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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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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