Control: a character study on isolation, mental breakdown and psychological assault

Carroll Brown, “Control” (2019)

Filmed on a tiny budget, this science fiction horror short is an intense character study detailing the effects of long isolation in space on a scientist suffering perhaps from guilt and survivor guilt in particular. Elizabeth (Jaimi Paige) has just jettisoned the corpse of her colleague into space from her outpost on Callisto, a Jupiterian moon. She has only Mission Control for company – and that operates (supposedly) on a two-hour time delay. Not long after Elizabeth has sent her partner’s body into space through the airlock, she believes she can hear strange thumping sounds near that airlock. For most of the film, viewers believe she is hallucinating and Elizabeth, in her rapidly escalating hysteria, partly believes she is indeed hallucinating – but some of her conversations with Mission Control and a possible twist at the end of the film suggest that Mission Control may be manipulating her emotions and resilience in a sinister psychological experiment.

In a very bare setting, Paige does excellent work in what is virtually a solo outing as a frightened figure on her own on the verge of a mental breakdown in a haunted-house scenario. Voice actor C Thomas Howell as the spokesperson for Mission Control helps drive the plot with necessary dialogue that hints that Mission Control isn’t just a bureaucratic space agency, that it may have a secret agenda of its own that Elizabeth and her partner are unaware of. This becomes apparent in the later part of the film when Mission Control appears to humour Elizabeth and to reflect her emotions and fears back to her. The film becomes most interesting when the light turns off and Elizabeth begins to scream – at which point it ends, leaving viewers to imagine far worse than what would perhaps have happened had the film continued, in which case the film would have had to reveal its hand and show that Elizabeth is indeed going mad or that Mission Control (or possibly even a malign alien force on Callistio or Jupiter or elsewhere) is indeed exploiting her emotions.

The plot and its themes cannot sustain more than a 15-minute film but the time is enough for Paige to demonstrate her ability and skill as an actor to flesh out and carry a bare-bones story about facing one’s worst fears while under psychological assault.

Awakenings: a spooky Gothic retelling of the classic Henry James story

Bhargav Saikia, “Awakenings” (2015)

Inspired by and closely based on Henry James’ famous novella “The Turn of the Screw”, this short film is conventional in its narration and is notable mainly for its spooky Gothic atmosphere, the growing sense of paranoia and the dissolution between the real world and the spirit world. Nearly all the action in the film takes place at night. Anannya (Prisha Dabas) is a nanny hired to babysit two children Ruhaan (Jairaj Dalwani) and Meera (Palomi Ghosh) in a large mansion. When we first meet Anannya, she is getting the children off to bed. Throughout the evening, while the children are asleep, or are supposed to be asleep, Anannya realises there are visitors to the house, and they are not of the material kind. These visitors exert a strange attraction on the boy Ruhaan and he is drawn out of bed to meet them. To Anannya’s horror, these visitors appear to be the children’s long-dead parents … and they seem intent on bringing Ruhaan into their world.

The dark, shadowy tone of the film, the labyrinthine nature of the mansion (in which Anannya appears to run around in circles and end up in same room where she started) and the constant suggestion that her misgivings and fears are all just a dream – cue the occasions in which Anannya suddenly wakes up in her chair – help to enliven a story that has been told many times before. Details in the film impart an extra of layer of meaning that may or may not be relevant to its story: Dalwani, playing Ruhaan, was in his early adolescent years at the time so the ghostly events around the character Ruhaan may symbolise his awakening as an adult, leaving childhood and Anannya the nanny behind. The two children sleeping in the double bed may or may not suggest an unhealthy closeness that might have existed in their family before the parents died.

The constantly panning camera, following Anannya, induces nausea and a real sense of paranoia and fear. Dabas does good work in a role that could have been very histrionic and which has very little dialogue. The house is a significant character in the film with its many rooms, dark wooden floors and furniture, and passages linking rooms through which Anannya runs (with the camera close behind) to find the menace. Apart from this, the film does not add anything to the original Henry James story that other films haven’t already built on.

