So, as of recent, I’ve been really interested in creating Microshort films.
I’d define a Microshort as any film that is, basically, less than 5 minutes long. That’s a lot of story to cram into such a short amount of time.
The ironic thing is that when I started making films, I was inspired by Michaelangelo Antonioni. Agnes Varda. Andrei Tarkovsky. Michael Haneke. In other words, long takes. Long, drawn out shots without cutting or intersplicing, sometimes going as long as five minutes. Or more. Michael Haneke has one steady shot in Funny Games that lasts ten minutes. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is one, continuous moving shot that lasts 96 minutes (the entirety of the film). Point is, I like long takes.
That is until Wes Craven put a call out for filmmakers to make a 30 second horror short.
It wasn’t something I’d ever done before, but I accepted the challenge. Plus, Wes Craven was contracted to watch it. Why wouldn’t I do this? It’s a win-win situation.
You can watch the short below. Shameless plug, I know.
It takes me a while to latch on to new innovations. When Napster came out, I immediately snubbed it for the sole purpose they didn’t have any tracks by this surf band I liked called The Dead Barons (SUCH A STUPID REASON.) I didn’t own a cell phone until all my friends finally forced me to in the mid-2000s. So, the thought of milennials like myself dismissing media because they didn’t want to take the time to read/view/listen to these things in all its entirety was hard for me to swallow. Instead of moving with the rapidly changing times, I’d sit here reminiscing about the “good ol’ days”; I didn’t fight, I flew away.
I’m fast-forwarding a bit, but the summer after I shot Selfie, I met a man named Len Cella at a Film Fest called Severed, where he was promoting the re-release of a compilation of his short films, and also, coincidentally, where Selfie screened. You may not know him (unfortunately not many do), but I was familiar with his efforts.
A little bit of history: Back in the 80s, when the VHS boom exploded, filmmakers utilized straight-to-video as a means to get their films visibility. Amateur and poor filmmakers used tape back then to distribute their films to video stores because obtaining a theatrical release just wasn’t in the cards. Nowadays, you can do it with YouTube or Vine or Facebook. They also used tapes by way of the “camcorder” to actually make their movies since the price of buying and developing film – the only way to make movies then – was just hella expensive.
Len Cella was a lonely man with a video camera. Much of his personal life has been kept hidden, but if you watch his short films, it appears either his wife or partner is never at the house and he takes this as opportunity to express his art or… he is alone and left to his own devices. He was the sole writer/director/actor/producer. He was a Jack of all trades.
When I was in high school in the late 90s/early 2000s, I went to the video store one day and found a tape called Moron Movies. There were no pictures on the box, just the description “Over 100 Short Comedy Films” and several names of films like “Another Use for Tough Meat” and “The Advantage of Having Warts”. Johnny Carson apparently caught wind and showed a multitude of these shorts on The Tonight Show.
Needless to say, I rented it that day. When I popped it in my VCR, I was taken aback.
I didn’t know it then, but this guy was ahead of his time. His “short films” were each, on average, probably 10 seconds long. This undoubtedly was a precursor to Vines – which, if you are not aware, gives users only 6 seconds of video on their iPhones to work with. His films were silly and stupid, and packed a hell of a punch.
Horror and comedy work very similar in that way, just that they illicit different reactions. A short set-up, and then the punchline. And that’s exactly how I approached the making of this film. I guess you could say that Len Cella sort of inspired Selfie. It opened up my eyes to a whole new world of filmmaking and I love it. I’m not entirely sure if this is where horror filmmaking or just filmmaking in general is headed, but I am most definitely along for the ride.
But I also drew in some other inspirations. The horror microshort can also trace its roots back to storytelling in general – more specifically, the “two sentence horror story“. The most famous of these goes something like this:
“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”
This duo of statements is a complete story on its own; however, it is actually the opening of a larger story entitled “Knock” by Fredric Brown. Most don’t know this, nor do they care, because the passage is already evocatively spooky. The two-sentence horror story’s comedic counterpart is the one-liner – a favorite of mine is this one by Groucho Marx: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas, how he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” Both give you a setup/fakeout and then a punch. This is key in the horror microshort.
I’d like to now morph this article into LIST FORM and just recommend some of my favorite Microshorts of the horror genre.
1. BEDFELLOWS (Drew Daywalt, 2008)
The first “horror microshort” I ever saw is a film called Bedfellows by Drew Daywalt. I have no idea how I even stumbled upon it. I’m sure I was in some YouTube vortex, and it popped up in my queue. Drew Daywalt started FEWDIO around the time of the writer’s strike as a way to make his own films without duress from studios. The film clocks in at just over a minute long, company logo and credits excluded. It is simple and fucking TERRIFYING. It’s amazing that all he needs to set up the story is a quick pan of framed pictures on nightstands of a couple and a shot of two people in bed. Then, boom. Scary stuff.
