A Look At: Horror Short Films
I write short fiction.
So it makes sense that I have a particular fondness for short horror films. As with short fiction, these films take minutes (usually under twenty) to tell their stories, and if they’re good, they make an impact.
Sometime around the start of middle school, I discovered The Twilight Zone, and I was instantly hooked, my life forever changed. Rod Serling, the show’s iconic host, creator and chief writer, introduced me to that strange land between light and shadow, a place of both things and ideas. A place where nothing was ever as it seemed. From that first moment, I knew I wanted to write, and what I wanted to write were these kinds of stories.
These days, anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits are no longer produced, and haven’t been in decades. The format itself is a survivor, though. Those classic television shows live on in syndication. Short horror fiction lives on as well, despite numerous articles and posts over the decades declaring the format dead.
The format is not dead. Horror authors cut their teeth writing short stories, and most continue to write them even after becoming established novelists.
Film-makers follow a similar path. Short films are easier to finance and produce, so it makes sense that directors start with them. Some return to the format (Creepshow, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Tales from The Darkside, etc) and it’s easy to see why:
They love the format, too!
Short films offer an opportunity for the film-maker to tell a story with a single set, few characters, often with little or no dialogue. Instead of unpacking a complex story over two hours, the short film can be told in a single scene. Expensive special effects can be set aside in favor of a single drop of blood. In my opinion, the director who can scare you on a shoestring budget knows how to scare you best. They know that relying solely on special effects or other film-making trickery is a fool’s errand. They know that most audiences will see right through that stuff, revealing the usually poor script and bad director behind the camera. Not that lavish, complicated special effects can’t be used well, (John Carpenter’s The Thing comes to mind) but if that’s all a director has in their toolkit, it’s usually a sign of a bad film.
With these things in mind, what follows are some of my favorite short films I’ve seen recently. These little movies use their slight budgets to great effect, making an impact with an economy of resources. I’ve selected them because they’ve gotten under my skin in some way. Some are scary. Some feature a clever twist. Some tell a great little story. Others I chose because they were simply odd enough to stay on my mind.
All of them, in my opinion, are made by talented folks who demonstrate the best attributes described in the paragraphs above.
First up is Cargo – a gem of a zombie tale about a bitten, soon-to-be undead father and his clever, desperate plan to save his infant daughter.
I like dark subject matter that isn’t afraid to plumb the emotional depths of the characters in an honest way. Anybody could make a film with characters that blubber and weep, but that always comes off as hokey and inauthentic, in my view. In this story, we feel the dad’s terror – his anguish – as he hatches his plan to save his child, and the sheer hell of it is that he’ll never really know if his plan is successful! But the film-makers don’t try for any emotional “cheap shots” here. This is honesty in character development and storytelling – remarkable for such a short film.
Next up is Lights Out. You’ve no doubt heard about the feature version produced by James Wan, and I hope it’s at least as good as this little fright fest! Simple techniques used to build tension and deliver the scary goods are on full display here. Check it out – with the lights ON.
As with Lights Out, a talented film-maker spotted this short film and was instrumental in developing a feature version for the big screen. Guillermo del Toro, one of my favorite directors working today, produced Mama, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a horror classic. Wildly underappreciated, Mama delivers a better ghost story than anything with ‘paranormal’ in the title, out-conjures the first Conjuring by a long shot, and is far more ‘insidious’ than anything in that series.
The short film is equally genius in telling a complete, terrifying tale in a mere two minutes! “Mama” herself is brought to twisted, nightmare-inducing life with some truly remarkable special effects techniques!
The Smiling Man is creepy as hell. A child in danger, little baggies of doll parts tied to balloons – this one has classic horror elements on full display, and the best part? Well – you’ll just have to watch! I was impressed by the way this film used those elements in the set-up, and didn’t squander them in the final reveal. The Smiling Man gets under your skin – and takes up residence there for a long time.
The Killer Inside is a fun little horror film from indie director David Karner. I thought it was clever, and left me wanting to see more from this film-maker. Whatever you do – stick around to the end – it’s a good one! And don’t take stuff without asking.
One Last Dive is our last “dive” into this subject – for this particular post anyway.
This film is only a minute long, but it’s very effective – and a lot of fun to boot! Plus, deep water scares the shit out of me. Whether that fear was created by JAWS or simply revealed by that film is anybody’s guess.
I hope you enjoyed this look at the short horror film. The films I talked about here are just a tiny sampling of what’s out there. If you’ve seen a good one – or several – share the titles with us in the comments section! I’m always up for a good movie, and with my crazy schedule these days, these snack-size bites of horror really hit the spot!