End of Decay: pulpy body-horror adaptation of Frankenstein story

Christopher Todd, “End of Decay” (2017)

A pulpy body-horror update on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” novel, this short film has the sketchy and hasty look of a pilot for a sci-fi horror film that might have once done David Cronenberg proud. Ambitious freelancing pharmaceutical researcher Orin (Brian Villalobos) is pursuing a project using stem cells to regenerate body parts and organs in his garage. From this research, he hopes to discover a method by which degenerative diseases and conditions such as cancer can be cured or prevented, and he himself, being wheelchair-bound, can regain the use of his legs. His collaborator, disgusted at Orin’s resort to sourcing stem cells on the black market, and suspecting that the research is Orin’s vanity project, leaves him. After obtaining the stem cells, which have come from God-only-knows-where, Orin injects them into his spine through a machine set-up guaranteed to inflict maximum pain on him (three times, no less!) and hysterical heebee-jeebees on the viewer at the sight of all the vomit.

At first everything seems to have gone well, and Orin does regain the use of his legs – but as with all experiments where the researcher uses himself or herself as the first guinea pig, unusual side-effects can be expected. To his consternation Orin discovers an ectopic pregnancy growing in the right-hand side of his abdomen. Unwisely perhaps, he does not consult his local neighbourhood family-planning clinic who might have urged him to agree to a properly done Caesarean appendectomy …

The film is more notable for its themes which admittedly are not original. Pursuit of scientific knowledge needs to be moderated with ethics or else experiments will generate invalid or dangerous results. Orin narrowly cheats death at least twice but whether he can handle the responsibilities of parenting a fast-growing child who is destined for a poor quality of life as a freak of nature, and what threats and dangers that might pose for both Orin and his creation, is another question. Orin may laugh at his former collaborator for not wanting to share in his discovery but he may eventually rue his decision to inject himself with treated stem cells of dubious origins and nature.

The plot depends a great deal on viewers’ knowledge of Shelley’s “Frankenstein …” to make sense of the breaks in the narrative, corresponding to the passage of time from one scene to the next. Obviously this short film is intended in the space of less than 15 minutes to pitch a plot for a movie or even a mini-series that brings “Frankenstein …” into a contemporary era of DIY freelancing biological research, organ-trafficking and stem-cell technologies.

Lucid: horror sci-fi dealing with cyber-addiction, escapism and technology shaping human psychology

Jamie Monahan, “Lucid” (2018)

The film’s title refers to so-called lucid dreams in which the dreamer is aware that s/he is dreaming, that the action in the dream comes from his/her subconscious and s/he can control and shape the dream’s path and narrative. Actor-director Jamie Monahan applies this concept of dreams to Virtual Reality, in which participants are not only transported to a cyber-world that simulates reality but can be trained to shape it while inside it. Monahan introduces other themes such as the issue of cyber-addiction, the use of Virtual Reality as a form of escape from real life and having to confront it and deal with its mess, and the place of women in technology invented and mostly mediated by men.

Charlie (Monahan herself) decides to try Virtual Reality neurological therapy after months of having had other unsuccessful treatments for post-traumatic stress caused by being raped during a girls’ night out. After a few treatments during which Charlie is able to “think” a puppy into existence in Virtual Reality, the therapist realises that Charlie has considerable talent in shaping Virtual Reality and signs her up to an experimental long-term program. Unbeknownst to Charlie, her sessions with the therapist have been carefully monitored by psychologists and scientists who have plans of their own in using her – and who are quite prepared to throw her therapist off the program if she objects. In her first session in the long-term program, Charlie realises too late that she is being stalked by strangers who have entered her Virtual Reality world and who threaten her psychological stability.

The film plays like a pilot to a full-length film or television series which might explain its sketchy and incomplete nature. However the vague nature of the plot does invite many intriguing explanations of what is happening throughout the film. Is the rape itself a scene in a different Virtual Reality world? What exactly is the role of Deja, Charlie’s friend, in “Lucid”? One might think Charlie would not be too keen on seeing Deja again after her rape experience as Deja was the one who took Charlie to the club where Charlie met the rapist. How and why does Charlie choose Virtual Reality neurological therapy to cope and deal with her trauma? Was the rapist ever arrested, charged with rape and put away in prison?

The acting is adequate for the film and perhaps Monahan is best advised not to try to direct and be the main character at the same time so that her energies and efforts are not spread thinly. However the film’s emphasis is on plot and the themes and issues surrounding the use of Virtual Reality in ordinary life, and how it could lead people into escapist cyber-addiction and encourage an inability to acknowledge and accept that life is often unfair and hard lessons must be learned to gain maturity and self-knowledge.

The film looks very good and plays smoothly, and serves as an introduction to the wider issue of how technology is allowed to invade and shape human psychology and culture.

Outpost: a skimpy plot redeemed by skillful acting, good sets and an uplifting theme of hope and love

Justin Giddings, Ryan Welsh, “Outpost” (2020)

On the very edge of the known universe, the last survivor of Earth’s Interplanetary Diplomatic Service, a fellow known as Citizen Gordon (Ryan Welsh, who also co-wrote and co-directed this film short) and his AI companion A.R.I.A. (Ryann Turner, in real life married to co-director Justin Giddings) make contact with an alien life force that resents the presence of the Earthlings in its part of the cosmic neighbourhood. Citizen Gordon and A.R.I.A. have already collected considerable information about this region of the universe and the alien force wants the data back. The Earthlings try to escape but the alien grabs A.R.I.A. and starts draining energy from her. Gordon is torn between saving the AI being – they have been together and have clicked together so well that they have fallen in love, in defiance of their employer’s directives against human-AI relationships – and adhering to his mission while the alien pulls her with a long tentacle and tries to engulf her.

