There are many, many excellent horror short films. I’ve written about a number of them here, whether in the spirit of last year’s Fantastic Fest or to celebrate the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe. Fear, after all, is a most immediate sensation. A single well-timed cut can make us shriek, a bump in the night can set us on edge, and a creepy atmosphere can be built from little more than a few seconds of cinematic artistry. Miniature shorts like Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared and He Dies at the End are perfect examples of how to freak out an audience in a compact way.
There’s a wide world of tiny terrors out there, over a century of it. Here are seven of the cleverest, most creative films in a genre that thrives on innovation, just in time for Halloween.
Laura Panic, by Adam Wingard
Childhood is terrifying. Or, rather, distortions of our classical idea of childhood are terrifying. The list of horror films that take advantage of this is endless. Most obvious are the warped youngsters, the kids in The Orphanage and The Ring that scare us because they have been robbed of their innocence and become evil. Yet this can be reversed. In Laura Panic¸ a young woman holds on to her childlike naivety well after it’s healthy. She tells her story in voiceover, giving everything a decidedly creepy tone with a singsong that borders on baby talk. Then, we watch her enamored stalking of a guy who doesn’t really know she exists. All three of the films in Adam Wingard’s “Forgot My Meds” trilogy take advantage of this eerie border between mental instability and childlike wonder, and they’re all pretty unsettling.
The Sandman, by Paul Berry
Continuing this theme, here’s a short that places the audience in the position of a scared child. Instead of using the kid to create fear, The Sandman uses a young boy as a sympathetic protagonist. We become afraid of its titular monster through him, and take on a sense of anxiety that we all felt at his age. Paul Berry’s excellent stop-motion animation makes this particularly effective. When our jittery hero is sent to bed by his mother, the design matches his dread at the towering stairs and the gaping darkness in his room. The Sandman himself has a face to match the jagged moon, no shimmering source of comfort. We want to believe that this villain is a figment of our imagination, just another pesky bump in the night, but we may not be so lucky.
Lovely Monster, by Francesco Calabrese
Sophia is our last innocent in this string of embattled horror children. She is the focus of this documentary-style short, the lovely monster of its title. What exactly is it that makes her so monstrous? It is kept unclear, though we begin to suspect terrible things as we watch her friends and family tell us about her hidden horror. Her doctor even lets us see an X-ray of her torso, and there is clearly something there that shouldn’t be. Yet Sophia is a tragic figure, spoiled by this monstrosity in a way that makes her the object of sympathy rather than the villain. Of course, that doesn’t make the final shot any less freaky.
The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope, by Jan Švankmajer
To shift gears, here is a film that presents a very old kind of fear. This adaptation of two works, Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum and Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s A Torture by Hope, is absolutely medieval. It begins in the deepest belly of a monastery as a man is awaiting his death. He’s strapped down beneath a swinging axe, gradually being lowered on a pendulum by an enormous pulley system. We are given only the images we need to understand what is going on, no context and no human faces. As the short moves forward, Švankmajer fills the screen with torture implements that evoke Last Judgment paintings, unleashing the full terror of medieval Christianity. The film may not have a single uttered word, but the images will keep you up at night.
The Listening Dead, by Phil Mucci
Phil Mucci also builds his atmosphere of fright by re-creating an older time, but chooses to go back many decades instead of many centuries. The Listening Dead, black and white and silent, uses the humble yet effective movie magic of a bygone era to spook. The setting is a big, bleak mansion with two living inhabitants: a young couple that have fallen out of love. The wife, reaching a breaking point, runs upstairs and unwittingly curses her husband by drawing on his picture with thick white crayon. Echoing the style of turn-of-the-century movie magic, these white lines suddenly appear all over his face and hands, leaving him helpless. Of course, there happens to be a ghost in the house to help him out.
The Haunted Castle, by Georges Méliès
While we’re on the subject of early movie magic, here’s the very first horror film. Made in 1896, the first year of Georges Méliès’s career, this three-minute experiment probably won’t scare you very much. It does, however, offer up an interesting comparison with today’s work. Most of The Haunted Castle is about playing with all of the tricks the cinemagician had to offer, ghosts and vampires appearing and disappearing left and right. Horror as a genre thrives on constant innovation, as yesterday’s thrills barely last through tomorrow. It’s a wonder to think that this has been the case since the 19th century.
The Incredibly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon, by Richard Gale
This last one takes advantage of neither the elemental fear of childhood nor the ancient terror of a bygone era. It does, however, spoof them all. Presented as a 10-minute trailer for a nine-hour movie, this satire of the most ridiculous in horror is almost too funny for its own good. “Some murders take seconds. Others take minutes. Some minutes take hours. Now, this murder, takes years.” It needs little introduction beyond that.