Short Horror Reviews: Under 5 Minutes
For this horror list, we're taking on 10 short films that clock in at under 300 seconds.
Don't Turn Around:
We kick off this evenly numbered list with an odd duck of a film. While he's an avid fan of horror movies, Simon (Paul Haitkin) has found he's no longer scared by them. He's put together a plan to change that, but the outcome might not be what he was aiming for. While uniquely premised, Don't Turn Around suffers from subpar execution. The way it plays out is flawed right out of the gates. We don't get to see the full extent of Simon's #MakeHorrorMoviesScaryAgain plan, and even if we had, I don't see how it would've explained why Simon gets so viscerally afraid of his own tricks. Honestly, it took a rewatch for me to understand what was going on with Simon--and even then, some plot holes and unexplained oddities remained. I can easily see other viewers getting just as confused.
And in the end, Don't Turn Around is a pretty forgettable film. In addition to the lackluster story, the atmosphere is stagnant and the pace drags its feet. The only things that really stand out about the film is the ending. SPOILER ALERT Between Simon seeing a hooded figure outside his apartment and a news report about a violent serial burglar, you'd think the film would end with the burglar breaking in and attacking Simon. But to my surprise, it turned out to be a cleverly implemented red herring. While I feel the burglar could've been weaved into a more thrilling story, the averted Chekhov's News trope is still appreciated. And apart from the less-than-convincing acting from Paul Haitkin as the mortally wounded Simon, the ending gives us a nice twist as Simon's scorned neighbor (played by Cheryl Bricker) mocks her obnoxious neighbor's predicament before leaving him for dead. Spoilers Over
But outside of the halfway amusing ending, Don't Turn Around doesn't have a lot to offer. The plot is simultaneously thin and confusing, the mood falls flat, and the acting does the same near the end. Paul Haitkin is believably gruff as inconsiderate oaf Simon and Cheryl Bricker is effective as his aggravated neighbor. But in the final minutes, both of their deliveries feel forced and unnatural. So as ambitious as its premise is, Don't Turn Around doesn't get this list off on the right foot.
Score: 3 out of 10 self-referential DVDs.
Qualifying for this list by only 10 seconds, A Visitor follows Jill (Molly Gibson) as she returns home one night to find a strange man (Erik Steele) outside her house. And she'll soon see the man has malicious plans in mind. Inspired by the crimes of Sacramento serial killer Richard Chase, A Visitor tells a much more straightforward story than Don't Turn Around. Despite that, A Visitor works better because of that simplicity. Not only does the story make more sense comparatively, but it allows more room for tension to build.
Not to say that A Visitor uses that additional space to its full potential. For the most part, it's a standard horror short with your average "woman stalked by cold-blooded killer" plotline. Not helping is how baffling Jill's behavior throughout the movie is. Molly Gibson gives a fine performance, but seeing Jill underreact as much as she does to everything that happens is incredibly bizarre. Erik Steele fares better as the titular "visitor," playing the man's disturbingly nonchalant demeanor with chilling authenticity. Jill's actions are bound to get some viewers frustrated and you shouldn't go in expecting something on par with the opening sequence to Scream. But for what it does right, A Visitor keeps your attention for the full four minutes and might just have you double-checking to make sure all your doors are locked.
Score: 6 out of 10 surprise gifts.
He Dies at the End:
Now for a short film courtesy of Screamfest that's all about building tension. During a lonely late night at the office, an employee (Fintan Collins) can't help but feel like he's not alone. That's when a quiz pops up on his computer. While the title may sound like it gives away the scare, He Dies at the End thrives off how well it builds suspense. As the film goes on, the questions on the mysterious quiz become more alarming and the man becomes more paranoid of something coming for him. Between the unsettling sound design and black-and-white aesthetic, the movie will have you on the edge of your office chair (I mean, seat).
Playing a character seemingly designed to be an Audience Surrogate, Fintan Collins isn't given a rich arc to play with. Still, between the man's implied depression and spooky situation, Collins makes it easy to relate to and empathize with his character. And when all that accumulated tension reaches the inevitable conclusion, it's sure to strike hard and fast. With a well-designed atmosphere that keeps you on alert, He Dies at the End edges ahead of its similarly simple but less efficient predecessors.
