Psychosis: character study of techno-paranoia under computer surveillance

Ben Feldman, “Psychosis” (2019)

The shorter of two films based on the short story of the same name by Matt Dymerski posted to the short horror fiction website Creepypasta, this is a darkly paranoiac minimalist work. When we first meet John (Jack Alberts), an IT programmer, he has already been living on his own in a basement room with his eyes almost permanently glued to the screens of his various IT devices, never venturing outside except perhaps to get another bottle of water from the vending machine or going on increasingly rare dates with girlfriend Amy (Alexandra Ivey). One day John receives a mysterious email message and he becomes convinced that he is being spied upon by a sinister technological entity that threatens to take over his mind. With each passing day, diligently observed by the film, John retreats further into his mind and physical space despite Amy’s best efforts to get him out of his room. John is soon convinced that Amy is a robot just like every other human being trying to contact him. Soon he is convinced that even his body parts – in particular his eyes – are being replaced by cyber-mechanical parts and he attempts to erase these, starting with his eyes.

With its emphasis on close-ups of the main actor’s face, short and fast editing, and abrupt cuts, the cinematography effectively conveys the hysteria of John’s world as it closes in on him. The dark atmosphere in John’s room, its chaotic mess and the various computer hardware of differing ages placed here and there mirror the state of John’s mind. The voice-over narration, performed by the actor himself, gives viewers an insight into John’s paranoia and heightened vigilance against the invisible forces plaguing him.

The climax when it comes is rather sudden, once John begins to doubt the nature of his reality and becomes convinced that his eyes are not only playing tricks on him but are part of his intended downfall by the alien enemy. After his self-mutilation, the next time we see him he is in an institution for the mentally ill, trussed up in a straitjacket and a padded cell and indulged by the hospital staff. A twist in the plot quickly comes soon after and at that point the film ends.

The notion of cyber-technology acquiring its own evil life-force and actively preying on individuals by sending them emails and deciding what they can and cannot see or hear is becoming increasingly and painfully relevant in a world of ever-encroaching cyber-surveillance and AI databases and bots that follow and predict human behaviour and actions, and use the information collected to influence and mould future decision-making. Through such technology, a police state acting on behalf of unseen elites can track individuals through the trails they leave in cyberspace, predict what these individuals will do next and use the information gathered to guide and control the individuals’ thinking and actions. In such a world, where impersonal and deceptively rational and orderly algorithms and rules govern humans as though they were black-box machines responding to stimuli, the only sane thing to do is … to become mad.

Bad Peter: the panopticon police state controlling an individual life to an astonishing degree

Zach Strauss, “Bad Peter” (2017)

At first rather amusing but then quickly becoming sinister and horrific, this nine-minute short presents smart-home artificial intelligence (AI) as an extension of the omniscient panopticon police state. Young expectant – and apparently single – mother Rachel (Frankie Shaw) is subjected to a humiliating and cruel health-and-exercise regimen by an AI database known as Peter (voiced by Ross Partridge) that presumes to know what is best for her and her unborn baby, even as the woman becomes physically and mentally exhausted by the excessive demands made by the technology. Most sinister of all, if Rachel refuses to obey, she is subjected to electric shocks from a neck brace she is forced to wear.

For its length, the plot actually drags on too long and prolongs the viewer’s distress at Rachel’s suffering. We do not know why Rachel must wear the brace or why she has to follow the database’s orders. There is nothing to suggest that she has done anything wrong in the past or that she is a surrogate mother bound to a contract. She wears clean casual clothes and lives in a lovely furnished house with tasteful Scandinavian minimalist design but we do not know how she is supported financially or if she works outside the house. She appears to be completely at the mercy of the database, obeying without question and rebelling in small ways, only to resume her obeisance, and that may be the most horrifying aspect of the film.

