In the art of filmmaking, short films aren’t the films you make for widespread acclaim and global distribution, but rather for the cinephiles and short-form entertainment enthusiasts that might just have the pull to get your foot in the door of the room with the people who can get you an acclaimed, globally distributed feature; or perhaps you simply like the form of short filmmaking. The list is endless, as are the number of wonderful short films available on the internet for you to watch for free right now. Famous filmmakers who have paved the way to the road they’re on today by way of shorts include Spielberg, Scorsese, Fincher, and even some newer kids in the block of genre filmmaking like Fede Alvarez and Andy Muschietti. I even got to view a wonderful short film at this year’s Final Girls Berlin Film Festival entitled Drum Wave from Natalie Erika James, and wouldn’t you know it, she now has a feature film debut being released by IFC Midnight on July 3. This year, Shudder has partnered with the Etheria Film Night, an LA-based film festival focusing on genre films from women directors, to present their block of short films for this year’s digitized event in light of COVID-19.
These nine shorts span the gamut of genres and tones but all share the common bond of all being directed by women. Women in filmmaking have had it hard being represented fairly among their male counterparts, but especially face challenges in genre filmmaking, where its “boys club” demeanor has often forced women out and made it more difficult for women who love sci-fi and horror and everything in-between to get their stories told. Luckily, this club has begun to open up to the immense amount of talent that women directors bring to their craft, and something like Etheria is just the place to show that off.
The following nine shorts will be available on Shudder to stream from June 19th to July 20th, 2020. Head to the official Etheria Film Festival website for more information.
Adulting is hard, and Kerry (Kerry Barker) feels the strain of that perhaps more than anyone else, taking on a new, crappy job in this post-modern world of pretending to be the best friend of awkward waffle iron heiress Katie (Katie Marovitch) through an app that could only be described as “Postmates, but for friends,” with Katie paying by the hour for Kerry’s attention and affection. Once Katie’s time is up, however, she soon finds herself at the mercy of Katie’s inability to drop the illusion of friendship and say goodbye.
This short is a super clever twist on the constantly shifting ways of the world amidst this technological boom that brings everything to our fingertips as long as we have the coin to pay for it. It’s not directly critical of this new era of convenience in any technophobic way, but rather is adding the cherry on top to the amusing hilarity of some of the Shark Tank-esque ideas that could wriggle their ways into our normal lives soon.
Barker and Marovitch (who also co-wrote the short) are wonderfully paired together, taking on a young Keri Russell and Kristen Schaal vibe in their respective roles, and their chemistry, despite being purposefully tense, is very charming. Director Carlyn Wilson adds a level of polish to the mix that comes in handy wonderfully when the film switches tones from a lighthearted satire to a straight-up horror film, and her grasp on directing real, dark horror amidst the clever script makes the climactic moments genuinely jarring, even if the final twist of the film does still leave us laughing in its (still horrifying) wittiness.
An import from Australia, Maggie May follows Sam (Katrina Mathers), who is dealing with both escaping an abusive marriage and the death of her mother. Sam hopes that she can reconnect with her estranged sister Maggie May (Lulu McClatchy), who doesn’t want to do much of anything. After a frustrating number of days with the apathetic and lazy Maggie May, Sam finds herself in a dire and life-threatening situation, and finds her sister’s want to not do anything might be her worst nightmare.
Maggie May is one of those films that you see, and even quite enjoy, but that you never want to fucking watch ever again. What’s weird about Maggie May is that, despite being horrifyingly unsettling and hard to watch, it’s also weirdly hilarious. It’s not a comedy by any means, but the way that writer/director Mia Kate Russell flips the idea of a psychopath on its head is absolutely hilarious to think about in theory. In execution, you have a horror film that is best left unexplained for the experience of it all. It’s hard to categorize Maggie May into a genre other than “I love this, but oh my god.”
