The 2019 Popcorn Frights Short Films Line-Up

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It’s that time again.

The 5th Annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival is happening once again in their relatively new home in Ft. Lauderdale’s dope church-turned-single screen movie theater Savor Cinema and once again the good folks running it – Igor, Marc, and company – have asked me to review the short film line-up of this year’s run. Which is very considerate of them knowing that I think of the short film as the ultimate artform because I can finish it before bedtime.

Except that this year has an intimidating amount of 40 short films to be screened throughout the festival in several different programs and bedtime becomes a moot point, even after we ignore the fact that I have to sleep under the sheets after watching a good horror movie. Nothing I’m particularly hostile to this year and a couple that I’m really impressed by.

Whelp, a lot of movies ahead, let’s get cracking at them.

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Wild Love

OTHER SIDE OF THE BOX (Caleb J. Phillips, USA)
Screens with Haunt on Thursday 8 August at 9:15 pm

An excellent exercise in patience, using its 15 minutes well to build its tension and its cuts to make a point of what might be happening right outside of the frame and the eyeview of our lead characters as they try to find out why they’ve been sent a certain sinister box. Pretty underlit to the point that somehow the very void that we find in the box looks brighter than the room around it and but the final moments are so perfectly creepy that I can’t bring myself to mind. A perfectly functional opening for the festival!

WILD LOVE (Paul Autric/Quentin Camus/Léa Georges/Maryka Laudet/Zoé Sottiaux/Corentin Yvergniaux, France)
Screens with Bloodline on Friday 9 August at 7:00 pm

Certainly the familiar story and its status as a work for L’École des Nouvelle Images points to this being an animation exercise reel than anything else, but it is a marvelous exercise of distinguishing the textures in a forest trip whether it’s the hair on a man’s exposed legs or the fur on an army of beavers (the one moment that felt off to me is a flamethrower that looked like it was in a different space from any character in the shot). A lot of playing with depth in a foggy and suspicious area and soft lighting in a cave where the only source is a slit on the top, just in general enough of a technical showcase to allow me to see how it might have the budget it has but still make the most of it and promise a lot of its directors (SIX of them, so you KNOW a lot of work was put in this) with further resources. And, admittedly, even the story was amusing in its familiarity, what with the bug-eyed expressions of the little rodents…

THE DESECRATED (John Gray, USA)
Screens with The Dare on Friday 9 August at 9:00 pm

I admittedly did not have much of a response to this, perhaps given that much of the waiting tension of its 7 minutes doesn’t have much payoff beyond a final note that’s too blink-and-you’ll-miss-it to function as the jump scare it seems to want to pay off for. It’s a bit concerning that the middle sequence with the… ghost (?) is more effective than the final scare. Still, I will give props to how color was used make a mortuary gloomy without underlighting it.

LOOM (Kevin Rothlisburger, USA)
Screens with Bliss on Friday 9 August at 11:15 pm

Very close to being my favorite short in the festival in its nicely self-contained EC Comics delivery of overt monster horror, outrageous blood splatter, and particularly in its gorgeously autumnal outdoor color work (even if it doesn’t differentiate that much between the opening dusk and the closing dawn). It’s particularly a satisfying slasher-type gambit to have all of its victims of violent death to be such despicable bullying good ol’ boy cartoons that we won’t miss. There’s one hiccup for me and it is not a small one: some big points of the climax have some very messy post-production work. Specifically, a shot that reveals one of the characters’ true nature features some attempted pinlight work that doesn’t convincingly align with their eyes (this is most frustrating because the face already looks nicely Halloweenish in a way that I think the short owns) and certain shots of an extended chase sequence end up looking like there’s a blurry blue Rorschach blot on the screen in a combination with the lighting, the coloring, and the generous usage of fog in the forest. And it’s very bothersome stuff but the rest of the short is able to carry itself all through the night that by the end of the bloodbath, I end up pretty satisfied with it as diverting campfire story.