Wrong Number: a study of fear and anxiety and their projection into reality

Tiago Teixeira, “Wrong Number” (2018)

An odd little film with just two characters, “Wrong Number” is a study of anxiety and the tension that come from premonition, culminating in psychological, perhaps even spiritual projection. A woman (Ellie Woodruff-Bryant) wakes up early in the morning from a nightmare and is too frightened to go back to sleep. Her husband (Nicholas Anscombe) asks her what the dream was about and she replies that it was foretelling the immediate future in which something very bad has happened to them both. She eventually returns to bed anyway, he wants to know if she is in the mood for love-making but she declines.

Later in the morning he leaves for work and the rest of the day passes uneventfully. She texts him about work – he is working on a late shift – and he confirms he’ll be home when she has gone to bed. Sure enough, when she wakes again at 3 am in the morning, he’s beside her in bed and they have sex. Some time later she wakes up and finds herself covered in blood. Startled, she puts on her housecoat, walks into the lounge-room and sees a shadow in the vague shape of her husband standing in the corner.

Most of the film takes place in the early hours of two mornings so it is very dark and viewers can just barely make out the actors’ faces and forms. The shadowy look of the film, its emphasis on blue and dark blue colouring, emphasises the nearness of death, the dissolution of the boundaries between the living and the dead, and the fear and dread that can be aroused when one has just awakened from a nightmare and is still in a twilight zone between being fully conscious and aware, and being sleepy with your mind and emotions open to external psychological phenomena. Woodruff-Bryant does good work as the woman quite literally caught between two worlds, one of the living and one of the dead, but the limited and narrow nature of the plot does not allow her to do a great deal more than worry or express fright.

While the acting and the atmosphere are good, and the film does give a good sense of the grey zone between the living and the dead, in which the living and the dead may actually meet (with very alarming results), the plot is so vague as to be confusing for viewers. Does a meeting really take place or is the woman projecting her fears about her husband into actual physical form? The film deliberately leaves this question open to viewers. It may be asking too much of them.

The Stylist: a beautifully made character study with a basic plot and sketchy psychology

Jill “Sixx” Gevargizian, “The Stylist” (2016)

Never did a psychotic serial killer look more fragile or seem so worthy of our compassion and sympathy as Claire (Najarra Townsend) working in a hairdressing salon and waiting for a late-running client. Claire appears a very helpful and kind hairdresser who doesn’t mind staying back and keeping the salon open for a special client. She offers a glass of wine to Mandy (Jennifer Plas), the late businesswoman client to help relax her while Claire washes, dries and brushes her hair for a special evening event that Mandy is hosting for her boss. Mandy hopes that this special favour she does will help elevate her career so she has to look “perfect”. Little does she realise when she sits down in the seat before the mirror that Claire has other ideas for Mandy … or rather, Mandy’s perfectly coiffed blonde hair …

The story is beautifully told with atmospheric, melancholy music and a cinematographic style that at times distances the two women, as Claire attends to Mandy’s hair, from the viewer at unusual angles, bird’s eye point-of-view among them. To some extent this mitigates the horror once Claire pulls out a pair of scissors to start working on Mandy once the customer has fallen unconscious. Some viewers may find the body horror quite gross and others may find it laughable. Special mention should be made of the climactic scene that takes place in Claire’s home which she shares with a pet chihuahua: the boudoir, lit by soft romantic candlelight, is furnished with an array of wigs of various colours sitting on model heads, and all of them with tell-tale brown lines around the edges. Donning her recent blonde acquisition, Claire stares at her reflection in the mirror, tries to imitate someone but fails, and begins to cry.