2. LIGHTS OUT (David F. Sandberg, 2013)
Lights Out is actually due out as a feature film this summer. But the reason Sandberg could do that is due in part by how quickly his original short film went viral and scared the pants off of everyone who clicked the shared link on their Facebook pages. Sandberg is actually, and I’m not even joking, the undisputed King of the horror Microshort. If you go to his YouTube channel, ponysmasher, you’ll see that he has a plethora of less-than 3 minute horror shorts. And if you haven’t seen the above film yet, do yourself a favor and indulge. PLEASE.
3. STAY DEAD (Danny Donahue, 2015)
Much like David F. Sandberg, Danny Donahue is another up-and-coming Microshort filmmaker. His YouTube and Vimeo pages are riddled with shorts that terrify in seconds. Stay Dead was made for an Eli Roth 17 Second Horror Film contest, and what I love about it is how quickly you understand the character’s background. Weathered-looking woman with a knife. Scary creature behind her. Her first and only line: “Stay dead”. It’s obvious she’s dealt with this creature before. Is it a figment of her imagination? Who knows. But what we do know is that it’s very real to her. And I’d reckon she’s been reliving this in a sort of Groundhog Day loop. With that in mind, it’s an added terror that weighs on you after a quarter of a minute.
4. DUMPED (Mattia Querci, 2015)
Dumped was made for a a film festival called, befittingly, The 15 Second Horror Film Challenge. One of the judges happens to be Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Entertainment fame, and although it came in 2nd place, it was my favorite. This, probably more than the others, works most like a joke. Not that the film is funny, but that the structure presents itself in a way that really turns your initial expectation on its head. You start to think one thing, and the inverse happens. Much like that crass joke Rodney Dangerfield told: “I tell ya, my wife was never nice. On our first date, I asked her if I could give her a goodnight kiss on the cheek – she bent over!” Obviously, you presume that when he says “cheek” he means the side of her face. The one bit of dialogue in Dumped works similarly with a morbid outcome.
5. BLOODY MARY (Corey Norman, 2014)
I have had the pleasure of working with Corey on the awesome Maine horror showcase, Damnationland: The Way life Should Bleed, as producers, and also, Corey put me in touch with Vestra Pictures to shoot a microshort for an anthology series called 60 Seconds to Die, on which we both have films. Corey and I knew of each other because we had both submitted films to The ABCs of Death 2 and were the only two Maine filmmakers to do so. I gladly take partial credit for Corey’s making of Bloody Mary. I asked him to shoot a minute-long short for a project I was working on called Howleenies! that fell through for different reasons. Silver lining: He made this masterpiece.
6. MASS (Matthew Ragsdale, 2013)
In 2014, I made a film for a compilation called Magnetic Mixtape Madness Volume 2, distributed by Briarwood Entertainment, the same company to re-release Len Cella’s Moron Movies. On it, lies a short called Mass. The film takes much inspiration from equal parts Grindhouse and Satanic panic. It’s quick, gory, and takes no prisoners.
7. TEA TIME (Erik Deutschman, 2009)
Much like Stay Dead, it is unclear whether or not the visions of the main character are real or of the mind. Tea Time uses its 3-minute time frame to unfold the happenings of a woman who is plagued by the aftermath of a bath-related incident. She is seemingly nice on the outset (the drinking of tea, the floral dress), but there is an animated force that lurchces toward her. It is shot on film – the only one on this list! – and disturbs rather than jump-scares.
8. GREY MATTER (Timothy Nelson Thomas, 2014)
Maybe it’s the deterioration of the film itself, presumably transferred to tape for effect. Maybe it’s the ending that comes out of nowhere much like Gregg Araki’s Kaboom. Either way, Thomas’ ode to Reagan-era films about the contention of television, a la They Live, Poltergeist, Scrooged and Videodrome was my favorite contribution to Wes Craven’s Terror in 30 Seconds or Less. The inclusion of Ronnie giving a speech on the TV over a helpless woman limping toward her doom is assuredly a jab toward Americana.
9. HE DIES AT THE END (Damian McCarthy, 2008)
One man. One computer. Perhaps this is based on our anxieties of Big Brother? What do we do about knowing the outcome of the movie in the title? Is it because we’re masochistic? Does it terrify us even more knowing the inevitable is about to happen? What do you see in that dark room behind you?