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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I’m Just Gonna Leave This Here

When discussing horror stories, very few things (if any) irk me more than people being so scared of (or having such disdain for) the dreaded “h-word” that they try to re-categorize a successful horror story. The wild financial success of It has put it in the crosshairs of horror-haters who apparently want to christen it a thriller or even a drama so as not to give credit to any movie associated with that dann h-word. Brian Collins at Birth.Movies.Death rails against this as well as I ever could, so I’m gonna go ahead and leave a link to his article here. Suffice to say, I couldn’t agree more with everything he has to say.

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The Best of IMDb’s Beloved Foreign Posters for Horror Movies

Recently, IMDb shared their favorite foreign posters for horror movies. Even people with a casual interest in movie posters are probably aware that the foreign version of a movie poster are, if nothing else, often weirder and more curious than what we end up with stateside. I wouldn’t say that the Hungarian poster for Star Wars is better than the classic original, for instance, but it’s certainly memorable in its own very different way.

While IMDb’s list is fun and interesting, I’m pretty sure that the number of posters selected is entirely arbitrary. There are plenty of great choices here, but the list could probably stand some trimming. Some of the posters are almost identical to the original Hollywood poster, with the biggest difference being the language for the title, tagline and credits. Some are pretty good, but just didn’t stand out to me, or just didn’t strike me as terribly effective horror movie posters. And while the syntactically ambiguous “Foreign Horror Movie Posters We Love” title leaves the IMDb list open to include posters for foreign-horror movies, I think it’s more interesting (or at least consistent) to just look at the foreign-version of posters for “non-foreign” (aka, U.S. and English) horror flicks.

As a poster / cover-art dilettante and unknown horror author who very infrequently blogs about the subject of horror, I’m surely the ideal person to undertake the aforementioned trimming. Below you will find one man’s subjective list of what’s best from an already subjective larger list of what’s best. 1

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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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My Favorite Horror Movie Trailers: GHOST STORY

The film adaptation of Peter Straub’s novel is unsurprisingly simplified in comparison to its source material. While it has its moments, including a fairly well executed and suitably gruesome climactic reveal, and Alice Krige is pretty magnificent in it, it also has more than its share of corny scenes doomed by bad shot selection, or oversold acting, or questionable (even unnecessary) dialogue. There’s an opening scene featuring a man plummeting to his death that’s laughable even by 1981’s “We’re still sketchy on how best to execute believable falling scenes” standards. A later scene of someone falling off a bridge ends with the same clumsy impact seen when a character takes a dive in Les Miserables thirty-one years later. Apparently, in this one very, very specific area, we haven’t collectively learned much in the past three decades.

All of that out of the way, I’ve nonetheless always liked the trailer for Ghost Story. From the opening micro-monologue (which is one of the few elements that is even more effective in the movie than it is in the trailer), to every glimpse and hint it gives us of something horrific waiting to be seen, to the effectively mysterious tagline, it does a good job of selling the film.

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My Favorite Horror Movie Trailers: BODY PARTS

I’m a sucker for a certain level of audaciousness, and the premise of Body Parts has audacity in spades. It belongs to the “possessed limbs” sub-sub-genre of horror. While “posessed arms/hands” are most memorably used to mine gruesome humor from a horror story, Body Parts, is entirely oblivious to its ludicrousness, as you can see in the trailer below.

The most famous “killer arm/hand” in horror cinema history probably belonged to Ash in Evil Dead II, and its presence was played for gruesome laughs. The most famous in movie history of any genre might belong to Dr. Strangelove, where it was also a comedic device. Body Parts said to Hell with that, and the result is captivating enough to almost be mistaken for effective.

Jeff Fahey, ever-watchable and as indefinably suspicious-looking as ever, puts in an overqualified performance as a man who gets into a violent car accident that causes him to lose an arm. Fortunately, he’s given an impossible arm transplant. Unfortunately, said arm was involuntarily donated by a serial killer, and despite the assurances of Fahey’s wife, Kim Delaney, that he has the killer’s arm, but “[not] his personality,” this innocent, ordinary man finds himself plagued with visions of the killer’s acts and becoming increasingly (and involuntarily) violent.

If you told someone with no knowledge of the movie and actors that this was a parody trailer released within the last few years, I think there’s a good chance that they would believe you, and find it perhaps the best example of its kind. There are some risible lines here that are delivered so well they get funnier on repeat viewings. When the surgeon tells Fahey something stunningly obvious (“That arm can’t do anything you don’t want it to.”), he replies, with uncannily believable indignation, “How do you know that?” There’s no overacting or mugging involved when he delivers that line. There is, instead, real emotion; recognizable frustration and concern. This guy really believes that this damned medical professional who performed miracle surgery on him is being too arrogantly dismissive of his impossible accusation.