The character study of a shy lonely woman with deep-seated psychological issues, who finds refuge in work that is clearly unfulfilling, and who may even have a deep-seated hatred of apparently successful and wealthy women (even though these women also suffer in their work lives, simply because they are women and must work twice as hard as their male colleagues to prove their worth) is intriguing. Townsend was born to play Claire with her expressive face over which a thousand emotions flit and each and every one of those registers with the viewers. Unfortunately the film does not provide Claire with a motive or a background that would plausibly explain why she does what she does and how and why she works in hairdressing even though her heart is not really in that type of work. What is the anguish, the inner torment, that drives Claire to scalp her customers and take their hair for her own without compensating the women?

As it is, the film with the basic plot and sketchy characters can only offer hints of possible themes and motifs that should become clearer in a future movie feature in which Townsend will reprise her role under Gevargizian’s direction. Loneliness, the need to be accepted for what one is, the competition between women for love, success and recognition, the influence of the past on people’s present decisions and behaviours, obsessive actions, revenge and the fragility of one’s identity may be likely themes that will help to flesh out Claire and other characters, and to shape the plot.

Malacostraca: personal and career inadequacy, family breakdown and resentment leading to tragedy

Charles A Pieper, “Malacostraca” (2018)

Playing like a conventional creature-feature horror flick with all the inconsistencies the genre often attracts – how on earth does the mother manage to survive nine months being pregnant while the father descends into full-blown derangement without being endangered herself? – this film initially invites laughs at main character Chris (Charlie Pecoraro) as he sinks further into career crisis with his writer’s block and his paranoid suspicions about the baby his wife Sophie (Amber Marie Bollinger) brings into the world. Seen a second time, the tragedy that befalls the entire young family as a result of Chris’s derangement replaces the silly laughs. Fears about his own inadequacy as a writer, husband and father, the resulting isolation he falls into and draws around himself, the decreasing contact with reality: all take their toll on Chris’s emotional health and stability and he projects his fear and resentment onto his and Sophie’s baby.

The film’s plot is predictable, the characters are not well developed and their house with its dark colours and blue hues tends to scream “creepy!” all the way through. The baby is always portrayed as a crustacean and it is only in the final frames of the film that its human nature becomes apparent. The look on Chris’s face as the awful realisation dawns on him that he has just killed his own child as the culmination of the story he has been writing to overcome his writer’s block is priceless.

The actors do their best with what they have been given and it is they, in the strident manner required of them, who give the film its heart and soul. The crustacean puppets that portray the baby – we see the pregnancy and the baby from Chris’s point of view – are not very realistic but are cute in their own way. Through Chris and Sophie’s interactions, we see that their marriage has lacked warmth and closeness for a long time, having been replaced by conflict. The state of their relationship finds a parallel in Chris’s writing, inspired by a dream he has about Sophie being impregnated by a yabby or giant shrimp, both miraculously reviving at about the same time. This perhaps might say something about the nature of creativity, that it needs an environment of love, warmth and connection to others in order to thrive.

At risk perhaps of being seen as derivative of Stanley Kubrick’s cult horror film “The Shining” which also deals with writer’s block and the delusion of a writer, this short horror piece could be stretched into a longer work lasting some 90 minutes with better character development and a deeper exploration of both Chris and Sophie’s motives and commitment to each other. Sophie would have to risk her life to save the child. A sub-plot involving either of the couple will be needed that draws out the film’s themes of parental anxiety, individual inadequacy, family breakdown and their consequences.

Locksmiths: a parable commenting on the decay and degeneration of Western society

James Kwon Lee, “Locksmiths” (2015)

Behind the laconic, even mundane title is a surprisingly taut and unbearably suspenseful story with a heartbreaking climax in which two parallel narratives collide with messy and tragic results. Two robbers (Jose Luis Munoz and Joe Fiske) masquerading as locksmiths checking people’s front doors and windows go from house to house in a rich neighbourhood in LA. One of the robbers is tired of scamming people and wants to lead a normal life fixing regular folks’ locks; the other fellow persuades him to do one last job before they retire permanently from a life of crime. They pull up at a mansion and enter the premises where they encounter the sole resident, Tadashi (Yuki Matsuzaki), a well-dressed and well-spoken gentleman, dragging behind a huge plastic garbage bag full of … hmm, dare I say … fresh human body parts …

