[29 October 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
By its very nature, the short film has a hard time lending itself to horror. While the simple shock, the gross out gag, and the briefest of interludes between the supernatural and cinema can all find a home within the truncated format, creating macabre in such a tight logistical span seems almost impossible. Dread relies on mood, atmosphere, premise, follow through and other nebulous elements to be effective, and getting all that across in seven to twenty minutes is tricky at best. Those who’ve managed such cinematic slight of hand deserve praise for cracking one of the artform’s most complicated puzzles, said success translating into an equally deserving example of the medium.
In 2003, Other Cinema, an independent DVD distributor, collected several fine examples of these horrific mini-movies, including corrupt classics by such insane savants as Damon Packard and J. X. Williams, and released them in compilation form. Experiments in Terror proved that, though minimal in running time, the short film could be massive on imagination and meaning. Four years later, the company is back with Experiments in Terror 2. Expanding the selections while bringing back frightmare favorites (Packard and Williams both have new offerings), the expanded technological options provided by the digital revolution argue for a renewed viability. But there are specific pieces picked from four decades before that illustrate the necessity for artistry first, artifice second.
Thematically, there is a constant sense of backwards glancing here, a look at how dread past remains resonant in contemporary terror. Between 2 Deaths (2006) offers an intriguing look at San Francisco locations used by Alfred Hitchcock for his masterwork Vertigo. Director Wago Krieder does his best to line up shots exactly as the Master of Suspense did, and his morphing back and forth between the modern material and the Jim Stewart/Kim Novack gem stands as a stunning archival stunt. Similarly, Amor Peligrosa takes the age old symbol of death – the skeleton – and turns it on its frisky, fornicating head. Michelle Silva’s silly sexual congress remains compelling, if only because it seems so metaphysically apropos.
But it’s the actual works from the 1960s that help us understand the post-modern movement in Experiments. Opus 5 (1961) is a celluloid collage, a collection of unsettling images – fire, lights, religious iconography – that suggests a primer from hence all horror has originated. Lloyd Williams’ skilled juxtapositions give the presentation a creepy, unearthly aura. Similarly J. X. Williams’ Psych-Burn (1968) is the love generation unhinged, a compelling cock-up between go-go dancers and gory backdrops that even finds a way to turn the psychedelic acid rock of the era on its head. As the imagery bombards us with its death and debauchery subtext, the music is mindlessly interrupted, classic fear beats and shrieks inserted to remind us of the yin yang nature of man.
Oddly enough, when modern filmmakers attempt the same thing, the results can be less than impressive. Usama Alshaibi’s equally scattered Hold My Scissors tries for the Hellspawn head trip, and yet can’t quite pull off the impressionistic hat trick. It comes off as minor Shakespearean – full of sound and fury, and signifying very little. Similarly, Clifton Childree and Nikki Rollason’s She Sank on Shallow Bank wants to recall the early shorts of David Lynch (an auteur who truly understood the format) with their monochrome meandering. But for every provocative moment – a woman suggestively drowning on a sound stage seashore set – we get ghostly shoes shuffling around a boat. If there is sense to be made of such accidental imagery, it gets lost here.
The remaining masterpieces more than make up for any cinematic slack, however. Damon Packard, one of the undeniable masters of retro-revivalism, has utilized his entire catalog of Me Decade macabre to manufacture the dead-on dementia of The Early ‘70s Horror Trailer. A nine minute amalgamation of various damsels in all manner of ABC Movie of the Week distress, we keep waiting for Burt Bacharach’s “Nikki” to start up in the background. Luckily, Packard is one step ahead of us. He utilizes underscoring from such diverse sources as Escape from the Planet of the Apes and peppers the entire project with as many Super-8 stunts (prism lens, double exposure, slo-mo) as possible. Some may see it as nothing more than a massive gimmick given over to self indulgence. But when viewed through the eyes of someone who lived through the era, it’s absolute genius.
So is the aforementioned Fear. How a modern filmmaker like Angel Nieves managed to accurately recreate the look, feel, performances, and overall dread dynamic of an early ‘80s exploitation schlocker in 2001 is unnerving. From the sets to the storyline, you never once guess this is a post-millennial production. Instead, its old school scare tactics that feel fresh and innovative, carefully controlled pacing providing the right amount of suspense. It’s a very disturbing experience, one that leads to an instant reflection on the films it faithfully mimics. With The Mesmerist, the effect is different, but equally devastating. While The Bells is often dismissed as a well acted, half-formed morality play, director Morrison digs the meat out of it, using the original, racially insensitive title cards, to offer a comment on stereotypes and human sin. While it’s great to see Lionel Barrymore and a young Boris Karloff in full genre mode, it’s the underlying message about intolerance and redemption that’s far more effective.
As an added treat, Other Cinema includes a pair of compelling bonus features. The first is an interactive ‘Closet of Horrors’. By using your remote and clicking on the illuminated doorway, you are transported to one of a random collection of trailers, clips, and fright themed commercials. It’s an unfathomable delight. By contrast, the rant-oriented Warhol Beyond the Grave (from a longer piece known as Pleromadromadhetu) finds the long dead pop art phenom rising from the tomb to take on his legacy, as an anti-Andy screed plays in the background. It’s a weirdly compelling combination, both a declaration and denouncement of the 20th Century’s leading limelighter.
An appearance by the man - or the image of same – who once declared the disposability of fame is an excellent end note to this compelling collection. With its devotion to former frighteners, Experiments in Terror 2 appears to suggest that post-modern fear is too throwaway to warrant commemoration. For many in the creative community, the siren song of what came before is far more compelling than the simulated superficiality of current CGI creepshows. While these may be mere trials in the lexicon of fear, they are far more fully formed than much of today’s takes. As curator and compiler of this remarkable overview, Other Cinema deserves a lot of credit. While they won’t satisfy everyone, these short film scares deserve their moment in the sun. Experiments in Terror 2 gives it to them, and we couldn’t be happier.