Soho Horror Film Festival short programme reviews

By David Dent

One of the great things about London’s newest horror film festival, screened over the weekend of 11th and 12th November, was the pairing of a number of short films with ‘sympathetic’ main features.

Here’s a summary of some of the shorts from that weekend.

Helsinki Mansplaining Massacre – a 15 minute early Peter Jackson style Finnish film directed by Ilja Rautsi, is best summed up by its publicity blurb: “An intensely hysterical horror comedy about one woman’s desperate struggle to survive a horde of men with frail egos, who just want to explain everything to her.” When Essi hits a tree while driving, after having just confessed to her partner that she might be pregnant, she takes refuge in a cabin in the woods, full of locals who seem to be in full on ritualistic mansplaining mood, dispensing useful advice about cars and advising Essi not to be worried about having a child, to which she responds by – just like a woman (irony alert) going loco on them with a shotgun. Who will be left alive and what will be explained to them? Hilarious.

Monstagram – Jerome Sable’s 3 minute short, filmed in the gleaming style of a 1950s TV commercial, has a kid in a bath warning his mum not to photograph him looking cute. She does. He then forbids her to share it on line, warning that once the picture reaches 100 likes something horrible will be summoned to do her in. She does and it does – rather gorily.

The Sermon – showing as part of the ‘Queer Fears Showcase’ element of the festival, this was a bleak film, beautifully shot on 35mm with many folk horror touches, written and directed by Dean Puckett. In an isolated but seemingly contemporary Puritanical religious community, the head of the village’s church preaches against homosexuality, not knowing that his own daughter Ella is gay. The object of his offspring’s affections, an older woman, is captured and pilloried by the villagers – Ella joins in the taunting to maintain her secret, but takes her revenge on her fellow parishioners by poisoning the communion wine, spurred on by a shadowy figure who may be se separate entity or part of Ella’s personality. An effective film which is far more powerful than its 11 minutes would attest, its story clearly has a wider purpose to say something about an increasingly intolerant society.

Unto Death – vampirism is the sub genre of horror that lends itself most to questions of physicality and intimacy, and in Jamie Hooper’s 7 minute short film, those connections are well made. “Solitude was my only consolation…” an onscreen quote from Mary Shelley, introduces us to Thomas, a man of the cloth, conducting a sermon whose words have increasing relevance to the images we are shown. Thomas’s love for his partner Luke is pure but Luke no longer is, having been bitten. The crucifixes that are part of Thomas’s life are revealed to have another protective purpose, as Luke lies in bed, changing, cradled by Thomas who, sharpening a stake, knows what he has to do and the sacrifice he must make. Unto Death is a lyrical, beautifully photographed essay about faith and togetherness which despite its short running time makes a powerful impact.

PYOTR495 – the set up for Blake Mawson’s 15 minute mini movie is as follows: one evening in the Moscow of 2014 (where Putin has effectively outlawed homosexuality and invaded Crimea), 16 year-old Pyotr is phone baited by an ultra-nationalist group known for their violent abductions and attacks, bolstered by Russia’s LGBT Propaganda Law. But Pyotr has a dangerous secret, and a demonic one at that. A bit of a two fingers up at the Russian ‘state-of-the-nation’ PYOTR495 is edgy, nasty and satisfyingly redemptive. “You fucking monster!” one of the attackers shouts when the tables have been turned. “Oh, I’m the monster?” responds demonic Pyotr before he impales her with the Crimean flag and cycles off with the best looking guy in the room.

The Vampire of Soho – this one is less a short than a calling card for backers to help director Andy (Zombie Spring Breakers) Edwards fund his feature, whose title adds a plural to the word ‘vampire’ – budget permitting, presumably. Set in the early 1980s and filmed and acted by a group of people hardly born then, it’s an attempt to recreate the sleazy feel of Soho at the time, littered somewhat randomly with references to the Falklands War, Gary Glitter and Curly Wurly bars. Honestly it’s pretty thin stuff – as is the story, with gothy Mel falling in with a group of vampires who walk the central London streets and check out dodgy post Batcave bands.

Sang Papier – a Canadian movie, directed by Kevin T. Landry, this 8 minute short borrows heavily from the What We Do in the Shadows vibe, as a vampire from Romania, Grigore (Alexand Fournier) gets stopped at Canadian immigration and is subject to less than sensitive treatment at the hands of border officials. With his seriously out of date passport and his pasty face he’s a man out of time and out of place; Sang Papier is a thinly disguised comment on immigration, but just when you thought the film might be showing its liberal tendencies, wait a minute! Turns out one of the questioners is a actually Grigore’s aunt and a vampire too, and kills her human colleague to provide her nephew with safe passage. So perhaps the movie is actually in support of a more Trumpian approach to immigration? Oh who cares, it’s funny and clever.

