“Guillermo del Toro stealing my goddamn cookies”: The wonderful world of quarantine horror shorts (with links)

Great horror has come out of extremely limited resources and production values many times over the years; it’s also often fueled by tumultuous time periods.  So it seems fitting that the COVID pandemic and ensuing quarantine have led to multiple, literally homemade horror short films.  Many are engrossing and inventive, and taken together, they’re a powerful reminder of the resilient power of art even in the most trying circumstances.

Felissa Rose and Ben Baur in Unusual Attachment

The first “quarantine horror” short I saw was gay director Michael Varrati’s Unusual Attachment. Handsome Ben Baur stars as Hunter, a guy desperately seeking a missed connection on a Chat Roulette type site.  Along the way he gets video calls from his sassy friend Mateo (Francisco Chacin) and his cheerfully inappropriate aunt (Sleepaway Camp’s Felissa Rose, who basically plays her delightful self).  It feels like a frothy queer comedy, until things abruptly shift into more sinister territory.

Shadowed

Shazam director David F. Sandberg, who originally broke big with his scary short Lights Out, has made two creepy shorts during lockdown, Shadowed https://youtu.be/8yu5ymbIjaYand Not Alone in Here with his wife Lotta Losten.  Losten also stars in the simple, punchy productions, and she’s a compelling and likeable lead.  Shadowed is the best—its premise of shadows that don’t seem to belong to anything in the “real” world is fun and unsettling.  But both shorts are enjoyable; there’s a bit with a cell phone camera in Not Alone in Here that pays off wonderfully.

Rob Savage’s untitled Twitter short combines a computer-based, Zoom chat approach with the simplest of horror premises: investigating creepy sounds in the attic.  As the director’s friends watch nervously, he ascends the ladder to his attic with butcher knife and smart phone in hand.  Needless to say he finds nothing good.  It’s the only one of these shorts that actually made me scream, which brought my partner running into the room.  When I told him why he cracked, “’Did he just cut his arm off?’ ‘No, just a video on the internet.’”

3rd Eye Cult Murders is perhaps the most unique of all the quarantine horror shorts.  Directed by Todd Spence, and written by Spence and Zak White, it purports to be crime scene footage from a 1970s murder committed by a Manson-like cult.  The ’70s production design is spot on, from board games to Band Aid packaging to a rotary telephone; it really does look like footage recovered from the era.  Spence and White evidently have practice, as they regularly post short films @midnight_video on Instagram.

There Can Be Only One

A couple of horror shorts eschew scariness for laughs. There Can Be Only One, directed by Mike Mendez (Big Ass Spider!) is a thoroughly enjoyable romp pitting Mendez, playing himself, against an Oreo snatching Guillermo del Toro action figure in his memorabilia filled apartment.  Taking control of one of his Pacific Rim robots, Guillermo rants that “there can be only one” Mexican filmmaker, and announces his intentions to “production design the world!”  There’s lots of action, some of it quite hilarious, involving puppets, toys, and animation, with references to classics like Aliens, Robocop, and Back to the Future thrown into the mix.  In The Egg, Canadian filmmaker Naoki Otsuki imagines the horrifying perpective of an egg waiting to be cracked, and scores the proceedings with some killer John Carpenter-esque synth music.

The only one of these shorts that utilizes exteriors is Prague’s Coronapocalypse, directed by Paul Dean and written by Scott Lee Hansen.  Relatively long at over fourteen minutes, the film concerns a young woman who ventures out of her apartment for the first time during the pandemic and is unnerved by the empty city she finds.  Constantly broadcasting online to a multitude of followers, she tries to turn to them for answers while espousing her bizarre conspiracy beliefs about the moon landing, “lizard people,” and the like.  It’s a sly commentary on people who’d rather believe fringe theories than an all too real pandemic, and our particular social media moment.

Alexandra Serio in Tingle Monsters

Tingle Monsters is similarly pertinent to our current online reality. Written, directed by, and starring Alexandra Serio, it’s billed as “the first ASMR horror film.”  It wasn’t actually produced during the lockdown, but it may as well have been.  Its set-up is incredibly simple: Serio is a popular ASMR vlogger delivering her first webcast after a long absence.  Disturbed by a follower’s inappropriately sexual comment, she’s then oblivious to a presence in her apartment even as her fans furiously type worried comments.  Serio uses an exercise with a makeup brush to set up a fantastically suspenseful game of peekaboo with the intruder.  Tingle Monsters works as both a fun suspense piece and a commentary on the toxic nature of the internet.