Basic Witch is a short which, like Maggie May, could be construed as a comedy on the base level, but approaches the very important topic of consent and gaslighting in a way that is supposed to make the audience both uncomfortable and strangely empowered all at once. The short follows a modern-day witch, Lily (Olivia Castanho), who has just had a night of horrible sex where she feels taken advantage of by Brian (Chris O’Brien). The morning after, she crafts a delicious pumpkin spice latte for Brian that soon makes him experience and feel everything she experienced the night before.
Writer Lauren Kurek Sweeney Cannon takes something that feels like would be in a modern remake of Teen Witch and switches it around to something incredibly daring and challenging for the hordes of people who find themselves possibly questioning whether the casual inconvenience of a bad sexual encounter might’ve been a far more toxic experience for their partner or vice versa. While being funny on the surface, and wonderfully directed by Yoko Okumura, Basic Witch leaves the audience reflective on their own history and how sexual harassment and assault in our culture has shaped us to ignore the signs from both ends of perpetrator and victim. It’s an absolutely fascinating tale of perspective and consent wrapped up in a super clever supernatural tale.
Conversion Therapist follows a pansexual, polyamorous trio as they kidnap and torture a popular gay conversion therapist for his crimes against humanity. As someone who is gay, I was quite excited to see a queer twist on the short films featured in this block, but unfortunately, Conversion Therapist didn’t really do it for me. Perhaps it’s from my own history of not having to go through torturous therapy like that, but I often felt the message of the film was lost in its want to be as shocking and “out-there” as possible.
My biggest issue with the short mainly comes in the message that all homophobes are just secret homosexuals violently suppressing their urges, which I have always found to be bullshit and homophobic in itself. I have never appreciated the sentiment that homophobes have any sort of depth to their character beyond them being what they are publicly: homophobes. This is not the explanation and/or solution to the issue that homophobia has caused over the centuries, but rather something that people like to believe to make it all seem so very clever. It’s not, and it certainly doesn’t make this short any more enjoyable. It’s all just empty horror for the sake of itself.
The graduation film of the Film Academy of The Netherlands, Offbeat is perhaps the most polished film of the bunch here. Set in a dystopian world of smog and haze, the outside world longs to be within The Dome, an enclosed area of clean air and ample goods to sustain a comfortable life for those who are chosen for it. To enter, one must pass a series of tests to prove their worth as a citizen in their respective professions. Olly (Christopher van der Meer) is a drummer who dreams of making into The Dome, where all of the best musicians live, and he has arrived today to take his test. Along the way, Olly soon learns of the rigors and frustrations of bureaucratic tests of objective quality and the inherent imperfections of said tests.
Dystopian stories at this point don’t hold the same weight as they once used to for me, as it just feels like everything is just a little too close to home at this point, and nothing really seems too “out there” anymore. Despite Offbeat falling into that category of “Don’t joke about that shit because we’re legitimately five years away from that” type of dystopian filmmaking, I still found it quite enjoyable as a whole. This is the film of the block with the most realized visual style to it, with some pretty impressive visual effects to boot. It also gives us an incredibly lovable protagonist with van der Meer really knocking it out of the park with his charm and magnetism. It does lose quite a bit of steam near the end where it relies more on spectacle than any actual message it tried to conclude the story with, but it wasn’t damaging enough to ruin the experience.
The Final Girl Returns
The Final Girl Returns follows a driver (Dakota Payne) who finds himself in a time loop and tasked with picking up the final girls from their respective horror films to drive them away at the end of the film. The driver soon discovers his passive actions indirectly lead to each girl’s death after dropping them off. Wanting to change his path, he and a defiantly independent final girl (Yasmine Vega) decide to shake the formula up to see if they can break the loop of death.