As great as that moment is, the undisputed apex of the trailer comes later, at the 1:48 mark, with Fahey screaming “I want this arm off!” Again, it’s actually pretty well acted. He delivers the line with conviction; this guy really wants that surgeon to put him back under the knife to lop that arm off. And instead of responding with something along the lines of, “Okay, sir, it’s going to be all right, we’re going to get you some help,” while discreetly pushing an emergency call button to summon some burly orderlies, she says, “Don’t you realize what I and my team have accomplished with that arm?” As if annoyed that he doesn’t appreciate her work. Which is sort of understandable in a vacuum–you could imagine her muttering that to herself after the nurses and/or security has taken down Fahey–but it’s so far removed from a sensible response that it immediately identifies her as the villainous mad doctor in this story who will later drone on about how her macabre experiments are being done for the benefit of all mankind.

Beyond the trailer, the movie itself almost stumbles into an interesting, reverse-engineered-Frankenstein story. Instead of assorted dead parts being assembled to create one living, monstrous body, a living monster is disassembled and his live parts are scattered to be joined to several separate bodies. There’s also a psychological element at play: I imagine being given a serial killer’s hand would be a strange experience, as you’d literally have had a hand in several murders. The old silent film The Hands of Orlac explores this much more capably. With Body Parts, all of these potentially interesting ideas are forsaken so the movie can eventually turn into an early-90’s-thriller take on The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.

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Well…This FLATLINERS Remake Looks Unerwhelming

I’ve mentioned it on here a time or three, but I’m not automatically averse to remakes. While people speak as though it’s a relatively new blight upon the world of cinema, there is a long, rich tradition of remaking movies in and outside of Hollywood, dating back to at least the 1920’s. Years pass, new technologies come along, new potential audiences come along, you try to update something that came before and, hopefully, make it even better than it was the first time. That last part is usually where the problems come in–when you’re remaking something that was already great, you better have a fantastic take on the material in store, otherwise people are likely to consider your efforts a waste of time at best.

Fortunately for the folks behind the new version of Flatliners, the movie they’re remaking wasn’t great to begin with, but had a premise loaded with potential. Unfortunately for them, this first trailer makes their efforts look like an uninspired waste of time.

I’ve written here before about a work I’ve read that tackles the same idea, and takes it far out into unexpected territory (perhaps too far out). So there’s certainly potential for such a story to be truly memorable. The trailer for this remake looks like it’s more in the vein of forgettable mid-grade work like 2015’s The Lazarus Effect, however. We get some midday hallucinations, a hand-slamming-window jump scare, an unearned scare-sting to accompany the image of the word MURDERER floating at the bottom of a pool in the most standardized office font you can picture. We get Ellen Paige giving us a Blair-Witch-esque weepy recorded confession, and then later we see her getting dragged backwards into the darkness by an unseen force, reminiscent of [Rec]. And look, I know that criticizing a movie for showing us some stuff we’ve seen before elsewhere is a bit foolish–there are no purely original ideas in fiction, after all–but when you’re remaking a movie with this premise, the first impression you make shouldn’t convey that even your execution is bland.

That MURDERER bit really stands out to me for how flavorless it is. It’s the kind of thing that comes off as a misguided effort to be subtle. Take note, when you have a character hallucinate seeing a word–in giant letters–that directly accuses them of something they feel guilty about, you have forsaken all hope of subtlety. Might as well do a Smooth Criminal lean in the other direction and try to make those letters really pop, and make the moment worthy of the scare chord you’re falling back on to sell the moment.

Speaking of the music, I will say that I don’t mind the chanting backing this trailer starting at the 1:45 mark. It’s little too grandiose for what we get, and would be better used in service of a trailer for a giallo flick.

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My Favorite Horror Movie Trailers: PUMPKINHEAD

Special Effects guru Stan Winston poured his best efforts into horror flicks ranging from the obscure or ill-regarded (The Bat People, Darkness Falls), to the cherished and influential (The Thing), but he only directed one horror movie during his career. Pumpkinhead is a well-built, country-gothic chiller with a memorable, somewhat laughable title that still makes me wonder if the general dearth humor in the film is a missed opportunity. Granted, it’s hard to inject humor into a premise that is essentially “What if the father from that Pet Sematary book couldn’t resurrect his son and resorted to conjuring a vengeance demon instead?”