Review: Black Christmas

Imogen Poots is Riley in Black Christmas

The latest victim of toxic internet backlash, Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas, remakes the classic 1974 horror film for the #MeToo era.  In a society where a groundswell of support has taken down serial abusers like Harvey Weinstein even while an accused rapist sits in the White House, it’s not at all surprising that the film has “earned” a 3/10 user score on IMDb– boosted by scads of scathing reviews complaining about “sexism” (female on male, natch) and “third wave feminism.”

The truth is that the movie, while imperfect, benefits immensely from Takal and April Wolfe’s script explicitly addressing sexual assault, misogyny, and patriarchy.  The emphasis gives the film a strong point of view, sets it apart from both the original and a previous 2006 remake, and continues the horror tradition of holding up a perverse funhouse mirror to real life anxieties.  In the 1974 version, outspoken, independent women—one of whom wants an abortion despite her boyfriend’s wishes—are stalked by a mysterious killer in a college sorority house.  Here, an equally distinct, tight knit group of sorority sisters face a similar threat on the atmospheric campus of Hawthorne College.  Riley, played by Imogen Poots (who’s been quietly building a resume of interesting roles for years now) is struggling to overcome the trauma of an assault at the hands of charismatic frat boy Brian (Ryan McIntyre).  Nobody believed her then, but a campus talent show gives her an opportunity to confront Brian and his buddies.  When girls start disappearing, and Riley and her friends receive threatening text messages from someone claiming to be their school’s long dead founder, they suspect that the disgraced fraternity might be behind them.

Kris (Aleyse Shannon) faces off against the killer

The on the nose gender politics aren’t the whole show.  This is a horror film, after all, and Sakal and Wolfe’s overwritten screenplay (I mean that as a compliment) gives us characters we care about, namely: Riley, her activist pal Kris (Aleyse Shannon), and the not-as-vapid-as-she-looks Jesse (Brittany O’Grady).  Cary Elwes is in grand scenery chewing form as pretentious, smarmy Professor Gelson.  The production design is terrific, with a gothic campus and plenty of holiday atmosphere.  Sakal also stages some fun set pieces and includes clever Easter eggs for fans of the original movie.

Cary Elwes as the slimy Professor Gelson

The biggest issue here is with the third act, when the movie loses steam just when it should be hitting its stride.  The cathartic final battle between Riley and her tormentors doesn’t land with quite the oomph it should, and the supernatural machinations of the plot are a little too Harry Potter.  Still, Riley is a wonderfully real, complicated, and endearing character—one with a dynamic arc.  Black Christmas is consistently entertaining, funny, and often surprising, with a fresh and diverse cast.  I give the filmmakers props for taking a bold swing and making a statement about important contemporary issues.  The fact that this PG-13 rated film will be accessible to young women, and potentially inspiring to many of them, is profound.  That goes a long way towards forgiving its defects.

Brooklyn Horror Film Festival: Spiral review

Spiral is the quintessential film I wanted to like more than I actually did.  I was excited to review a queer horror film, especially one specifically addressing homophobia in the 1990s.  Alas, Spiral’s reach winds up exceeding its grasp.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman

In director Kurtis David Harder’s film, a gay couple with a teenage daughter move to a small town—and Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) soon suspects something is amiss.  Are the neighbors part of some bizarre cult?  Did the lesbian family who lived in the house previously suffer a horrible fate?  Or is Malik—still traumatized from a hate crime years earlier– just suffering from a delusion?

Bowyer-Chapman (UnREAL) is the best part of the movie.  He gives an arresting performance and is believable, endearing, and sexy as a gay man trying to find his footing in a relationship with an older man and as a step parent.  As his partner Aaron, Ari Cohen essentially plays the standard disbelieving husband role we’ve seen in countless horror films, but for the most part he avoids coming off as unsympathetic (he’s a cute daddy, too).  Jennifer Laporte is the other cast stand out as daughter Kayla, whose angst never rings false. Lochlyn Munro (Betty’s slimy dad on Riverdale) is effortlessly slimy here as the suspicious neighbor.

