster, elitist d-bag.”

Woah, woah, hipster? I just made a college football reference and quoted Keith Jackson a couple of paragraphs ago. Pretty sure that absolves me of any hipster accusations at least through the rest of the year.

Requiem is based on the same true events that inspired The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Whereas Emily Rose played up the supernatural bits to make it ambiguous as to whether or not the possession was real, Requiem emphasizes the mental illness that the actual victim was suffering from. As the most–nay, only–realistic film on this list it provides the most unique approach to the topic, and its exorcism scenes manage to be unsettling without special effects. The possibility of a foreign, nigh-invulnerable force of super-nature taking over your body and mind is indeed disturbing, but in my view, not quite as scary as the reality that your mind can up and betray you to obsession and insanity.

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