The message of the short seems to be that as technology is allowed to intrude more and more into our lives, we are just as ready to surrender our psychological and emotional independence to the machines and the agenda and values of those who write algorithms that power the technology, as we do our physical independence. As we give up our power and control over our lives, we become more and more like children, and we end up needing more external intrusion and control over our thoughts and actions. There is a moment in the film in which Rachel, having silenced Peter, appears to be lost in the sudden silence. Perhaps in that moment she is forced to face the awesome responsibility of having taken charge of her life.

While the film is well presented with a bright atmosphere and clean lines, and Shaw does a good job as the compliant young mother-to-be, the film gives very little context about her character and how she came to be a virtual prisoner. Perhaps this film is a proof-of-concept piece: it certainly deserves a more detailed treatment as a longer short film or a 70-minute movie.

Don’t Look Now: an eerie and profound Gothic horror film of grief, trauma and misperceptions

Nicolas Roeg, “Don’t Look Now” (1973)

Adapted from the short story with the same title by Daphne du Maurier, this famous British cult horror film is ostensibly a study of grief and how it affects a family’s ability to cope with life’s daily routines and informs family members’ perceptions of the world around them. On another level, the family affected by the death of a young child lives in a universe where time appears to be of a different dimension than how we experience it, in the way the past, the present and the future seem to bleed into one another and people may just as readily have premonitions of what will happen as they have memories of past events. After losing Christine in a drowning accident back home in the UK, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) Baxter dump their son in a boarding school and flee to Venice where John has taken up a job helping to restore a Roman Catholic church’s mosaics. The couple meet two elderly sisters, one of whom is blind but has the gift of second sight: she sees the spirit of Christine, still clad in her red raincoat in which she died, hovering around the couple, and tells Laura. After a fainting fit, Laura informs John of what the sister has told her but John remains sceptical.

Over the next several days, while continuing to reside and work in Venice, John and Laura experience flashbacks of the drowning accident and John himself has strange visions in which a small figure in a red raincoat roams the bridges and streets of Venice, and in which (after Laura returns to the UK on being informed by long-distance phone by her son’s school that he has had an accident and is in hospital) his wife is still in Venice but is clad in black mourning clothes and flanked by the mysterious elderly sisters sailing on a vaporetto draped in black. Meanwhile the police in Venice are finding dead human bodies in the canals of the city and realise there may be a serial killer on the loose.

The plot is very clever if not completely plausible: the tragedy is that John has been gifted with second sight, as one of the elderly sisters recognises, but because of his scepticism and belief in rationality, his ability causes him endless trouble and also gets the two sisters detained by the police, which event forces the sighted sister to make arrangements to leave Venice permanently, a move which upsets her blind sibling; and his inability to recognise his gift but to confuse it instead with his memories of his daughter’s drowning leads him on a path to tragedy. In this, the past, present and future intersect in a way that suggests in the universe in which the Baxters live, the events of one’s life really can be predetermined by the decisions and actions one takes.

Various occurring motifs of bright red raincoats, breaking glass, images and their mirror twins, doppelgangers and duplication, and water as the giver of life and bringer of death run throughout the film to reinforce the notion of the Baxters living in a seemingly time-less world where the past could be the future and the future could be the past. Even John’s work in the restoration of the church’s artistic works involves duplicating old glass pieces with new pieces. Misinterpreting incidents and mistaken identities are a major theme in the film. The climax of the film is shocking and viewers quickly realise nothing is what it originally seemed to be: people thought to be innocent turn out not to be so, and those believed to be sinister turn out to be protective.

The film works as it does by drawing inspiration and elements from the work of Alfred Hitchcock and from the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges whose literary concept of the world as a labyrinth is extended to the portrayal of Venice as a city of seemingly endless mazes through its paths, bridges, tunnels and even its canals. Roeg’s use of editing in which shots of two events are spliced so that they appear to be running at the same time, most famously in the scene in which John and Laura have passionate sex and get dressed to go out for dinner, reinforces the idea of a universe in which past, present and future do not follow a linear structure. The actors do excellent work in their roles as the troubled Baxter couple, experiencing the usual ups and downs in their relationship while at the same time recovering (or trying to) from a major trauma. Venice is a significant character in the film: a grittier and darker side of the city is shown, with buildings almost falling into disrepair, streets and tunnels conveying sinister menace, and the city’s bright facade for tourists hiding bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. The film could not have been made anywhere else in the world but Venice.