GUESSING GAME (Zach Wincik, USA)
Screens with Alive on Saturday 10 August at 1:00 pm

I understand that the close-up is the easiest way to establish tension with the specificity of your actors’ expression filling up the frame (which Guessing Game does very well) but even for a short film, there is a limit to how long you can repeat one shot scale before it deflates and I’m not sure Guessing Game avoids it. Alongside that, there’s also how off-puttingly humorless the final beats of the short feel with a last shot being one that insists this short is trying to say something about society but can’t when all of the context of what happening is back-loaded. I might have forgiven a good amount of it if it had played meta with its end credits while removing the widen that sees us out.

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A Doll for Edgar

A DOLL FOR EDGAR (Anthony Dones, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

Reminiscent to me of the “Living Doll” episode from The Twilight Zone, it even has an antagonist that feels maybe more modern than Savalas and certainly more sinister with his late evil revealing monologue but definitely reminds me of the actor in his brawny baldness. We have here once again a nicely self-contained sort of EC Comics tale where we watch supernatural circumstances give a satisfying comeuppance to evil bullys (credit to Justin Sims for giving an odiously masculine attitude against Bryce Smith’s sensitivities), aided by some pretty great shadow work on the characters to give this broken home a domestic gloominess.

ALWAYS LISTENING (Randy Gonzalez, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

I get what it’s going for in trying to fully envelope the sort of paranoia one would expect in a society reliant on obsessively surveillant technology (not that I find that idea inherently interesting, but it delivers this theme in a pretty effective way). I just also happen to think the ending beat is a bridge too far for a short film that was already doing a pretty fine job as it was. It feels like the sort of moment inserted in because the makers thought the short couldn’t qualify as horror without violence and it suddenly tries to introduce a new logic to the story that feels totally divorced with what we just watched. But it does have a cool effect when it gets to that point (and also a very well-used sound effect for what happens off-screen).

CALL FOR A GOOD TIME (Mike Marrero & Jon Rhoads, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

Full Disclosure: I am friends with one of the directors for this film, Jon Rhoads. And from what I understand Marrero & Rhoads had made this more as an off-hand doodle while working on a much bigger project, so it explains the crude construction of this whole thing (even though I think the granite brown color of the short – however cut off it is by the brighter floor of the bathroom – does make the bathroom feel grosser than it actually looks). I could certainly expect better and more inspired from the makers of Buzzcut (one of the highlights of a previous Popcorn Frights and in fact the short that introduced be to Rhoads) than something not that much different from Lights Out, but for a throwaway bit meant to function as an amuse bouche to the rest of the festival, it works.

FEVER (Brian Karl Rosenthal, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

The perfect mixture between darkness and costume. It’s very hard not to spoil when and how it pays off after watching an extremely sweaty Lani Lum wait in shadowy silence and scope around the corners but even after that payoff happens, we get to spend a couple more minutes watching out for when the source of all this short’s scares return again (credit especially to Chuck Baxter’s slender presence). Being able to pull off that surprise twice in a row with enough space in between is pretty impressive if nothing else about this short will linger in my memory.

THE FINAL GIRL RETURNS (Alexandria Perez, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

Full Disclosure for this one as well: I am also good friends with the writer/director/producer, Alex. Which I suppose puts me in a good position to already understand exactly what she was aiming for with The Final Girl Returns, which portrays what happens AFTER a slasher movie ends. And I feel like the answer Alex has for that question is too big for a 15 minute short, but I think she does as best a job as I can see involving the frustrations and the psychological scars (impressively established with schism-like cuts into the faces the Driver remembers – his lack of name being one of several ways this aesthetically feels like a Nicholas Winding Refn short) beyond some moments that are a bit too on the nose like the lines about “changing the ending” and a radio newscaster literally asking “when will the cycle end?”. Still in any case, this has some brilliant horizon-set camerawork in the California desert with washed-out colors by Rob Bennett (on top of a really impressive combination of handheld and dolly zoom in a single shot) and the sinister Cliff Martinez-like soundscape to make it all feel an aberration of the slasher form. If I think the runtime is too restricted to make much comment so much as observation of the genre, its themes are still direct in its feminist reclaiming of the genre (not least of which being that we don’t actually see the violence commit towards the women). And needless to say, I’m really proud of Alex.