From here on, chaos erupts and one of the robbers is brought down by the serial killer before he can reach the front door. Viewers can guess which robber got clobbered by the croquet mallet. The other robber calls the cops but the police have already been alerted by the robbers’ previous victims so when the constables arrive, they promptly taser the second robber and bundle him into their car. Just before the police officers leave, one of them (Garikayi Mutambirwa) gazes at the mansion with a long hard look as if his instinct might be telling him that behind the building’s doors and shuttered windows, horrific crimes are being committed.

Kwon Lee skilfully runs two stories together – the short actually begins with Tadashi measuring a victim’s face – to generate a high level of suspense and tension. The setting in an upper class neighbourhood where the robbers prey on wealthy socialites helps to highlight the class differences between the hucksters and the psychopath they unexpectedly run into, and viewers can quickly guess who the police will go after. The cinematography is superb in emphasising the emptiness behind the material wealth of the robbers’ victims and the lack of real warmth and humanity in Tadashi’s life and nature (reflected in the mansion’s furnishings) which may have driven his wife away initially, setting in train the tragedy that befell her and the subsequent trail of crimes Tadashi commits to reconstruct her face and body.

The acting is excellent with Matsuzaki playing the elegant killer as the highlight in his smooth and exact movements as he measures his victims’ faces, his sudden moments of aggression as he lashes out with the croquet mallet (that most genteel of murder weapons) and the changes of expression in his face as he picks up his wife (is she dead or alive?) to dance with her. The banter between the robbers and their subsequent actions when they realise they have met a serial killer delineate how very different they are from each other, one of them a fellow with a conscience and the other who literally leaves him for dead.

In this short film, we see a parable on the society the United States and other Western nations have become, where material wealth and surface gloss hide decay, degeneration and criminal predation, and where those institutions and people who should protect the innocent and vulnerable from evil forces instead serve those forces.

Thicker Than Water: a touching film about a mother’s love and care

Seung Yeob Lee, “Thicker Than Water” (2015)

Modern South Korean families, in particular the relationship of mothers with their sons and the extremes the mothers will go to, to get the very best for their male offspring who all too often fail to appreciate what sacrifices Mama makes for them, come under the spotlight in this short film about a couple whose son is a vampire. Mum (Ahmi Jeong) wants son Sungyong (Kiha Kwon) to be a normal kid with high academic aspirations in spite of the fact that he’d rather leave high school because school hours take place during the day when he must wear layers of sunblock and thick clothing even in the summer and his restricted diet of the red liquid stuff leaves him with bad breath and alienates other kids who can’t share their lunches with him. Kissing girls carries an extra risk for the young ladies. In spite of all that Mum does for Sungyong – even organising home deliveries from local blood banks and attending blood auctions to get some special fresh stuff – she gets no support from Sungyong’s father (Seongdeok Hong) who all but disowns the boy. One bad day, Mum fails to get anything at the daily auctions, the blood banks are short on blood and Dad comes home grumpy again and demands dinner on the table. Exasperated, Mum stands in the kitchen and a couple of sharp knives standing in the wash-rack catch her attention …

It is actually a very touching film about a mother’s love and care for her special son, told with dark humour. The characters and the dialogue push the hilarious plot at a crisp pace. Jeong is completely absorbed into her character who will do anything and sacrifice anything – even Dad and herself if necessary – for Sungyong. Sungyong for his part is wimpish and spoilt for a teenage vampire.

The relationships within the family may reflect something of the pressures of modern South Korean society on families generally. Mothers may lavish all their love and attention on their children, especially their sons, if fathers are forced to spend so much time at work by employers that they have little time and energy for their families. Estrangement between parents, and between fathers and children, may be the result. Traditional cultural expectations of the roles of men and women within families may clash with modern-day reality in which women also have to go out to work in addition to caring for husbands and children. No wonder at the end of the day Sungyong’s mother is left with little option other than murder if she is to get fresh blood for her son.

