The first film festival I attended for writing duty was the inaugural North Bend Film Festival of 2018. The time has passed so quickly. I had just started writing more seriously about film then. Being such a massive fan of Twin Peaks (notably shot in North Bend), a homer for Pacific Northwest content, and a joyous genre advocate, it seemed pretty clear I landed in the right place the first time out. The content of this particular show I think embodies exactly the kind of film I’m looking to promote on the website. Vanguard storytelling with eclectic subject matters and a genre focus. The short films, especially, slid right into my lap, and justified themselves as exactly the kind of thing we created this website to talk about. The Something Strange block is why I write about movies. I want to talk about low-to-no-budget productions that you’re probably not going to see but whose directors you ought to start thinking about now before they make a really neat small horror film. My passion for these shorts blocks hasn’t diminished whatsoever after a few years of logging all of the shorts I can possibly see at the festival. If anything, North Bend continues to prove an invaluable niche that I find deeply rewarding. It’s also not content I’m exactly making for anyone in particular. I’m writing these blurbs for myself with the faith that doing so and covering these underseen films is an energizing and self-sustaining practice that carries me through between dire blockbusters and indie films that I probably should cover but have little to say about. I also love the challenge here: writing in several different modes in one piece and giving quasi reviews for content that nobody else has written about yet. So, this column must continue out of love and passion for weird short films. Here goes this year’s highly eccentric selection, and I hope you enjoy browsing these as much as I do creating them.
The onomastic study of Franz Kafka’s works plays out in a short story film where a young lady named Fran cold calls men with the surname Kafka. She’d like to find romance on the telephone. Romance with any man named Kafka. She calls the operator each night and asks for the names. This night she lands 13 whole “Mistahs,” surnames of Kafka. She says she’s struck a gold mine, which confuses the operator. “Oh, nothing,” she demurs, not willing to give up her racket over the phone. She then goes about calling them, as more is revealed. She wishes to find a relationship in which — armed only with a PhD she doesn’t use and a long list of interesting words starting with K in the dictionary that she does use — she wants to find any man who’s marriage will result in her being named Fran Kafka. The mostly static film has one nice revolving shot and the short story is succinct and has a beginning, middle, and end (you do need to note this for short films). Kafka’s use of names is curious to any writer. Often he wrote in paradoxical parables without proper names — a couple times with characters with the first or last name K) and it would be a mistake to think any choice lacked cleverness of meaning. There is some awkwardness in the satire commenting on anti-intellectualism or which words in the dictionary are American or English words (that it’s satire is understood, what the point is and what it says about this character, is possibly missed). The logline would say it’s about paranoid agoraphobia but that’s not what you’ll get out of it. Kafkas is also perhaps the only short film that evokes the master storyteller and doesn’t ask bland critics to call it Kafkaesque.
If you background an Otto Preminger film on a marquee, an effort is required to make that meaningful. Even if that’s what is playing at the local theater and you include that in your shot, you are then required to make that your movie. Here goes Wild Card, which pulls a hard boiled femme fatale story that trends a bit more toward the later Italian masters. When there are colorful gloves, lots of kitsch, premonitions, and equally colorful neon and songs that sound like neon, it’s probably a giallo. It does honor both sides here, of early noir and later crime fiction and is delicately shot on film. A red dressed (and eventually gloved) woman answers a televised wanted ad and the man knows right away, he’s in for some trouble. When he arrives at her apartment, full of a particular brand of kitsch (if you have a waterbed, sphinx wall fixtures, those awkward chairs that look like giant black hands, and a dedicated VHS setup, you are giving certain time honored energies). The short plays well as a showcase of what the director can do: a good highlight reel for Tipper Newton to make more (short) films out of.
They See You
It is possible to have too many ideas for a short film. One or two sturdy ideas is good enough. Allotted about ten minutes, any story with four or five directions and variations of horror is likely to be jumbled in the expression. Given that the short film is the domain of the aspirational filmmaker, the format is best utilized to pitch your initial ideas. The tendency, with some projects, is to use all of your ideas at once. So that’s what happens in They See You. It’s a ten minute film about grief, loss, torture horror, a cabin in the woods, premonitions, and revenge. So much going on. It would work if the framing worked. Instead, the film is awkwardly blocked and the acting gets muddled under the weight of having to carry several expressions in a space where fewer would be better. There is not quite any signature style here yet but you can see the filmmakers working it out as they go and can expect their ambitions with concepts to pay off once they can either fit them all in their runtime or design their film around a significant hook. One character says, regarding what they want to watch that night — they would accept anything except British films or films from the 1950s — and I spent the rest of the runtime wondering why and thinking about that. The director also produced the 2019 film Cuck and I have questions I wouldn’t really like to have answered.
There existed an addiction to blood. Vampires have always been handy analogues for addiction stories. Their insatiability fulfills exactly what these stories need as useful metaphors for the wants of the addict. This one is a clever therapy session between a hesitant counselor who does not want their blood sucked and a hungry elder vampire who has to suck on lollipops so he doesn’t want to break his counselor’s skin too badly. Our vampire is notably played by Brad Dourif, beloved voice actor of Chucky, which feels like a really solid get for this premise. It is short and sweet, and director Cleo Handler controls the pacing of the conversation and material now. It has some cute asides and the ridiculous premise that the vampire has transferred his addiction into popular online videogames. Getting in and getting out is a valuable asset in the short film. This one does just enough and practices concision in its setup and somewhat lopsided punchline, but you can’t be mad, because it’s just a little bit of fun as a genre twist.
I love when films close with punky self-contained theme songs. Just a bit of a spike where “Wild Bitch!” can be yelled over a melody. That’s good enough for me. Good enough reason for any short to exist. Rebekka Johnson & Kate Nash have written, directed, and starred in their own small horror film. These exceedingly different women meet in an interview. Wild eyed Rebekka Johnson plays a woman who has just witnessed something strange happening in the forest. Kate Nash is interviewing her and follows the scoop into the woods. Hard one to describe, because that spoils the content, of which there is not a lot but all of it is all right and decently handled by its actors. Categorically it feels like exactly the sort of film this shorts block is really intended to promote.
Break Any Spell
What utility does a shorts package have if it doesn’t have one feature where it’s just young folks being young folks and making young folks things? Hopefully they have as much fun doing it as the young folks in Break Any Spell, a fantasy short about LARPing (just look it up and watch 2013’s Knights of Badassdom for a definitive statement and a film nobody else has ever recommended to anyone for any reason). This short doesn’t quite take but I never want to fault a production where the fun is so evident, sometimes that just means the audience has a bit less fun than the performers, but enjoys watching all that joy put into a project. It’s nerdy and enthusiastic, which makes it a fairly fine cap to this year of very curious transmissions. Something Strange indeed. See you next year.