Roeg’s unusual filming techniques and the way in which he places his motifs at significant points in the film to advance the plot and send the characters on their destinies from which they are unable to deviate give “Don’t Look Now” an eerie and haunting Gothic feel that in its own dark way is very profound and beautiful.

Iteration 1: a dystopian human future equivalent to a maze teaching flatworms to learn from experience

Jesse Lupini, “Iteration 1” (2016)

Made for a Canadian film festival in which the objective was to shoot a film and complete its post-production in the space of 8 days, “Iteration 1” is a very good-looking work that perhaps mirrors how AI bots learn or how flatworms are trained to find their way through a maze. In a dystopian future where she might be a prisoner, Anna (Katherine Isabelle) gets up out of bed and has 60 seconds to find her way out of her minimalist-styled prison or get zapped dead if she makes a mistake or time runs out. The next time she is born, she has to go through the whole process of escaping her prison within 60 seconds again. Viewers can see where this is going so there is no point of trying to count the number of times Anna becomes aware and being zapped before she is eventually able to escape her bedroom prison, only to enter another prison where she is surrounded by balloons of which she must break one to find a key that will allow her to escape the second prison … into a third prison where there is a huge tree and a small axe. Each time she wakes up, her attitude changes (indicating that she is learning from past experiences) and previous incarnations assist her so perhaps yes, Anna is indeed some kind of AI bot. In every incarnation, Anna is warned by an unseen supervisor (France Perras) speaking to her through some sort of PA system whenever she makes a mistake.

Viewers may think there is no plot or story, and certainly there appears to be no ending, but the plot itself is a series of endless repetitions which might symbolise the journey of life for individual humans or humanity as a collective … the purpose of humankind, individually and collectively, is to achieve and overcome obstacles, and learn from such experiences, to advance the species and enable its survival. What the end goal from such a series of quests is, remains elusive.

For a film quickly put together, the sets are very good, the acting is impressive without being excessive and the special effects are also spot-on and well done.

The Candidate: a suspenseful film of a sociopath caught in a spider’s web of control

David Karlak, “The Candidate” (2010)

Entirely driven by character and dialogue, this interesting character study of a corporate middle manager, ambitious and not a little sociopathic to boot, who falls victim to his own greed and ruthlessness – with not a little help perhaps from a cosmic joker – is tight and suspenseful. Burton Grunzer (Tom Gulager), a middle-level marketing executive in a large and rather faceless corporation, chafes at being partnered with fellow exec Whitman Hayes (Thomas Duffy) who wastes time while giving marketing presentations but is nevertheless valued by his senior managers because he has the human touch. The Big Boss (Vyto Ruginis) offers friendly advice to Grunzer that he ought to be thankful for having Hayes on his side but Grunzer is incapable of the insight necessary to accept such advice.

Lately Grunzer has been pestered by emails and letters from a Carl Tucker of the secretive Society of United Action and one day he decides to accept a visit from Tucker (Robert Picardo) when his secretary (Meghan Markle) opens a handwritten and delivered letter from that fellow. From then on the film becomes a showcase of Picardo’s acting and the suspense the actor draws from his monologue as Tucker explains to a bemused Grunzer the origins of the Society of United Action and its goals. The SoUA is devoted to killing off various targeted people by an apparently legal if underhanded method – it is a version of what indigenous Australian people known as the Arrernte call “bone-pointing” in which a person is willed to die – and Tucker wants to know if Grunzer is interested in this method. By this point in the film, the viewer is well aware that Grunzer dislikes Hayes and would not stop at getting rid of his marketing partner permanently if he can avoid the legal consequences.