 The set-up is tight, with the film seemingly aspiring to be a gay take on Rosemary’s Baby and/or Get Out.  Intriguing threads are set up: Malik realizes the documentary he’s editing is about a conversion therapy advocate; the grieving man from next door seems like he might be interested in Malik; blackmail photos appear to threaten his relationship with Aaron.  But the shift to overtly supernatural content feels jarring and a little silly, and those three threads never really pay off.  By the time the end game is revealed, Spiral has trampled over the goodwill it earned during its first hour.  The tone is a problem, too; the premise is fairly ludicrous, but the movie wants to be deadly serious.  If it had leaned into the campiness a bit, it might have been an enjoyably pulpy allegorical thriller.  Instead, the movie comes off as pretentious, with its statement on the shared struggles of different marginalized groups landing with all the subtlety of a cartoon anvil.  (A quote lifted from Harvey Milk feels almost blasphemous.) What’s more, the audience’s investment in Malik and his family is betrayed rather callously by the narrative.  Ultimately, Spiral is a misfire, though I’d love to see Bowyer-Chapman in bigger and better things. 

Brooklyn Horror Film Festival: Slayed! Review

“Bathroom Troll”

This year marks the second year for Slayed! LGBTQ Horror Shorts at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.  This co-presentation with NYC’s queer NewFest film festival continues to offer an eclectic and interesting selection, even if a couple of entries fell a little flat.

In “Jeremiah,” a young Asian man with a crush on his football teammate is troubled by visions of a folk tale monster he grew up dreading.  The eerie cinematography and locations are top notch, as are the young actors playing the boys; they have a believable chemistry.  The Hitchcockian score also adds a sense of dread.  But the short left me wanting more information on the monster and the storyline—it may be intended as a pitch for a feature length film.

In the Spanish language “Estigma,” my favorite of the program, two young men start to get it on—but a freakish insect interrupts their liaison.  I’ve long remarked that some of the best horror exaggerates real life fears, and this short dramatizes the anxiety experienced by HIV positive men quite well.  The makeup and practical effects really help sell the film, and the two leads are authentic and sexy.

“The Original”

The black-and-white “The Original” concerns a lesbian couple and has an intriguing premise: a specialized surgery can transfer the ailing partner’s mind into a healthy new body.  But although the piece is emotional, creepy, and at times darkly humorous, the ending didn’t quite land for me.  I was left with a lot of questions; maybe this, too, is a stealth feature film proposal.

“Penance”

My two least favorite shorts, though very different, both come off as one-note gags that barely justify their extremely brief runtimes.  “Penance” is a smug, heavy handed take that! to the Catholic Church’s homophobia.  It’s a deserving target—I say that as a former Catholic myself—but the gruesome perversion of communion doesn’t really go far enough to be truly satisfying.  It abruptly ends before it can justify its own existence.  Meanwhile, the bizarre “Docking” was somehow selected by the Sundance Film Festival; I can only assume somebody wanted to be cool and subversive by picking it.  It’s nothing but a dirty visual joke with giant erect penises subbing in for Star Wars spaceships.  I’m no prude, but this just felt like a waste of time, effort, and money.

“Bathroom Troll” is a candy colored satire that, while not as clever or as much of a statement as it thinks it is, is nothing less well-executed and quite fun.  The crowd-pleasing Carrie takeoff has “Cassie,” an androgynous teen, getting tormented in the bathroom by mean girls and then roped into a plot by her religious zealot mother.  The twist is that, unlike Carrie’s mom, Cassie’s is a Satanist, and the pair conjure up a demon to enact vengeance.  The demon is entertainingly campy/vicious in the Freddy mode, and every actress (it’s an all-female ensemble) knows exactly what tone to hit to make this short work.  I just wish there was a clearer transgender element, since the recent “bathroom panic” was clearly the inspiration here.

“Switch”

The program ended on a high note with the endearing “Switch,” a sort of 21st century Orlando with a teen who inexplicably changes genders– and lovers.  It’s fun, engaging, and sexually explicit, but in a very heartfelt and tender way.  The young cast is appealingly naturalistic, and the performers who play the lead’s two personas complement each other quite well.