Score: 8 out of 10 monkey statuettes.
Fire Lies starts out looking like a gender-inverted take on A Visitor, with Ben (Lanre Danmola) returning home one night while on the phone with someone. But whereas Jill was able to make it inside her house, Ben is stopped by his disheveled housemate Chris (Matty McCabe), who tells Ben their house suddenly caught fire. But to Ben and Chris's mutual confusion, Ben can't see the flames. While this short film from the UK shares a lot in common with A Visitor, it sticks the landing slightly better than its United States counterpart. While the story plays out pretty simplistically, director/writer Dominic Hassall gives Fire Lies ambiguity in buckets. By the end, you'll be wondering whose version of reality is the truth--with both possibilities carrying their share of upsetting implications.
Both of the actors that make up Fire Lies' two-man cast give solid performances. But between them, Matty McCabe makes the bigger impact as the more emotionally wrought Chris. Some viewers are likely to be disappointed by the subdued ending after all the buildup around Ben and Chris's confrontation. But between the stable pacing, good acting, and thought-provoking final shot, Fire Lies knows how to keep itself warm.
Score: 7 out of 10 weird dead zones.
House of Prey:
Bringing to mind the film that opened another review list, House of Prey is also about a woman (Kandie Garcia) forced to seek help from a nearby house due to car troubles. But what lurks inside has no intentions of offering assistance. Filmed at Victoria's Black Swan Inn, a famous haunted tourist attraction in San Antonio, House of Prey boasts an intriguing shooting location. Too bad it ends up being the only memorable thing about the film. Following an extremely formulaic plot, there's nothing here to shock the viewer, whether they be a horror junkie or a newcomer to the genre. Even the jump scares are heavily telegraphed and severely lacking in power.
Aesthetically, it's a mixed bag. While the special effects and villain designs aren't too bad, they're still far from impressive. There's an obvious ADR scream used in the climax, which seems to be correlated to Kandie Garcia's bland performance. While her character is an unnamed Audience Surrogate in the same vein as He Dies at the End's office worker, Garcia fails to make you care about her as Fintan Collins did with his character. To the movie's credit, it's not as drab and nonsensical as Don't Turn Around. But with a stale lead actress to go with the stale storyline, House of Prey still crumbles to the same level.
Score: 3 out of 10 retro rotary phones.
Following a traumatic event involving her mother, Stefani Deptula (Casara Clark) has been plagued by a recurring hallucination. But as Dr. Memel (Chris Barry) sits down with Stefani for their latest session, the terrifying truth behind what Stefani is seeing comes to light. Given the time constraints, it's no surprise that Stefani's backstory and the origins of her hallucination are left vague. The chilling nature of Stefani's tormentor and the tiny bits of information we get leave enough room for the average viewer to make their own conclusions. Between the movie taking place during a psychiatry session and the literal rose-colored goggles Stefani wears for protection, one could make a compelling argument that Peripheral is meant to be an allegory for the danger of trying to ignore one's mental health problems.
Even if it was intended to be a wholly uncomplicated horror film, Peripheral still works. Miki Nomura is effectively creepy as Stefani's unseen terrorizer and the makeup crew did a great job putting the creature's disturbing look together. Casara Clark is instantly sympathetic as the timid Stefani while Chris Barry's Dr. Memel becomes the male version of A Visitor's Jill. The only difference is that when the climax hits, Barry's delivery takes a nosedive as Memel near-comedically underreacts to the horrific situation unfolding before him. Aside from Barry's subpar performance, Peripheral is a healthy shot of horror with just the right amount of gray area story-wise. It allows the viewer to ponder all that's happened without being overly forthright or annoyingly unclear. So whenever you have two minutes to spare, check out Peripheral and see if it has you looking over your shoulder afterward.
Score: 7.5 out of 10 shared psychotic disorders.