In conception, The Final Girl Returns was really clever and amusing to think about, though its final execution is a bit slapdash in its construction. Without having read the synopsis before watching, I would’ve had a lot of trouble following what the film was claiming to be, if only for the film’s incredibly frenetic editing style (which is incredibly strobe-like, for those looking to avoid that) and lack of any real exposition to the plot. It’s not until the end of the film when we really begin to understand the story at hand being played out, and at that point, it’s far too late to pull us back into it all.
On a technical level, however, the film is very impressive when you’re given a moment between edits to actually appreciate what’s gone into shots and set composition. I would like to see what Alexandra Perez could do as a writer/director on something with a little more breathing room to flesh out the admittedly slick ideas she has for genre cinema. It’s a ton of potential with an unmatched payoff, but that potential is still there.
In the YouTube era, in the land of Logan Paul and Casey Neistat and so many others, there’s a constant need to feel like you must document every second of your life for the sake of “content,” which in turn leads to views, ad views, and tons of money for you. LIVE looks into the future where this content creation machine has gone into dangerous territories with an underground fighter (Taryn O’Neill, who also writes/directs) who begins to doubt the sustainability of her hyper-violent livestream of her life.
Once again, we have a super clever look at the future of content at our fingertips in the OnlyFans and Patreon era of content creation. This is a really smart look at the lengths we’re willing to push ourselves to be successful at our respective trades in a time of oversaturation of everything. It questions the place that morals have in the entertainment industry and how our reliance on the culture of celebrity is going to continue into the future. It’s smaller, more contained, and far more intimate than any of the shorts in the block, but for the grand picture it paints, it’s very successful.
Man in the Corner
Did I say that LIVE was the most intimate short film in this block? Maybe on the storytelling front, it is, but Man in the Corner, from the jump, holds back nothing in its sexual content. During a salacious hookup with Michael (Christopher Dietrick) at his place, Daniel (Matt Pascua) grows increasingly more uncomfortable with the vision of a man in the corner of the room watching their illicit sexual encounter. This soon leads to Daniel questioning the integrity of the hot man he’s now gone home with and found himself in a vulnerable encounter with.
Not going to lie, the first half of this short felt a little like softcore porn with a horror afterthought to it, which diminished my enjoyment of it as a genre short. However, in the last half, director Kelli Breslin goes all-in with popping the sexy bubble she had created and invades your space as an audience member with a smarmy, shiver-inducing intimacy of terror. This is the type of horror where you can feel the breath of the characters on your neck, sending strange shivers down your spine you’ve never really experienced before in a horror film. It’s an efficient, albeit imperfect, way of truly spooking an audience by violating the personal space bubble.
Ava in the End
Ava in the End is a science-fiction short that dives into the nagging and annoying possibility of what purgatory could be. After falling and dying, Ava (Elsa Gay) finds herself in a room by herself with a sassy computer who informs her she is in purgatory, and that the entire world has been destroyed, leaving them the only two conscious beings left in existence.
Ava in the End feels a bit like a darker take on something like The Good Place, still with its witty charms, though. Ava and the computer go at it in petty squalor over the computer’s bluntness towards the mundanity of Ava’s life which got her to be where she is in purgatory (with Ava at one point posting on social media [for no real reason] that her computer is a #cuntputer, worsening the tension). The issue comes in when the tone of the film takes a much darker turn and the wittiness that led up to this point somewhat loses its grip into something much more somber that doesn’t really end the block of shorts with a good feeling. It’s not distasteful, but rather just a shift in tones that makes the short feel super unbalanced in what it’s trying to achieve. It’s not bad, as it’s an incredibly competent film, it’s merely frustrating that its concept couldn’t live up to its execution.
They’re not all perfect, but I truly believe that there are some major voices to look out for in the block of shorts of Etheria streaming on Shudder. Even the ones with bigger issues hold seeds of potential that make me excited for the next wave of horror filmmakers to be ushered onto big screens and onto our radars. These are very clever and innovative shorts that make the most of their limited scopes to create some truly outrageous and unsettling films without all the fluff that feature filmmaking brings.