The original trailer for Pumpkinhead is near perfect. It establishes the stakes, gives you everything you need to know about the story without spoiling much at all, sets the appropriate tone for the grimness of the movie, and gives us teasing glimpses of the creature, and lets us know that it plans to play with where the audience’s sympathy should lie,  all in less than 90-seconds. Only at the very end, with the forced, unnatural echo of the old witch saying, “Now it begins” while the shot choppily zooms out does the trailer trip itself up. Although I have to imagine that some audiences in 1988 might have snickered at the reveal of the film’s title after all of the shadowy, muggy, serious hellishness that preceded it.

Interestingly, hearing it spoken aloud by the great Don LaFontaine in the inferior follow-up trailer imbues the name with a befitting balance of gallows amusement. It sounds like some old, absurd-yet-dangerous backwoods cryptid. Something that doesn’t sound so intimidating in the light of day, but if you’re walking alone late at night and sense a creature stalking you, you might think to yourself, “Damn it, I’m going to be so embarrassed if I get killed by something called Pumpkinhead.”

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The new “IT” Trailer isn’t half bad

The new full trailer for the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s It came out today, and it’s a reasonably solid trailer. Nothing exceptional or new, no surprises, but we get some glimpses of some solid set pieces and what could be some effective scares. The carousel slide projector scene is the rightful centerpiece of this trailer, and I like that the trailer (and possibly the scene in the film, that remains to be seen) ends without a full reveal of Pennywise’s face. It maybe should have cut off just a bit sooner, leaving it as more of a hint in the trailer, particularly if that’s also how the scene plays out (I doubt that, but it’s possible), but I’m nitpicking there.

There’s also a scene involving hands trying and failing to break through a door that ties directly to one of the more harrowing moments from the book that I don’t believe was in the TV mini-series adaptation of It (been a while since I’ve seen that series, so I could be mistaken).

Some people are fond of saying that it’s pretty easy to come up with a good trailer, even for a bad movie, but I disagree with this. Perhaps it should be easy, but I’ve seen enough trailers that are either pitiful or forgettable to disbelieve that churning out a solid trailer requires little thought or effort. This trailer has its shortcomings and is fairly predictable, and as horror trailers go, it’s nowhere near as horrifically, hideously memorable as the first trailer for Sinister, for example. And its conventional approach means it can’t get within sight of the legendary, bizarre trailers for The ExorcistThe Shining and Alien. But it’s a solid trailer, nonetheless, and gives me at least an ounce of hope for the film, which means it’s doing its job.

Update: And now that a few weeks have passed and I’ve had a Pennywise-related nightmare, I might have to reconsider how memorable this trailer is. Something triggered the dream, after all. So well done, trailer-makers, well done.

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‘Baskin’ May be as Close as We’ll Get to a Good Silent Hill Movie

While the pull-quotes in the trailer for the Turkish horror film Baskin compare it to Hellraiser, the actual content of the trailer is more reminiscent of the best of the Silent Hill games. It appears to be a story about location that is damnation incarnate, and the story kicks off due to a car accident involving someone suddenly appearing in the middle of the road. Check out the IFC Midnight trailer and the shorter, TIFF trailer below. Neither is graphic enough to enter red-band territory, but if you’re on the squeamish side of things, you may want to brace yourself.

Of course, comparing Baskin to either Silent Hill or Hellraiser simultaneously pays it a compliment and–at least potentially–does it a disservice. After all, who’s to say that this slice of cinematic Hell won’t edge the other two as a genre classic? Unlikely, of course, but it’s worth rooting for just the same.

The alternative is that the movie lands in Event Horizon territory: horrifically splendid visuals, but otherwise a missed opportunity. Based on the trailer, that also strikes me as unlikely. This looks inventive and brutal. I’ve seen a couple of blogs refer to this as an “extreme” horror film, at least based on initial impression, but I’m hoping this deserves a better description. Granted, it’s probably a product of my own bias, but when I think of “extreme” horror films, I think of unimaginative flicks that set out to be gore-fests, as opposed to clever, creative works that just so happen to be gory. Plenty of silly slasher flicks could qualify as “extreme” given the blood and guts on display, for instance, whereas the aforementioned Hellraiser is brutally, disturbingly graphic, but the gruesome images are in service of the film; they aren’t the point of the film.

Some reviews from the film’s showing at the Toronto Independent Film Festival are less than enthusiastic, and even one of the positive reviews that provided a pull-quote isn’t exactly effusive1 Still, I can’t help but keep this on my radar.

EDIT: By the by, these posters for the movie are terrific. The keyhole poster up top is the better of the two–and will likely be among the best movie posters I’ll see all year–but I appreciate the retro appearance of the one below.

 

Baskin-Movie-Poster-Can-Evrenol

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