Oscar’s Bell – a 12 minute exercise in tension, Oscar’s Bell features dad Duncan (Paul Peaky Blinders Bullion), his son and dog Oscar, who are on their weekly camping trip into the wilderness together against Duncan’s wife’s wishes (wise woman). It’s late in the day, and there’s something on the edge of the woods watching all three of them.
Chris Cronin’s four award winning short film features some stunning night time photography and a real sense of dread assisted by a unnerving soundtrack from Crypt of Insomnia. Apparently inspired by online horror stories from ‘Creepypasta’ and ‘No Sleep’ – and also Carpenter’s version of The Thing – it’s a fine example of the ability to convey a lot in a very small cinematic space.

What Metal Girls are Into – three metalhead girls head out into the desert en route to a music fest and rent a cabin from a creepy guy, whose attempts to get to know them better are greeted with a mixture of insouciance and revulsion. As they offload their stuff, a check of the cabin reveals a severed hand in the freezer. Deciding to stay anyway (!) on the next day when they return from the festival the creepy guy has brought some friends, and the mood is distinctly ugly. The girls must become resourceful as the creeps clearly have more on their mind than a good time.
A sly take on the #metoo debate, this is a girl against boy fight to the death which has you rooting for the women and hoping the slimeballs get theirs. It’s not overly gory but it has a great soundtrack, and some dry wit to leaven the mood, for example the girl who’s worst crime is confessing to sleeping with a guy wearing a ‘Slipknot’ T shirt.

I Am the Doorway – one of the recent short adaptations of Stephen King stories under his ‘Dollar Baby’ scheme (this one dating all the way back to 1971), this is a very abstract short, which has you diving back to the source text to make head or tail of it. Another version of the same story was filmed in 2018 which was 20 minutes long, but this 15 minute Czech Republic film is all about the confusing. Director Robin Kasparik’s own synopsis of this strangeness explains that I Am the Doorway is “a first person POV perspective (which) allows the audience to get inside the head of an astronaut trapped in a spaceship, as a strange virus grows inside him, altering his mind. To save himself he must take drastic action.” The film was shot on a not for profit basis using the ‘fulldome’ immersive video projection process.
The film’s perspective is through the visor of the astronaut looking out through a portal at activity on a distant planet. At first his hands are bandaged (his limbs and the distant planet are all that we can see) but as the bandages come off it’s obvious that he’s been infected. Eventually his hands – which the story discloses are now receptacles for an alien life form, seem able to control his surroundings and the fate of the planet. It’s an odd one, but probably too abstract for its own good, and arguably more useful as a demonstration of the ‘fulldome’ system rather than as a film in itself.

Post Mortem Mary – here’s a creepy little short that, despite its short running time, conveys a very claustrophobic atmosphere. The time is Australia in the 1840s: Edith runs an autopsy photography business, making her money from the trend of dressing corpses up and posing them as if still alive. Her daughter Mary assists. Mother and daughter visit a small farmhouse, and while mum comforts the grieving older woman, Mary, who is understandably rather squeamish at the task before her, gets the job of adjusting the corpse ready for photography. But is the body really dead?
Joshua Long’s 9 minute film is a treasure trove of detail, and preserves an elegant silence for much of its length. Its creepy subject matter and lends itself to the short form, benefitting from Ben Nott’s arid, obsessive cinematography, the camera gliding slowly among the characters. I would perhaps have liked to have seen this opened out a little more, as at nine minutes it’s just started when it finishes. But it’s a fine piece of work.

Lunch Ladies – in Melinville, California, Seretta (Donna Pieroni) and LouAnne (Mary Manofsky) are two dinner ladies at a performing arts school with a massive crush on Johnny Depp, and when they win a competition, the prize for which presents the chance to meet him in the flesh, they have nothing to do but save for the air fare (not included in the prize). Unfortunately they run the risk of being fired because of their atrocious cooking. They can’t afford to lose their jobs, as they won’t be afford to travel to see Johnny, so what can they do? The answer comes when Seretta, teased by one of the kids, loses her religion and the girl ends up, shall we say, on the menu. The other kids love the meat pies that the ladies serve up, and it looks like their jobs – and dreams to meet Johnny – are safe after all.
This is a high gloss, fun film which takes a nice sideswipe at high school comedies – it’s the kind of thing John Waters used to do towards the end of his movie making career. As usual with short films, there’s a lot of fine incidental details – the poster of Depp on the ladies’ wall whose mouth has been kissed so much it’s worn away, for example, and the performances of Pieroni and Manofsky are very lively.

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