Brooklyn Horror Film Festival Review: Carmilla

Devrim Lingnau and Hannah Rae in Carmilla

It feels like it’s been a few years since we had a good old fashioned Victorian horror film; perhaps not since Guillermo Del Toro’s underrated Crimson Peak.  So the moody, intelligent Carmilla (inspired by the gothic novel by Sheridan Le Fanu) is a welcome addition to the genre—not to mention a queer one!

Writer/director Emily Harris’ film immediately makes a strong impression with gorgeous cinematography and a vivid locale.  Teenage Lara (Hannah Rae) lives a lonely existence in an isolated mansion.  Her well-meaning governess Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine) is caring but strict; her father is usually away on business.  More than anything, Lara wants a friend, and one finally arrives in the form of Carmilla (a gorgeous Devrim Lingnau), who the family takes in after she survives a mysterious carriage crash.  The two immediately form a close bond that develops into a romance, but there may be more to Carmilla than meets the eye

Rae and Jessica Raine

 Carmilla is essentially a drama with horror elements, a character-driven film that showcases terrific acting from all three of the women featured.  Rae and Lingnau come across as genuine teens, not the twenty-somethings who play high schoolers in so many movies and shows, and their performances feel wonderfully authentic.  Raine, meanwhile, is outstanding in her role.  She comes off as fully three dimensional and compassionate despite her old fashioned beliefs and strict rules for Lara.  In one standout scene, she hints at her own same sex attractions while trying to steer Lara away from her feelings for Carmilla.

Lara’s growing attraction to the other girl gives way to a tender eroticism.  Harris does a terrific job of capturing their chemistry and generating heat; it’s a rare treat to see any kind of love scene in movies these days, and all the sweeter to have ones involving two women.  There’s also a moment of unexpected and powerful sexuality between two other characters late in the film.

Carmilla is a dynamic and well-crafted movie, pleasingly ambiguous and understated with its horrific elements.  When things get creepy it feels organic – Lara has some morbid interests and fantasies, which Carmilla appears to share–and in keeping with the serious tone of the film. The movie is brimming with interesting motivations and relationships, and keeps you involved all the way through its poignant finale.

TFF 2019 Review: Bliss

Dora Madison as Dezzy

I always consider it a point of pride when I see a film people walk out of.  At House of 1000 Corpses, a couple walked out as the woman loudly declared “let’s get the FUCK out of here!”; another pair fled Suspiria (2018) after a nasty bit of body contortion.  So it pleased me that a few folks just couldn’t sit through Bliss, writer/director Joe Begos’ hallucinogenic vampire flick playing the Midnight category at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Interestingly, they all left before any of the bloody mayhem even got started; the visceral intensity of the filmmaking seems to be what they couldn’t handle.


Bliss opens with a warning about strobe effects, which seems as much part of the exploitation tradition as a legitimate caveat.  After a day glo, rock and roll opening title sequence, we meet Dezzy (Dora Madison), a starving artist struggling to pay the bills while battling a pretty heavy drug problem.  She’s got a deadline looming for her latest piece, an appropriately eerie painting of souls writhing in fire, but she can’t seem to find the inspiration to finish it, despite the help of a well-meaning boyfriend Clive (Jeremy Gardner).  Maybe that’s because she’s too busy scoring drugs from her pal Hadrian (Graham Skipper) and partying with her girlfriend and sometime lover Courtney (Tru Collins, giving off trashy Lady Gaga vibes) and Courtney’s boyfriend Ronnie (Rhys Wakefield).  When Hadrian slips her a coke variant called Bliss, Dezzy’s instantly hooked, but the bad trip it sends her on is compounded by a simultaneous thirst for blood.  Dezzy’s life quickly spins out of control—to put it mildly.

