Wednesday 29 May 2019

Final Frames

The Fourth Annual Final Frame Horror Short Film Competition – StokerCon, Grand Rapids MI, 2019

Knock Knock.
If I've been quiet this last month, it's because I've been fortunate enough to go to StokerCon 2019. As I expected, I did not win the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Nonfiction, that was Johnson and Mynhardt's It's Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares to Life, which I knew was going to win the moment I saw it on the preliminary ballot. This is OK. I got to meet Eugene Johnson and shake his hand, and the morning after a gentleman called Scott Edelman gave me a Bram Stoker Runner Up loyalty card, which makes me giggle like an idiot every time I see it. Getting a nomination for a self-published collection of blog posts that doesn't pretend any authority is massive anyway. I'm properly chuffed.

I could write at length about StokerCon and the basic warmth of the event, the very real family feel it had, but it would be self-congratulatory. Suffice to say that it was a good time, and I made a number of connections I hope to keep alive going forward.

In the meantime though, the one part of StokerCon I do want to talk about is the film contest. Because I would, obviously.
The Final Frame Film Competition was curated by Jonathan Lees and judged by Antony d’Intino, Lynne Hansen, Jonathan Maberry, Josh Malerman, Lisa Morton and John Skipp. It was held on the second night of StokerCon; it comprised twelve films, mostly from America and Europe, with a maximum length of 13 minutes.

I was (pleasantly) surprised that the largest number of films came from the UK; only three came from the US, and the rest came from a variety of other nations: Sweden, Norway, Spain, Israel and Andorra.

I was going into these sight unseen, but the great thing about a short film programme, especially a horror one, is that you don't have to sit through more than a few minutes of anything, and in fact only four of the films went past the ten minute mark; the release that a quick horror short gives means that it's almost like you reset when the next film starts. Having said that, for me, and for very personal reasons, a big chunk of the programme was pretty hard work.

Now, everyone has a thing that icks them out more than other things in horror; for example, one close friend can watch the bloodiest slasher and gore movies, but can't handle Cronenberg-esque body horror. You may know that Cronenberg's brand of transformation is a thing I'm kind of down with. But on the other hand, the thing I generally cannot cope with is is bad things happening to children, and to a lesser extent children in peril. And no less than seven of the twelve films – and shown all in a row – show children under the age of about 13 being abused, killed or otherwise traumatised. It was hard going.

The films then were always going to be a mixed bag, although that mixture wasn't so much in quality, which was high across the board. Several of the films were things that could only work in the short form, either because of the way they were filmed and structured, which was in some cases idiosyncratic and served to make the viewer consciously try to unravel the film before the deadline of a swift ending, or because they had exactly enough story to fill, for example, six, nine, or thirteen minutes.

British director Paul Holbrook's Cherry had one of those formal conceits, with the largest part of the film being a close up on a woman's mouth (writer Jaleelah Galbraith's) that zoomed out so gradually that to begin with I wasn't entirely sure that was what was happening or if I was imagining it. She's explaining a sexual experience, and this is here being shown as a horror film, so of course her account of sexual transgression and carnal bliss takes a grim turn. It is pretty linear and predictable. The main question of the piece is what the gradual widening of focus will reveal. With much more complex lighting, camerawork and postwork that you might initially think, the film second guesses the audience and attempts to thwart expectations that you didn't even know you had. Whether that attempt works is very much a "Your mileage may vary" thing.

Director/writer/star Emily Haigh's Beautified uses a very small setting with brief but telling detail to sketch out an entire dystopia in synecdoche and make a brutal point about the commodification of women's bodies. It's possibly the angriest of the films in the programme, and one of the more meaningful, and of course it is, since every dystopia is a comment on the present.
A.V. Club.
Nicholas Markart's A. V. Club also tends to the sci-fi, although again the fantastical elements are about the toxicity of a certain sort of nerd (the sort who has much more power than he thinks he has), and uses the setup of a group of teenagers making a video film to tell a simple but grimly amusing what-if story that achieves more depth than it might mainly due to the standout performance of Aliya Kraar as the one girl in the group, and the epicentre of the film's real conflict, as she stands up against stakes that rise with dizzying speed, with the courage that young women have to show daily.

Standby, by Britons Ethan Evans and Sean Toshach, was for me one of the most frightening of the films, both surreal and terribly unsettling, as a little boy suffering from (only hinted) neglect watching TV finds the things that he should find comfort in and trust the most betraying him with existentially terrifying consequences. Utterly nightmarish.

In Knock Knock, too, Kennikki Jones explores child abuse with the tale of a woman who hears children being abused through a wall. It uses the structure of a short horror film to tell an abuse story with more nuance and compassion than I might actually, now I reflect on it, have ever seen in a film like this, and approaches the psychology of the abuser in a novel and powerfully humane way. This was the one film I had to turn away from at times, but that is to its credit, I think. Of all of the films, this was not by any means the one I enjoyed the most, but it was, I felt, the best, and I wasn't alone in that, as the collective intake of breath from the StokerCon audience that accompanied the film's ending demonstrated. While jetlag caused me to miss the competition results, it came as no surprise whatsoever to me that Knock Knock had won the competition, and that it was the film people were still talking about the following day.