THE LIMITS (Ulbrecht Tomas, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

The biggest surprise of all of the shorts for me. A dystopian future road to hell where its lead follows an inky black path of night that’s only illuminated by the torches, but it’s specifically the artificial but eye-catching night sky effects that made it a treat to watch, foreseeing the sort of cosmic element it tries to introduce in moments like the hooded robe cult and the giant truck driving madman straight out of a John Carpenter science fiction. Not to mention the great effect that interrupts every major kill, where after a geyser of blood effects, we smash cut to a hard close up of what looks like blood clotting with a crackling sound beneath it. It makes death look and sound painful on top of letting it function as spectacle. As it moves forward, it becomes less exciting to look at, especially the day scenes where the gun muzzle effects look much more chintzy and betray its budget, but overall it disabused me of any previous hesitation I had watching a 22 minute short by making a pretty straightforward dark quest picture.

SPIRIT #1 (Brett Potter, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

Produced by Miami’s local film collective pride, Borscht Corporation, it should be expected that Spirit #1 is would be off-kilter and weird. That approach by Borscht is hit-or-miss with me and I’m disappointed to call it a miss here (the first half was losing me after a nice gambit of breaking the fourth wall with text and camera movement), but it does backload its best and wildest stuff including an impressive extreme tighten from the widest and narrowest possible hallway shot one could start from. But sometimes being weird just isn’t enough for me.

VALERIO’S DAY OUT (Michael Arcos, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

I honestly started off very off-put by the fractured video diary manner of this short (I don’t think I ever ended up warming to the usage of title cards, frankly) but as it continued forward, Arcos’ work started coalescing into something really sinister and unnervingly inhuman. The monotonous reading of the titular jaguar’s thoughts went from gratingly annoying to serial killer-like cold while ascribing venomous emotions towards actions that would seem natural to such an animal. The repeated usage of news footage went from halting to tell us information we already know to hammering the apparent youth and “cuteness” of our young remorseless killer. The pointed address in the thoughts of the jaguar turned from weird to uncomfortable. If any of these shorts might have turned out to use form most effectively to create a chilling tone and mood, I think I may have to hand it to this one

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The Limits

LA NORIA (Carlos Baena, Spain)
Screens with Itsy Bitsy on Saturday 10 August at 5:00 pm

A wonderful and silent dark fairy tale where even if I wasn’t remotely scared of what it brought, I’m still in wonder at the lighting effects Baena and his animators put into it. They’ve really shown a nice versatility between backlighting the monsters the main child has to face and providing a sense of whimsy in the colors once he finds the treasure at the end. I can’t say I’m all that moved emotionally by the final minute like it expects the viewer to be but that lighting really does a lot of the heavy-lifting for the haunting beauty of it all.

THE VIDEO STORE COMMERCIAL (Tim Rutherford/Cody Kennedy, Canada)
Screens with Daniel Isn’t Real on Saturday 10 August at 7:15 pm

I mean, it’s got its kitsch down. Looking like a hole in the wall video store from the 80s, having a lead character that is obnoxious exactly the way a movie fanatic would be, having that static CCTV look to its camera. There’s just not much to it beyond that kitschy nostalgia. At the very least, it has a nice gory face-melting moment and it has jokes. Not particularly jokes that made me laugh beyond a line of exposition delivered exactly in the sort of snobby way somebody who calls themselves a “movie expert” would, but jokes nevertheless and it gets out of the door fast enough to not really feel like a bother to watch.