The final frames of the film may come as a shock to viewers, suggesting an incestuous aspect to the suffocatingly close relationship between mother and son. The film is very well done though I don’t see that the plot can sustain a feature-length movie or a television series. Still, stranger and sketchier ideas have been made into successful movies and TV shows.

The big surprise for viewers is that for a vampire film, the vampire doesn’t kill anyone – it’s the human familiar who does this for him.

Corrections: a tale of obsession, extreme control, psychological projection and denial

Nicholas Tucker, “Corrections” (2017)

A tale of obsession and extreme control in a future dystopian society, this short film is completely character and dialogue-driven, revolving around a parole officer and a sociopathic inmate who is immune to reform. In the near future, a prison uses simulations to rehabilitate and evaluate prisoners on their moral resolve in private, intimate scenarios for reduced sentences, early parole and possible early release. One prisoner, Alice Luna (Sarah Phillips), seems clearly uninterested in reforming herself and conforming to prison directives, and seems keen only on seducing her parole officer, Cyrus Williams (Luke Pennington). Most of the film focuses on the various simulation scenarios that Williams sets up for Luna but she is intent on following her dreams which turn out to be quite sinister and involve domination and control.

There is a late twist in the plot which completely overthrows the narrative and raises the issue of how a system of surveillance and complete control – one in which prisoners are coerced into total conformity and prevented from developing their own ethical values, however ideal or not these may be – can be subverted by other malevolent actors and institutions for their own purposes. This raises an issue of how societies of control and surveillance encourage the development of humans who remain eternal infants all their lives and who end up vulnerable to other systems of control and brainwashing.

Phillips’ acting is superb in this very taut and quite intense little thriller. Her large-eyed, baby-faced looks are very effective in conveying a very bland, matter-of-fact expression behind which strange and uncomfortable thoughts may be lurking. At the end of the film, Phillips presents a completely different appearance as a bland bureaucrat, so much so she might have been someone else playing the part. Pennington is no less admirable in the way he plays his role and his weary features as he presses on with a recalcitrant problem child are sure to make quite an impression on viewers. The film’s cinematography is excellent, especially in an apparent dream sequence, and the general look and feel of the film is very minimal and sparse.

Perhaps the twist at the end might subvert most viewers’ perceptions of what the film’s themes are but the notion of obsession is backed up by what becomes obvious as psychological projection and denial in the narrative that has led up to the twist. A larger theme that our society projects its obsessions and hatreds (and also admiration, even hero-worship) onto psychopathic / sociopathic individuals, and makes them the scapegoats for behaviours and actions we both abhor and nurse in secret, is present. At the same time that we try to force individuals to adhere to external codes of morality, which in themselves may be dubious, we undermine those codes ourselves in our cultures and our actions, especially in our actions towards outsiders and people in distant lands. We proclaim that we believe in peace and sustainability but at the same time invade other nations if they insist on following their own paths of political and economic development, and continue to dump waste on Third World nations and pursue domination of them to force them to yield their natural resources to us.

Jameson: when love becomes a permanent existential hell

John Humber, “Jameson” (2018)

A man living an apparently secluded life off the grid in a cabin he built himself in the middle of a deep forest becomes fair game for three highly dangerous men looking to rob him of food, ammunition and whatever money he might still be carrying … but the first indication that all is not what it seems is when the man, Jameson (Brad Carter), is alerted by his alarms and CCTV cameras that there are three strangers on his land, and goes into full lockdown with metal blinds shutting down over his windows. Despite receiving several warnings to get off his land, the three men, led by Shelby (James Grixoni), try to kill him and invade his cabin. Jameson kills one guy and the other two, Shelby and Blake (Tony Doupe), back off. The two men go around the cabin to try to invade another way but Shelby ends up with his leg in a foot trap. Trying to get help for Shelby, Blake is told by Jameson to leave before darkness sets in. After Blake leaves, Jameson ties up Shelby and tells the injured man rather cryptically that his daughter will soon turn up in the darkness to relieve him of his pain.