Spanish director Tony Morales' Black Eyed Child used its haunting as a way to look at terminal illness, with a dying woman hounded through her home by a demonic apparition. This one felt to me more like a proof of concept piece than a story in its own right, and although its imagery was powerfully imagined and internally consistent, I didn't feel it landed its ending as powerfully as some of the others.
In Emma Skoog's folksy and comedic Frestelsen (Mother Rabbit), which achieved third place, we explore a young woman's traumatic childhood – she believes that her mother was a creature with the head of a mutilated rabbit, a sort of Anyhow Stories conceit – and the film is by turns surreal, bloody and just plain gross. It approaches the way developmental trauma bleeds into adult life in a really novel way – but then I'm a sucker for a well-done mental illness metaphor. It's really very funny, and the absurd black comedy of the piece makes it easier to get the blood and rotting meat and matted hair and delusionary psychosis past you. I couldn't help thinking of that Ramsey Campbell story about the village where everyone turns into rabbit monsters, with the reminder that rabbits aren't necessarily always cute so much as a bit gross and diseased. It was all a bit Hartley Hare. With more decay.

I never knew that "seeing a film from Andorra" was on my bucket list, but World War II ghost story Le Blizzard, which in terms of scope and production values, was the most ambitious film of the night, ticked off that particular element of my critical history. A mother, separated from her daughter in a snowy landscape, attempts to find her child and escape the Nazis. Le Blizzard had no unnecessary baggage, eschewing explanation for representation. While its twist is more or less the exact twist of a fairly well known horror movie of the last decade, it's not exactly fair to rag on a horror film for being derivative, you know? There's only one film that did that twist before rather than, you know, dozens, and Le Blizzard uses it to express a special sort of nightmare.
The shortest film of the evening, running to only two minutes, was Rob Savage's Salt, which had also played the London Film Festival to some praise, and in which a mother (British horror and comedy regular Alice Lowe) attempts to protect her sick child from a demonic presence with nothing but ingenuity and a container full of table salt. In 120 seconds flat, we get the establishment of conflict, genuine fear, action and humour, and real suspense. It took second place in the competition, which I think is justified.

Creaker, Norwegian director Vidar T. Aune's film, was almost as short, and just as focussed on story. I'll be honest, this story of a young girl spooked out of her wits in her bedroom, distressed me a great deal, and not really in the good way, being more sadistic than horrific in the way that it (to be fair, effectively) sketched out its consequences. I felt it tipped over the line between disturbing and crass, and it was probably the one film of the evening I really didn't like.

The Rat, by US creator Carlen May-Mann, was a longer, quieter piece, and while I feel that the top three were good picks in terms of basic quality of filmmaking, this was my personal favourite. It used lovely, simple imagery and the tropes of haunting and visual transformation to tell a tale of teenage disillusionment. The story wasn't exactly anything new – a teenage girl, in love, goes with her boyfriend to a deserted house for a Hallowe'en tryst, it doesn't go well – but I've always held to the principle that it's not what you say, it's the way that you say it, and The Rat told its story with a lovely eloquence, and it portrayed the loss of innocence and the betrayal of trust with powerful (if, OK, obvious) symbols. Although Knock Knock had the most immediate punch, and the most innovation, it's The Rat that stayed with me now that StokerCon is over.
The Rat.
Finally, we had Israeli director Oren Rehany's Yes, a brief film where a woman in surgical scrubs has a man tied up, and does stuff to him, and that's basically it. The simple title is a clue to the whys and wherefores; one single line is all you need to get the whole backstory, and indeed is all you get. It's about consent, obviously, that's in the title, and I am not entirely sure if it gets its point across as well as it thinks it does, and I don't know if it would be quite as effective on a second viewing (an assessment you could equally attach to Cherry).

I've been quite critical, but all of these shorts were highly accomplished pieces. When you put them together like this, you get to see where horror is going in a sense. Short films are proofs of concept, and necessarily having a much smaller and much less complex production lead-in than features. They both then respond quickly to the strands in horror that are capturing filmmakers' imaginations and give a sort of indicator as to what we're going to see a couple of years down the line. Does the prevalence of films where horrible things happen to kids then suggest that this is going to be a Thing in the near future? I think, given the evidence here, that horror centred around families and children – in an age where the current American political scene in particular has so thoroughly made issues of children, pregnancy and parenthood in ways that seem utterly horrific over here – which has always been a thing to some extent, may well be something we're going to see more of. Films like Ari Aster's Hereditary and Jordan Peele's Us have made a splash in the last year or so, and something tells me that this is where horror is going. And I'm scared of that. But perhaps I should be.