STARLETS (Marten Carlson, USA)
Screens with Villains on Saturday 10 August at 9:30 pm

The sort of meta humor with the company title card was really charming enough to get me into what Starlets was going for early on and I really enjoyed the black-and-white cinematography melding together into studio system silver that I never felt bored looking at the film. But that interest was fizzling by the end of things – especially any time that Jill Bailey’s Norma Desmond impression wasn’t on-screen – and when it reached its endpoint, everything that happened felt expected.

CHOWBOYS: AN AMERICAN FOLKTALE (Astron-6, Canada)
Screens with Porno on Saturday 10 August at 11:15 pm

I imagine I would be much more into this if this wasn’t my first exposure to horror-comedy troupe Astron-6 proper (I had only previously seen The Void, which was directed by two of its members but not actually considered part of the group’s proper works). Almost all of Chowboys knowingly functions as a last hurrah for the group as it opens with a title card that literally announces “the end of the cowboy”, so I wonder if the rest of their work is as low-key as this one taking place in one location and with no change in blocking between its characters. In any case, it’s still highly amusing as a self-aware campfire story that finds a very slick way of establishing itself as an anthology short (two moments where I actually went “a-ha!”) and an amiable sense of humor for something about three doomed men in a chillingly blue snowstorm ready to die (and I especially love the sound mix of the howling winds in the end credits to hammer its punchline home). I don’t know that I’m rushing to see the rest of Astron-6’s material from this, but it’s definitely something on my radar now.

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The Video Store Commercial

THE OBLITERATION OF THE CHICKENS (Izzy Lee, USA)
Screens with The Unthinkable on Sunday 11 August at 1:00 pm

Pretty damn spot-on impersonation of Werner Herzog tonally and vocally (by Bracken MacLeod) if not aesthetically, as Lee simply uses the narration as a pretense to work with stock footage and associative cutting. Definitely inspired by Herzog’s infamous declaration of his fears of the “stupidity” of chickens, it’s a throwaway short that has a lot of energy in its 3 minutes and doesn’t outstay its welcome before the joke becomes stale. I laughed a lot at the directness of “the abyss is stupid”.

THE SUBJECT (Patrick Bouchard, Canada)
Screens with Artik on Sunday 11 August at 3:00 pm

I can hardly think of a Canadian animated short that didn’t entertain me at the very least and that’s saying nothing of the ones that show me techniques and content I’ve never imagined. This falls into the former – it’s essentially what a student of Jan Švankmajer would get with more naval-gazing as Bouchard portrays a man in stop-motion dissecting a creation in his image – but it’s still a very impressive piece of craft: stressing the cracks and age in a body that feels deliberately more earthy than fleshy before all of the golden and rusted machinery pops out of the cavities to provide a steadier rhythm to the slicing and smashing we’re watching. I don’t have much enthusiasm for artists making art about themselves and I could say I expected more (and not be lying), but this is still eye-popping stuff with a final shot that truly argues the difference between human skin and clay surface while using dissolves to flip those differences on their head.

FROST BITE (Andrew Hunt, USA)
Screens with Infección on Sunday 11 August at 5:15 pm

An unexpectedly charming Zombie western set in the blinding white snows of winter with a crunchy sound design to call attention to the elements surrounding our characters, one of them a laconic young woman (Louisa Darr who is almost as much a source of a lot of that charm as Hunt’s relaxed Western directing vibes) and the other being a zombie in a yellow jacket and hoodie (Rod Kasai, who proves to be exceptionally expressive for the part of a mindless zombie) who is either following her instinctively or being led by her. In any case, the relation between our two subjects has an unexpectedly warm payoff (and a final beat that suggests this may be a proof-of-concept for a later feature to me) and the zombie makeup mixes so well with the frozen snow on the actors’ faces that I found this to be an unexpected highlight among all the other shorts of the festival.