The film’s premise might appear hokey to some – how does the SoUA come to know about Grunzer’s character and personality? – but it turns out to be very plausible thanks to incredible acting from both Gulager and Picardo respectively building up their characters as the repellent Grunzer and the affable Tucker. By the time Picardo appears on the scene, the viewer already knows what a nasty piece of work Grunzer is. Picardo playing a fast-talking sales representative with a homely, friendly manner effectively conceals the sinister agenda he offers to Grunzer. Grunzer’s own ambition and character flaws make him an ideal fellow to fall into the secretive organisation’s clutches, and this scenario in itself might say something about how the mysterious workings of the universe find opportunity to ensnare people through their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

The bland surroundings of the corporate office environment might be enough to send any latent sociopath completely off the edge so much kudos is in order for those in the production crew who found the place or created it. The film’s pacing – and Picardo’s own pacing – build up the suspense very effectively. Its structuring into two halves, the first half setting up the character of Grunzer and forming the framework for the second half, is very tight, so tight that it is almost rushed.

The film could almost serve as a parable, the motto of which might be “Be careful what you wish for”, so universal is its message of wanting control and accepting the help that unexpectedly comes a person’s way – and which turns out to be a veritable spider’s web of control in itself.

After Her: missing-girl parody that leads to a personal transformation

Aly Migliori, “After Her” (2018)

A young man, Callum (Christopher Dylan White), goes in search of a young woman, Hayley (Natalia Dyer), five years after she has disappeared from their small rural community located next to a mysterious forest. It seems that Hayley, bored by the lack of mental stimulation, initially has run off into the woods. As Callum retraces the steps they both took the last time they met five years ago, he finds the mystery black spiny object, shaped a bit like a hand grenade, that Hayley had long ago found and kept, and is transported to an underground cave system in which he apparently experiences the most incredible hallucinations and visions. Callum’s life is much changed after his underground cave explorations and he can never view his ordinary life as a city college student the way he used to again.

Set in lush forest full of shadows and the darkest of dark green tones, in caves and dark tunnels with water running through them, the film has a distinctive look suggestive of layers upon layers of plant growth hiding a terrible secret, of decay and of a strange and monstrous sexuality lying under and close to the surface of the soil. Migliori cites H P Lovecraft’s fiction as an inspiration and the influence shows in a number of scenes featuring running water and strange clouds and shadows rising from it. The cinematography can be very good and film editing that helps to build a rising sense of alarm, even panic, is well done. The actors play their parts as well as they can though they sometimes give the impression of being a bit awkward and not a little confused at what they are supposed to be doing.

The plot is easy to follow but the film’s message and what Hayley is meant to represent are not too clear. It is obvious that Hayley has become something other than the human she used to be what. Has she become a monster or is she aligned with some powerful and ambivalent force in the earth? Are her intentions or those of the beings she represents beneficent to Callum and his people? Why should Callum be so special to her? These questions arise during the course of the 13-minute short but remain unanswered. It could be that the plot can be interpreted on a number of different levels but the plot is so vague and the characters so underdeveloped – no wonder Dyer and White seemed confused at what they were supposed to be doing – that viewers remain in the dark about what is supposed to be happening and what they are supposed to follow and judge.

The film just about holds together thanks to some very good visual shots and Callum being its central figure. Its story is of some significance to its writer-director Aly Migliori but it needs to be told better in a more straightforward way so the audience can more readily identify with Migliori’s intentions.

Custom Order: a thin plot and equally thin characters in a story on commodifying identity

Will Lowell, “Custom Order” (2017)

Looks like I hit a dud sci-fi short for once on the DUST channel with Will Lowell’s “Custom Order”. For a film lasting some 13 minutes, the plot is very bare-bones thin and its characters are unremarkable and stereotyped. Aaron (Matt McGorry) has just broken up with Chelsea (Maya Erskine) who, despairing of Aaron’s inability to commit himself and open up his feelings for her, has left his house in a huff with just a note on his answering machine telling him she’ll come back to get her hair-dryer and a few other items left behind. Aaron promptly orders a robot sex doll to be delivered to his place. He puts her various parts together and powers up her battery and, voila! – Nicole (Sophie Kargman) is born. Aaron promptly puts her through her paces and she passes the sex test with flying colours. The pair quickly establish a daily routine, Nicole always being available for sex and also able to keep the house in order. One day, Aaron gets a sudden visit from Chelsea, returning for the hair-dryer, who also is a bit curious as to who has been keeping the house tidy …