This spin on the werewolf / zombie story is tersely and minimally told, and driven almost entirely by the actors and their dialogue. Only with the last two scenes – the very last one a quietly devastating one, in which Jameson gazes at a photo while downing a stiff drink – do we realise that Jameson had no choice but to live the way he does and behave with unrelenting hostility to the three men.

We are never told how Jameson’s daughter becomes what she is, why she remains that way or whether Jameson tried to do anything for her. We do not know why he does not kill her but instead chooses to remain her guardian at considerable personal cost to himself: it can’t be easy for him to remain vigilant 24 hours a day, every day. Perhaps he feels guilty for her becoming what she is.

Love, even love for a monster, can be so overwhelming that not only does it become a danger not only to oneself and to all around, but it becomes a living existential hell.

ChromoPHOBIA: a message about how we treat (or don’t treat) mental illness well

Keith Adams, “ChromoPHOBIA” (2019)

Based on a short story by B Evenson, this dark horror fiction short focuses on mental illness and its treatment, and unconscious psychological projection. After a patient in a mental hospital commits suicide for unknown reasons, clinical psychiatrist Jennifer Haver (Marjan Neshat) takes on a new patient called Arthur (Patrick Carroll). Arthur says very little and is extremely withdrawn but comes to life if allowed to draw with charcoal on paper, which he does obsessively: he draws technically complex pictures of the same scene over and over. Dr Haver is drawn to the pictures, which always feature Arthur’s attic-like studio, which has a full-length stand-alone mirror in the background. Discovering that Arthur has a fear of using coloured crayons, Dr Haver tries to investigate the source of his fear by getting the key off him and visiting his studio. She discovers a number of pictures of a room in the hospital that suggest that, through his drawings, Arthur may be acting as a conduit for messages from the past and warnings from the future that reveal some very uncomfortable home truths to Dr Haver.

The actors do a good job with the limited one-dimensional characters they are given with perhaps Carroll as Arthur the best of the cast. The cinematography emphasises greyish colours: even the walls of the mental hospital have greyish-green colour with rust stains here and there, suggesting that the building itself (and by implication the people working there) is inadequate for the needs of the patients. The music soundtrack is overbearing and jarring in its near-hysterical conjuration of fear and foreboding; given the sparse setting of the hospital and the minimal style of filming and acting, the film would have been better off with no music at all.

The plot may be implausible but it does suggest that the culture of mental asylums in the West can be harmful to their patients because they are subjected to biases of the staff treating them, and thus are forced to bear not only the burden of therapies and medication prescribed by their doctors for their supposed conditions (and the side effects of those therapies and medication) but also the burden of their treating doctors’ own hang-ups, especially if the treatment does not work as it is supposed to do according to the textbook and/or if the patient refuses to co-operate. Did the patient who committed suicide do so because in some way he was driven to do so by Dr Haver, even if unconsciously on her part? Is Dr Haver some unwitting Angel of Death who transmits her childhood trauma of having seen her mother commit suicide to her patients like a contagious disease? Is Arthur fearful that what Dr Haver may have done to her previous patient may happen to him too, and he is trying to warn her?

While the film is very suspenseful and has a very Gothic look, it has too many irritating horror-movie stereotypes: the haunted house harbouring dark secrets, the unnecessary and ridiculous music soundtrack, and ultimately the depiction of the mental hospital as an Arkham-asylum institution where the staff are barely able to keep perceived forces of chaos at bay, when in fact the staff themselves may be bringing chaos to their patients. Still, the message that we in the West do not really treat mental illness very well, and dump our prejudiced perceptions and stereotypes onto mentally ill people to their detriment, comes through strongly; it is a message that speaks to us of our own arrogance, cruelty, denial and ignorance.