YOUR LAST DAY ON EARTH (Marc Martínez Jordán, Spain)
Screens with Satanic Panic on Sunday 11 August at 9:30 pm

My favorite short film of the festival, period. Takes the sort of things that it makes me an easy mark for movies to explore well – grief and memory, though it’s not as subjective on the latter as I’d like. I expect that would be “fixed” by cutting down on the narration, but I put “fixed” in scare quotes because that assumes that’s what Jordán and his team wanted anyway and in any case the delivery by Enric Anquer is brilliantly sad and funny in its urgency at the same time so I’d rather not lose his voice. It’s particularly the way the short divvied up its responsibility between desperation and absurdity (thanks in addition Jordán’s editing delivering a late heist film interrupted by flashbacks) that makes it so effective and its final beats truly hit home even while using the most obvious of time travel clichés. And credit also to cinematographer Yuse Riera being able to give a consistent softness to the image and landscape where our hero remembers his wife’s casualty in a terrorist attack and returns, the kind of softness that comes from trying to pull an image from the back of your head and gives it a rosy look even while attached to a horrific death. Brilliant stuff.

FEARS (German Sacho, Spain)
Screens in front of Z on Sunday 11 August at 9:30 pm

Not deficient. But it is overly familiar to a degree that I’m starting to have trouble distinguishing any Spanish horror short I see: they all involve the same beats of tension, the same type of little girl, the same shade of darkness, especially the same fear of decrepit old women (with a mean-spirited twist at the end of this one that was also pretty familiar). Anyway, the guy I saw it with joked about how Guillermo Del Toro would probably produce this guy’s feature debut like he always does with any Spanish-language filmmaker with a short like this and… yeah, he definitely would…

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Caterpillarplasty

GO BACK (Matthew & Nathaniel Barber, USA)
Screens with The Girl on the Third Floor on Monday 12 August at 7:30 pm

It’s very simple but also very novel (with a nice cynical bloodsplatter note) and aesthetically well-suited to the Halloween time of year with a coloring scheme that feels drafted out of blues and oranges. I don’t feel like I left with very much substance in it beyond a waiting game for a character to receive his dues after foolishly ignoring the creepy warning signs before him, but sometimes you don’t need much more to be amused by a horror film.

MERCURY SCREAMS (Dan Wilder, USA)
Screens with The Girl on the Third Floor on Monday 12 August at 7:30 pm

At first glimpse, the presentation of the subject matter as archive footage seems like bet-hedging in order to cover for some of the more amateur production elements, but as it turns out it’s all pretense for the video effects that Wilder and his crew play with to stress the wrongness of what we’re watching (on top of a context of background information regarding the material’s “intended broadcast” and what happened to prevent it). A fun little invented video relic of demonic pregnancy that commits to making video relic status work.

CATERPILLARPLASTY (David Barlow-Krelina, Canada)
Screens with Depraved on Monday 12 August at 9:30 pm

Aggressively ugly character designs made even more effective by how the reflective plastic sheen on their bodies projects their inhumanity and then the finale just takes the grotesquerie and tries to present it as the most mindblowingly beautiful thing ever in all of its trippy phallic and yonic imagery. Plus the saxophone soundtrack throws my brain around for a whirl. God, Canadian animation is always so reliable.

WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT (Jonas Trukanas, Lithuania)
Screens with Queen of Spades: The Looking Glass on Tuesday 13 August at 7:30 pm

A familiar story once again – one in which we have an example in this very short film slate of a young boy deals with his oppressor by creating a frightening protector –  but one no less well-delivered than the others. Particularly given that the weakness of the monster in the film means that Trukanas works with some dynamic lighting ideas, if nothing eye-opening, to make those shafts of light cutting through the uniform dark blue hues (and red at one point in the short) stand out.

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How to Be Alone

MANNEQUINS (David Malcolm, UK)
Screens with The Sonata on Tuesday 13 August at 9:30 pm

Really fun and interesting already as an experiment (it reminded me of a school assignment I had in film school involving still imagery, except this one had a knack for camera movements making up for the literal rigidity of its actors), but then it had to try to be ABOUT SOMETHING. And the worst part is that I can’t really figure out what it was trying to be about, but the last few moments of the short and the repetition it utilizes are definitely pointed in a way that deflates all the Scooby-Doo fun of what preceded it. On top of which, it has pretty bad lighting. I don’t know if it’s deliberate or not, but it started to hurt eventually.