Jeremy Gardner as Clive, Tru Collins as Courtney,and Rhys Wakefield as Ronnie

Bliss is an impressively crafted movie, with stunning cinematography and lighting and a hard driving metal soundtrack.  Madison is remarkable as Dezzy, a character that could easily come off as selfish and obnoxious, but who is vividly real and funny in the actress’ capable hands.  The screenplay is smart and pretty damn funny, and the intensity of the filmmaking makes Bliss a movie you experience more than watch.  There’s also outstanding use of locations—the various bars, Dezzy’s apartment, and Hadrian’s house are all vividly real places.  Where Bliss might be polarizing is with regards to the copious drug use and the extremely intense, bloody violence (thought to be fair, isn’t that exactly what a vampire movie should have in spades?).  The finale is so gruesomely over the top that I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it.  But this movie really goes for it, and Begos and his crew are undeniably talented.  However you feel about Bliss, you won’t soon forget it.


Bliss screens Wednesday at 9:45 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  Visit tribecafilm.com for more info.

Monster-Mania Con 42 report

The author and Rachel True

“I’m just saying if you’re gonna have three out of the witches, you need four, don’tcha?” actress Rachel True asked, referring to the controversy that erupted when she went public about an unnamed convention inviting all three female leads in The Craft–except her.  “Sounds about white,” she tweeted dryly.  “I’m very happy to be here with my whole cast,” she declared.  “I’m delighted to be here with the whole cast.  I am.” 

An attendee showing off their The Craft inspired jacket.

True talked to me at Monster-Mania 42, “the semi-annual Philadelphia Horror Film & Memorabilia Convention,” which invited her to join Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, and Neve Campbell for a Craft reunion at their March event shortly after the snub story broke.  The coven proved to be one of the weekend’s biggest draws.  There’s always a preponderance of Goths and geeks at the convention, of course, but the Craft ladies brought them out in force.  Much of the crowd seemed to exemplify Balk’s famous line “We are the weirdoes, mister.”  I told a woman in line with me that her outfit was appropriately witchy.  “Oh!” she replied.  “This is just what I wear all the time.”  Elsewhere, cosplayers embodied a mix of horror icons like The Haunting of Hill House’s “Bent Neck Lady” and a gender-swapped Ash (from Evil Dead) and comics universe characters like Batgirl and Gotham’s Oswald Cobblepot.

Cosplayers KJ Buxton and Alexa Bronco

The weekend marked the one year anniversary of a near disastrous event wherein the combination of big names like Tim Curry, Paul Reubens, Richard Dreyfuss, and the young stars of It (2017) drew crowds far past the capacity of the Cherry Hill, NJ Crown Plaza Hotel.  The fire department intervened, limiting Saturday admittance, shutting down a tent meant to host panels, and leaving droves of fans either left out in the cold (literally) or just plain ticked off.  To its credit, the organizers have since taken steps to strictly limit sales to reasonable capacity, meaning advance tickets are pretty much a must—but the precautions have paid off in avoiding a similar debacle.  I went on the comparably quieter Sunday this time, and although I heard the day before was packed, it didn’t sound anything like the previous year.

Justin with Halloween (2018)’s Jibrail Nantambu

The Con drew a wide assortment of guests, including two other notable African American actors: Jibrail Nantambu, who stole the show with his hilarious, heavily improvised performance in Halloween (2018), and Eugene Clark, the imposing actor who memorably played “Big Daddy,” the leader of the zombies in George Romero’s Land of the Dead.  There was also Dylan McDermott, hunky star of American Horror Story and the 1990 scifi thriller Hardware, original Michael Myers Nick Castle and 2018 version James Jude Courtney, 80s hearththrob Dolph Lundgren (He-Man in the camp classic Masters of the Universe), and Meatloaf!  (Christina Ricci was only there through Saturday, so I missed her. Le sigh.)

Also in attendance was Ashlee Blackwell, founder of the scholarly website Graveyard Shift Sisters (graveyardshiftsisters.com) and co-writer/producer of the excellent Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, currently streaming on Shudder.  I watched the film to prepare for meeting True, who appears throughout the movie’s brisk 83 minute runtime.  The actress joins everyone from Candyman Tony Todd to Get Out director Jordan Peele to discuss the history of black representation and contributions to horror, with plenty of illuminating insights throughout.  “It’s so good, isn’t it?” True enthused.  “Tell your white friends to watch it, because I think people think it’s only for Black [people]—it’s not, if you like horror, this is a great documentary, right?”  I agreed that it was, and mentioned how passionately Geeks OUT believes in representation.  “I’m really big on representation!” True responded, adding pointedly, “I’m here.  I’m happy to be here.” 