It is astonishing that the whole time during the film, there is very little character development in any of the characters and Nicole shows no sign of independently acquiring any self-awareness and the knowledge that she is a sex slave. Aaron comes off as a socially inept and rather grubby character. Chelsea may be or may not be having second thoughts about leaving Aaron, and the viewer is left to try to second-guess what Chelsea is going to do, at least until she discovers Aaron’s secret, at which point the film ends on a cliff-hanger.

The film might have worked much better if the same actress had played both Chelsea and Nicole, so that issues of identity and the extent to which a person can regard his/her appearance as an important part of his/her identity, a part that presumably cannot and should not be replicated, can be explored, even if superficially. This would say something about what Aaron sees in Chelsea that he continues to yearn for. Nicole for her part could have developed her own personality, one perhaps more sensitive and sympathetic to whatever needs Aaron has that he has yet to acknowledge than Chelsea has ever been. Chelsea’s reaction on seeing Nicole needs a better mix of horror, fear and upset.

Disappointingly, one doesn’t really gain much insight about how robots in future will be used to pander to their owners’ whims and how they will represent a commodification of the physical and psychological features and quirks that make a person a supposedly unique individual. What questions might arise when a person discovers his/her doppelganger being used as a sex toy and domestic slave are barely touched upon.

Colony: a stereotyped sci-fi horror treatment of colonisation and possession

Catherine Bonny, “Colony” (2018)

Partly informed by the history of early European settlement in Australia, as well as perhaps stories of the treatment of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps in Germany and eastern Europe, this short film combines dystopian science fiction, horror, revenge with its unexpected consequences, and the relationship of colonialists with the land they settle and with that land’s original inhabitants. In particular, this film examines how the original inhabitants of the land react to the presence of the alien colonists and how they might punish those who damage and devastate their environment by infiltrating those they wish to strike.

In the distant future, a prison colony is established on a distant planet. Sardonically named “Heaven”, the prison colony is located near the seashore and its female inmates, under the watchful supervision of their male guards, are forced to farm vegetables and fruit in very harsh conditions. The food they manage to grow does not sustain them much and they progressively grow weak. In this prison live two sisters, Rhian (Emma Burnside) and Seren (Alicia Hellingman), the latter of whom was apparently smuggled by Rhian onto the spaceship that brought them to the desolate planet in defiance of the rules that stipulated that only fit people could board the craft. Rhian has an arrangement with one guard in which he provides whatever medicine he can in exchange for sex. As the days go by, and the two women try to negotiate their way through the hostility and jealousy of the other women prisoners, and the caprices of the guards, Rhian is drawn to the sea that laps the shores and breaks over the rocks of the coast: ghost voices and rattling sounds call to her and when she looks at the ocean, a strange light appears beneath the waves and beckons to her. When she gashes her leg on a rock and the wound is severe, the seawater heals the wound and when she retrieves an old brown apple that she has thrown into the water, it becomes green and new.

One day the guards trick Rhian into bringing Seren to them by telling her they have medicine but Rhian discovers the ruse too late. The two women fight the guards but Seren comes off the worse for her encounter and Rhian is unable to save her. Rhian vows vengeance for her sister’s death and the strange forces in the sea beckon her with promises to help – but as with her earlier arrangement with the guard, what this natural world wants from her is more than she reckoned with.

The film is rather uneven in its pacing: for much of its running time until the last few minutes, it is quite slow and leisurely, delineating the nature of the colony, the hierarchy that exists, and the two sisters’ uncertain place within it. Then violence happens abruptly and Rhian, stopped by the voices in her head, appears curiously apathetic. The conclusion takes place some time after Seren’s death – a day perhaps, maybe even a week, a month, a year later – and despite its casual tone, a few changed details in Rhian’s appearance tell us that the forces that Rhian aligns with are going to be horrific, and that Heaven will soon become Hell.