Confessions of a Haunting...:
The final four films of this list come courtesy of director Andrew J.D. Robinson and Workobey Films. First up is Confessions of a Haunting..., a movie that truly excels at toying with audience expectations. As you watch Anna (Julie Mainville) record a video addressing how she feels about her father's passing, the title and slow buildup will have you anticipating a big jump scare or an explosive plot twist. But instead, Confessions of a Haunting... turns out to be a much richer story tackling some of the same poignant issues explored in Robinson's film We Are The Missing. As alluded to by Anna, this film is about an all-too-real type of horror: the fear of losing someone and the horror that comes with regret.
With Confessions of a Haunting... focusing almost exclusively on Anna, a lot is riding on Julie Mainville's performance. Thankfully, Mainville nails it with a painfully authentic portrayal of a woman struggling with a deep pain--one that she's barely keeping contained behind a stone face. She makes you feel for poor Anna and invests you in her tragic history with her father. The conclusion brings all of Anna's pent-up emotions to a head, culminating in an ending that's equal parts tearjerking and heartwarming. While the title might have you thinking you're sitting down to watch a Paranormal Activity knockoff, Confessions of a Haunting... is bound to surprise you with how heavy it gets.
Score: 10 out of 10 offscreen daughters.
Nikki is Calling...:
While this microshort film might share a title scheme with Confessions of a Haunting..., Nikki is Calling... can't compare to it in quality. While the previous film had a lot going on under its surface, this one follows a super basic premise: Kira (Beáta Imre) getting a strange video call from her friend Nikki (Mylee Batista). There's not much to say about this one; it's a short that's not particularly bad nor is it particularly noteworthy. The story is simplistic as can be and ends with a twist many will see coming the second Kira answers Nikki's call. Beáta Imre gives a solid enough performance, though Kira's reaction to the aforementioned "twist" is more than a little weird. So while there are worse shorts out there to give a minute of your time, don't go into Nikki is Calling... expecting any grand scares.
Score: 4 out of 10 online trends.
Another microshort about a video call: this time, a playful chat between young couple Emma and Ray (Eleonora Poutilova and Patrick Mulligan) gets interrupted by noises in Emma's house. The dynamic between Emma and Ray is what gives Squirrels Scratching an edge over the similarly generic videocall horror short that precedes it on this list. Eleonora Poutilova and Patrick Mulligan are lovably quirky as the cyber sweethearts, with their cute interactions making up for the movie's buildup leading up to a whimper of a climax. Like Nikki is Calling..., Squirrels Scratching is a basic horror short that can be described as "not bad, not great, just OK." But at least this one gives you an adorable couple and some fun dancing/beatboxing before it reaches a routine conclusion.
Score: 5 out of 10 miniature clock towers.
Have You Heard From Kate Lately?:
Less than a minute long, Have You Heard from Kate Lately? is another screencast movie that follows Nadine (Jinesea Bianca Lewis) as she receives an alarming video concerning her friend Kate (Chelsea Woods). While it's just as simple as the previous two films, there's at least a fair amount of Fridge Horror engrained in this story. The details about what happened to Kate and how someone close to Nadine is involved are left completely in the dark. As such, there's no limit to the number of theories viewers can come up with for what may've gone down--and what might happen now that Nadine's in the know.
The "food for thought" angle of the movie's ending makes up for its relatively by-the-book premise. With a less-than-a-minute-long runtime to work with, the actors don't have enough time to give anything less than serviceable deliveries. This is especially good news for Steve Kasan, as it prevents a repeat of the mess that was his performance in Déjà Dead. Have You Heard from Kate Lately? is at about the same uniqueness level as the previous two films that make up the final three of this list. But thanks to the chilling-in-hindsight finale, it has just enough edge to push it ahead of its Beáta Imre-led comrade.
Score: 5 out of 10 creepy black cats.
The rocky start this review list got off to with Don't Turn Around is only halfway indicative of what comes after. While House of Prey was also a letdown and the list ends with two 5s and a 4, there are still a few unexpected gems hidden in between. He Dies at the End and Confessions of a Haunting... were the best of the bunch, with the latter being the diamond of the Andrew J.D. Robinson quartet. With 7 out of the 10 films landing in the middle of my scoring range or higher, there's more than enough here to justify checking the whole list out. So whenever you've got the time, have a look at these short films and see if any of them manage to get your spine tingling in five minutes or less.