Extracting Beauty from the Darkest of Places

Seven years ago, I started working on a comic book with my good friend Reed Olsen. It would go on to become the series Dream Crasher, which we are now self-publishing through Kickstarter. Dream Crasher is a 12-chapter story about a group of children who survive a bizarre cataclysmic event and find themselves navigating a strange new world filled with angry ghosts, strange beasts made from human parts, and interdimensional parasites that feed on their dreams. At its core, Dream Crasher is also a story about overcoming trauma, the fight for autonomy, and creating a world where we all have a chance to define our own destiny.

One year into our new comic creating process, Reed and I were on fire. Kickstarter was just beginning to reveal itself as an vehicle for indie comics. Chapter one was drawn and painted, and the work on chapter two had already begun. I had found my voice in writing, and had found a brilliant creative partner in Reed. We had momentum. I was excited for what the future held.

Running parallel to all of this, I found myself very much in love for the first time in my life. Blair changed my jaded views on that four letter word. He challenged me to be a better person. He made me smile every time he laughed at his own jokes. He gave me confidence in the creative choices I was making. He was also a talented writer and musician in his own right, and he encouraged me on this project when it was still in its early stages. To say my life was perfect would be a lie, but I was the happiest I had been in a long time.

All of this changed when Blair died in the summer of 2011. My whole world fell to pieces. The unexpected trauma, the weight of the grief, and the subsequent depression and healing all took their toll in various ways. I’ve written extensively about the grief and the healing over the years since. This tragedy permeated every aspect of my life, and the still-unnamed Dream Crasher was no exception. Comics were put on hold. I scribbled ideas in notebooks and thought about the project from time to time, but in the end it took more than six months before I sat down to work again. And even then, the work was slow. It took another year after that before I finished the script for the third chapter. It felt like starting from scratch and learning how to write again. In hindsight, this was in no small part due to a fresh perspective I had on my main character, Amalie.

I had been following Kurt Vonnegut’s sixth rule to a T. I was being a sadist and making awful things happen to my main character, but I hadn’t given a second thought to how it was affecting her. I hadn’t thought about how she processed the world around her, or who she was because of it. Through my own grief, I suddenly understood her on a whole new level. In many ways, Amalie is a representation of how strong I wish I could be. She’s lost everything she once held dear but has never given in to despair. She’s not unshakeable–she’s persistent. She’s not fearless–she’s brave. She’s a survivor in every sense of the word.

In his own writing, Blair had a knack for extracting beauty from the darkest of places. His example inspired me to do the same. I began to think of this bleak new world as less of a graveyard and more like fertile soil. I realized that it’s not a story about the world that’s been destroyed, but rather the new one that is taking its place. It’s about the children who have an opportunity to shape it and truly make it their own. As dismal as the world can seem sometimes, there are still dreams worth fighting for. Beneath its dystopian exterior, Dream Crasher is a story about finding the last bit of light in a world that’s gone dark and protecting it with every fiber of our being. Even when the powers that be are stacked against us. Even when the cause seems hopeless.

As devastating as Blair’s death was, I didn’t let it stop me. That in and of itself is a cause worth celebrating. Reed and I both had numerous opportunities to put this project down and quietly walk away from it, and no one would have thought less of us for doing so. We didn’t. I’m grateful to say that, in the face obstacles we never could have anticipated, we persisted.

Today, we are on the cusp of completing the first arc of the series. That first arc, which parallels my own story of grief, captures the resilience of a character who has outgrown my original idea of her. A character who grew and inspired me in ways I never expected. I have never worked harder on any single piece of art, and I couldn’t be more excited to share it with the world. Like many up-and-coming creators, we have launched a Kickstarter Campaign. With it, we hope to raise funds to cover the cost of printing, lettering, and designing the book itself. We’re offering a variety of rewards to any backers, ranging from digital chapters for as little as $4, the physical book for $25, and several pieces of original artwork from the series for $100. We’re off to solid start. and we’ve already made it farther than seemed possible just a few years ago. The campaign runs until October 6, 2017.

Photo Credit: Blaise Allen.