HOW TO BE ALONE (Kate Trefry, USA)
Screens with Paradise Hills on Wednesday 14 August at 7:30 pm

It is among the best shot of all the shorts with obviously the most resources (what with two recognizable indie stars in Maika Monroe and Joe Keery, the latter extremely underused) but it’s also just really… overwritten in a young adult-ish way considering the anxiety it tries to portray. And more particularly it feels like it uses narration way too desperately as a crutch to tell us things that there are better and more effective ways to tell us. Monroe obviously delivers it well enough verbally, but I don’t need to be explained the snake or the baby or all of that and wish it had just trusted Maika to not have to say anything to let us know what’s wrong in Denmark. And then that final act that has zero surprises after a short that gave us zero doubt where it was going to go, quickly resolving the issue without much struggle.

Also I fucking HATE that they’re as young as they are (the actors are my age) with a place as spacious and luxurious as THAT (complete with a nickelodeon!).

DEEP TISSUE (Meredith Alloway, USA)
Screens with Knives and Skin on 14 August at 9:30 pm

Obviously amateur in its picture quality and its limited blocking possibilities (looks like it was shot in a motel with its two beds in the “house call” location and it cramps it up), but a wonderfully sexy sense of humor (thanks especially to the two performances in the film), a good amount of effective gushy goriness, and I think Meredith Alloway and Joshua Wilmott got a rapport pace going to establish the understandable nervousness of the situation while translating that into something much more sinister than it turns out.

FIVE-COURSE MEAL (James Cadden, Canada)
Screens with In Fabric on Thursday 15 August at 7:30 pm

I definitely picked the best short to eat breakfast while watching. Based on a short story by Josh Saltzman, the punchline of Five-Course Meal is foreseeable after a certain plate slides down the unwelcoming gunmetal floor where Mark (Murray Farnell) and Jenny (Melissa Kwasek) are staying for a “month-long” experiment. But the sloppy slurpy sound design and the gradual filthying up of the sterile room so that it’s covered in gross greens and browns and yellows (as well as each catered dish coming by looking less appealing and more repulsive) do the best job possible of making the journey down an endurance test. And when we get to the point we expected, the prosthetics by Bold Raven FX turn the film into an outright grotesque cartoon, even using how ill-fitting the body of it fits on our actors to emphasis the exaggerated flabbiness of them all. No surprises, but very well put together.

TERROR ROAD (Brian Shephard, USA)
Screens with The Gravedigger on Thursday 15 August at 7:30 pm

Feels kind of tandem as a piece with Go Back with the differences standing out. Here, we have no orange at all leaving the piece with a foggish blue. Here we actually see the monster, looking like a grizzled little creature from Lamberto Bava’s Demons. There’s less space between the beginning of the signs (how funny that both shorts have their titles delivered to us via signs) and the end of the road for our foolish travelers. If anybody else would have to opportunity to see both of these back-to-back, I’d say they function pretty much well as an exercise in seeing how the same story can be told wildly differently and both of them getting the job done well enough.

TOE (Chad Thurman/Neal O’Brien, USA)
Screens with Bit on Friday 16 August at 10:00 pm

An amusingly creepy usage of puppetry (designed by Demi Kay Schlehoffer) to lovingly bring attention to the cracks and dirt on our protagonist boy’s face and the rustic world in which he lives in, adding to the folktale vibe it has going for it. It’s the shadowy depressed black-and-white of the short that really sells the nightmarish tone of this animated work.

In any case, if any readers find their way in Ft. Lauderdale in the upcoming week, I’d hope y’all check out the Popcorn Frights Film Festival and have a great time! Don’t be afraid to scream.

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The Final Girl Returns

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