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Movie Review: 2008 Spooky Movie Film Festival: Shorts Review

The below reviews are just a sampling of the short films that played at the 3rd annual Spooky Movie Film Festival in Washington, D.C. that ran Oct. 16-20. Festival director Curtis Prather sent me a screener DVD with these films on it.

What’s nice is that Prather sent me a pretty diverse, international selection of “horror” shorts. I put horror in quotes there because there’s really only one film I could classify as a straight-up horror movie, and even that one’s a little spoof-y. The rest are a mix of thriller-ish films, dramas with horrific elements and non-categorical pieces with scenes of extreme blood and gore. I liked seeing so many filmmakers out there pushing the definition of what horror can be since mainstream horror movies have, for the most part, become pretty pedestrian.

The order of the below reviews are just the order Prather put them on the DVD:

Shut-Eye Hotel, dir. Bill Plympton. Although he’s been as prolific as ever, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of Plympton’s shorts. On the one hand, Shut-Eye Hotel is classic Plympton with a visually absurdist sight gag as the centerpiece of the film, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything else of his that was such a clear genre film like this one. This is a classic old noir mystery with a Plymptonian twist in the reveal of who’s killing the guests staying in the top floor room of the titular hotel. That reveal is a typically outrageous concoction by the filmmaker, but rather than playing up the humor of the situation, Plympton plays it all deadpan straight, so that the film is quite spooky and unsettling.

Night of the Hell Hamsters, dir. Paul Campion. Two teenagers playing with an improvised Ouja board accidentally summon a demon that possesses two innocent little hamsters. While that may sound like the set-up for a horror spoof, like with Shut-Eye Hotel, Campion plays the horror more or less straight. When the possession occurs, the film does go directly for the “hamster up the pant leg” gag, but even that is played for terror and gore, not for laughs. Of course, there’s an inherent goofiness to tiny fuzzballs with protruding fangs and devil-red glowing eyes. But when the teen girl seeks revenge against the beasts that castrated her boyfriend, it’s as tense as Heather Langenkamp setting booby traps for Freddy Krueger or Jamie Lee Curtis defending herself from the onslaught of Michael Myers. (Watch this underground movie online)

The Sleuth Incident, dir. Jason Kupfer. The bucolic images of a teddy bear gleefly gliding around a peaceful suburban neighborhood give way to terror when said bear goes on a bloody stuffed animal liberation rampage. There’s also a vague Jesus reference when the newly freed toys are arranged in a recreation of the Last Supper at an Italian restaurant. The opening images of the film are so dreamy and last for so long, I was expecting the film to end before the bear — perhaps in a rebellion against suburban boredom — starts ripping people to shreds. It’s almost close to being two different films, yet the sum turns out to be greater than it’s parts, which is saying something because those parts are wonderfully languidly shot and paced. (Watch online)

Walker Stalker, dir Keith Claxton. This is a great premise for a modern thriller. A serial killer videotapes his victims on his cell phone then transmits the video to the victim’s phone before torturing and slashing them to pieces in a dank alleyway. The entire thing is played out dialogue free except for taunting text messages that briefly flash on-screen. Claxton keeps the pace moving furiously along and only stumbles at having a completely unresolved ending. I felt a bit let down that an attempt to turn the tables on the murderer fizzles out. Claxton was probably trying to end on a more clever note than to arrange a definitive close, but it didn’t quite work as well as a hard ending would.

FOET, dir. Ian Fischer. It’s pronounced “feet” and it means “fetal skin.” Fischer presents a sly commentary on the world of high fashion when he tells the story of the latest big-city trend: Handbags made out of the flesh of fetuses. Although initially horrified at the prospect of carrying around such a bag, a fashion-conscious woman can’t resist owning one when her best friend and all the pretty people have one. FOET isn’t gross in that we don’t see the making of the bags, except in a dream sequence done with baby dolls, but just the mere thought of such an item existing in the world is completely unsettling. But Fischer’s biggest accomplishment is in making this entire scenario plausable and his characters’ justifications for owning them convincing and believable. Outrageous? Yes. Completely inconceivable? No.

Snip, dir. Julien Zenier. Bored with surfing sleazy European cable TV, a hairless man — and I mean completely hairless — decides it’d be much more interesting to remove the flesh from his own body. He hacks away at his arm, his face, his bald head, his torso and his legs until his bloody muscles are exposed. In other words, this was a completely revolting movie to watch. What really sells the action, though, is the actor’s realistic expressions while carving himself up. Nice job by whoever this dude is. I also really liked the film’s grimy cinematography, but after a point I couldn’t take it anymore and had to turn away, which isn’t a negative criticism because I assume that was Zenier’s intention. It could have all come off hokey and stupid, but it’s grittily executed in a successful fashion instead. (Watch this underground movie online)

Excision, dir. Richard Bates Jr. This was, by far, my favorite film of the bunch, but I’ve always had a soft spot for teen girl angst since seeing Sixteen Candles. Bates’ film however is John Hughes by way of Herschell Gordon Lewis. A female high school senior is obsessed with becoming a surgeon, so she practices on dead birds she finds lying in the gutter. She’s also a total outcast who doesn’t get along with anybody: Not her parents, nor the girl who lives across the street. The only person she seems happy with is her younger sister, who suffers from some sort of deadly lung ailment. With that kind of set-up, you can kind of see where the story’s going. But it’s one hell of a fun ride. Tessa Ferrer is phenomenal in the lead role of the sad and emotionally damaged Pauline and Bates milks the teen angst for everything that it’s worth. Combine that with a pitch-perfect tone in the combination of serious drama and dry black humor and Excision is wonderfully creepy addition to the teen film genre. (Watch this underground movie online)

Vanished Acres, dir. Adam Bolt. A lonely old farmer only has a scarecrow to keep him company, but their friendship is severely challenged when jealousy and a dark betrayal grows as high and deep as a cornfield. Exquisitely shot, the film moves at a slow pace and is a bit emotionally distant, which matches the interior state of the main character. The actual scarecrow is a really eerie piece of work. Basically immobile because it’s nailed to a cross — though the film happily doesn’t go for any religious angles with that — it speaks with a menacing mellifluousness (voice of Matthew Solari); and just a subtle turning of the head is enough to raise the hair on the back of one’s neck.