It is a pity that the film is slow to develop the relationships of the people in Heaven as they come across as stereotypes rather than people we would care about. Even Rhian ends up no more than a rather selfish and mercenary young woman, susceptible to manipulation in situations where the benefits might outweigh the costs. She ends up meeting more than her match in the alien environment but the alien possession and colonisation of her mind and body produce a stereotyped monster.

The film’s treatment of its themes and ideas turns out somewhat shallow and cliched. Perhaps if the pace had been a bit quicker and the plot tighter, the action might have been better spread out in the 14-minute running time, and the price Rhian pays for avenging her sister’s death could have been elaborated in more depth. The actors might have had more time and opportunity to explore their characters and given them more complexity as they confront the harsh prison conditions and pressures, and the unforgiving alien environment that will soon kill them viciously.

O Lucky Man! – a blackly comic odyssey criticising capitalist ideology and values

Lindsay Anderson, “O Lucky Man!” (1973)

A satirical allegory that exposes life in Western capitalist society and the values and beliefs needed to survive successfully in it, “O Lucky Man!” presents as an odyssey of one Michael Travis (Malcolm MacDowell) who starts the film as a novice sales representative thrown by his employer Imperial Coffee into the deep end to market and sell coffee to various retail clients in northeast England after the regular sales rep Oswald disappears. During his time as salesman, MacDowell is seduced by Mrs Ball (Mary MacLeod), a housekeeper at the hotel where he stays during his business trips around the designated sales zone; he later discovers that a number of his company clients have closed shop and retrenched their workers (so they won’t be needing any more coffee to keep the staff happy) due to the prevailing economic climate of the period (early 1970s); and he ends up imprisoned and tortured at a secret government nuclear facility that happens to be a company client. (The bureaucrats there believe he is a Communist spy.) The facility has a fire emergency that blows up the buildings and sets Travis’ car on fire but Travis manages to find his way out of the secret facility.

He winds up at a private medical facility owned by Dr Millar (Graham Crowden) who is conducting secret genetic research that generates quite alarming results. Travis manages to escape and winds up with the Alan Price Band, travelling to a gig in London with groupie Patricia Burgess (Helen Mirren) in tow. Through Patricia, with whom he falls in love, Travis gets a job with her father Sir James Burgess (Ralph Richardson), a millionaire industrialist who sells a hideous napalm-like chemical euphemistically called “honey” to Dr Munda, the dictator president of Zingara, a brutal Third World police state that keeps its people in poverty and enslaved on plantations and factories producing products for the First World while managing at the same time to pose as a playground for wealthy First World tourists. Burgess, Dr Munda and their staff scheme to frame Travis as culpable for fraud and Travis ends up being convicted in a rigged trial and sentenced to jail for five years.

After serving his time, during which he studies philosophy and behaves as a model prisoner, Travis is released back into the community where he undergoes more trials involving contacts with the poor and the marginalised in society, culminating in a vicious attack on him by homeless people in a dump.

Interspersed throughout the film are shots of Alan Price and his musicians singing and performing songs that comment on Travis’ adventures and the pitfalls that await those who, like Travis, strive for material success, wealth and the admiration of their peers above all else. A subplot that starts with an “old” grainy film of Latin-American labourers harvesting coffee beans and one defiant worker (MacDowell) having his hands cut off by a foreman for a colonialist plantation owner and then demonstrates Britain’s downfall as an imperial empire to the extent that the country tries to maintain its status as a world power by engaging in indirect colonial rule through proxy dictators oppressing their own people, so that the British can continue to grab profits from exploiting former colonies’ natural resources, is threaded through Travis’ adventures: the relationship between the colonialists and the colonised may change and become more indirect and complicated, but the violence and exploitation remain much the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The exploitation and violence that Britain visits upon Third World populations with “honey” are soon turned on Travis himself; his innocence, helpfulness and ambition exploited by Burgess, he is soon sent to prison. After his five-year stint there, Travis is let loose in the streets with nowhere to go, despite his new knowledge of philosophy and the reading he has done; this is analogous to a layer of middle class people in Third World countries who absorb all they can of Western civilisation but can find no way of using it to benefit their poorer compatriots. Unfortunately the poor and the homeless are no better than the rich or the middle class in beating up on Travis and leaving him for dead; this may be director Anderson’s way of showing how capitalist ideology and values degrade all of society, not just its upper and more privileged levels.

Several actors play at least two or three different roles in the film which may highlight the apparent randomness (or not) in capitalist society in its selection of some people for fame and fortune and others for disaster. This fact is exploited for comic effect in parts where some of Travis’ fellow prisoners are played by the same actors who played the salesman’s fellow trainee sales reps near the beginning of the film. Even with actors juggling different roles, the size of the cast is still astonishing. Probably the most outstanding performances, aside from MacDowell who carries the film admirably on his shoulders, are those of Rachel Roberts in playing a corporate psychologist with a secret crush on Travis, Dr Munda’s secretary / mistress and Mrs Richards the suicidal working-class housewife; and of Ralph Richardson as James Burgess and Monty, a caretaker at a working-class hotel.

The film may be rather long in piling punishment upon punishment on Travis, particularly in his post-prison life where he is literally lost in a wilderness, unable to find a niche where he can survive without being kicked around. It does lose focus at times in a plot of black comedy skits barely hanging together but every so often Alan Price and his band appear in the nick of time to critique 1970s British society. The three-hour marathon running time passes very quickly as there is so much to absorb in each little episode – and the episodes featuring Dr Munda are not only at once droll and gruesome in their detail, they are also painfully contemporary and confronting in an age in which Western countries, in their long economic twilight of deindustrialisation, decreasing influence over other nations, and dealings with corrupt governments to safeguard their own interests, are going backwards.

Orbit: adaptation of famous Edgar Allan Poe story enquires into the fragility of identity

Nicholas Camp, Don Thiel III, “Orbit” (2019)

A clever re-telling of the classic Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, this short film explores the impact of extreme physical isolation on an individual’s psychology. The narrator / protagonist (Chris Cleveland) is an astronaut working with a much older and more experienced colleague (Jacob Witkin, in his last role before he died not long afterwards) in a spacecraft orbiting a giant exoplanet in the far reaches of space. The old fellow’s coloured glass eye infuriates the younger man for some reason and the latter plots the man’s death. Sure enough, after despatching the old fellow, the astronaut hides his body under the floor panels but the spacecraft registers the death and sends a signal out to space-station HQ. Two officers (Jasmine Kaur and David Competello) promptly fly out to the craft and interrogate the astronaut. During interrogation, the astronaut is irritated by a growing ringing in his ears, which he is convinced is the heartbeat of his victim, and though the officers seem satisfied with his explanation regarding the old man’s death, the astronaut ends up confessing to his crime and shows the horrified officers where he has buried the corpse.

Set in the style of low-budget science fiction films of the 1970s – 1990s – the various incarnations of the “Star Trek” television series and spin-off movies come to mind – the short does a capable job in portraying the obsessive monomania and growing psychosis in the astronaut (though he is always in danger of falling into a stock villainous character type and the actor would have been well advised to be rid of his beard). Quick editing and interspersing the scenes of the interrogation with shots of the murder, other violence and some small amounts of gore stoke and increase the tension. The music soundtrack is of Wagnerian orchestral excess applied in discreet and tasteful amounts to amplify the drama at crucial points in the plot while maintaining the classic Hollywood style of space-opera science fiction films.

The film’s conclusion suggests a rather different fate for the narrator than most adaptations of the Poe story have previously done and posits the paradoxical notion that physical isolation, rather than increasing or accentuating a person’s individuality and identity (to his/her fellows), instead breaks it down. (Something the CIA has known for half a century at least, from experience in torturing people by depriving them of all sensory stimulation in its notorious MK-ULTRA experiments.) The glass eye is given much greater importance in this adaptation of the Poe story than in the original story itself; it truly becomes a mirror of the blankness of the soul behind it.