The plot is very skimpy with many logic holes in it. Why is the alien so concerned about the presence of another interstellar species in its region? What does the alien mean when it tells Gordon and A.R.I.A. that their kind is “not ready” to make contact with it? How long have Gordon and A.R.I.A. been together and how could their seniors have failed to notice the burgeoning romance beneath their good cop / bad cop routine and the bantering between them? (Unless of course their seniors had always been aware of this relationship and even encouraged it, giving rise to further intriguing issues on whether such a relationship was intended to manipulate Gordon and make of him a laboratory animal for study.) Would a spaceship in the 25th century really carry a weapon like a sword? (No wonder the alien force distrusts humans when they insist on using old-fashioned weapons!) Nevertheless the film works because the actors playing Gordon and A.R.I.A. are at ease with each other, have invested heavily into these otherwise one-dimensional characters and the two have good chemistry. Welsh certainly comes across as a young, rough-hewn version of Australian actor Hugh Jackman and plays both a heroic character and a larrikin at the same time. Turner brings a quick mind and wit to A.R.I.A. and the character’s self-sacrifice and death are extremely affecting as the Earthlings sail off in their escape pod while the alien force pursues them.

The special effects are very good without being outstanding – I’ve seen so many DUST films featuring holograms being used as laptop and iPad replacements that this futuristic technology is now looking banal before it even becomes reality – and the sets and costumes are very impressive. Attention to detail such as these and the acting together can flesh out a very sketchy story and compensate for flaws in the narrative.

The film’s conclusion, coming after the end credits, turns out to be very moving with Gordon apparently alone on a deserted planet and A.R.I.A. close by, in the manner of Hans Christian Anderson’s famous Little Mermaid at the end of her tale. Whatever the alien force found in Gordon when it captured him and A.R.I.A. must have impressed it so much – his willingness to sacrifice everything he has for a mere robot, the extent of his love and affection for a machine – that he received a commuted sentence for whatever harm he and A.R.I.A. did to it. Or perhaps the alien force finds him a fascinating subject for further research just as his employers did with his relationship with A.R.I.A.

Hashtag: smartly presented and concise film on social media as psychological prisons

Ben Alpi, “Hashtag” (2015)

A smartly presented sci-fi short, “Hashtag” demonstrates how a science fiction film made with a tiny budget and minimal special effects can be a cult success if its actors are able to do exceptional work with a significant theme and plot. In “Hashtag”, the theme focuses on the impact of social media on human society, to the extent that people form their identities and judge their self-worth (and the worth of others) based on the values and structures imposed by social media platforms. The plot explores what happens when an online social media celebrity (Gigi Edgley), known only as X, is interrupted in her various online tasks – which include advertising products even during intimate personal routines such as her morning shower, and collecting statistics on her popularity and the number of friends she has – by mysterious hacker Gil (Erryn Arkin) who forces her to question the nature of her existence. Her resulting curiosity about the box she lives results in her employer, who communicates through an AI being called Te’a (voiced by Juliet Landau, the real-life daughter of Hollywood actors Martin Landau and Barbara Bain), ditching her and casting her out into a place populated by other social media celebrity has-beens. We do not know what this place is as the film ends at this point and so we are left to speculate on what sort of uncertain future faces X. We also must muse on the nature of Gil himself, whether he truly is a rebel hacker or is a company employee sent out to get rid of X before she experiences burn-out and starts losing her fan base and clientele.

The undoubted attraction of the film is Edgley who in the space of less than 15 minutes fills an essentially one-dimensional character with so much feeling and emotion that viewers end up feeling for X, despite her hectic and shallow lifestyle and her extreme dependence on her employer and Te’a for affirmation and purpose for living and being. I did not get the impression that X ever really realises that she is being turfed out completely and permanently – so abrupt and horrific is the way she is shunned by her employer once she asks a question that she seems unaware is forbidden. The special effects used are excellent but Edgley’s portrayal of a lonely social media celebrity on the edge of burn-out and cracking end up overpowering the film’s technical aspects.

The film’s fast pace mirrors the frantic speed at which Edgley’s character is forced to live her life constantly exposed to public scrutiny – though interestingly we never see her audience and so the possibility exists that her audience really consists of bots activated by a limited number of algorithms – and only allowed brief breaks for privacy and self-reflection. Even then, she is expected to view her employer’s media during recreation time. On the one occasion when she looks outside her box and sees other boxes just like hers, the film achieves true existential dystopian / panopticon horror.

Social media celebrities and the audiences who support them and their platforms turn out to be prisoners in a system that milks them both for profit and to harvest their data and information that can be used to manipulate and even blackmail them. The prison formed is not so much physical as it is psychological, even spiritual. Prisoners may not even realise they are trapped as their identities and self-worth are shaped and moulded by the prison’s parameters and the values and beliefs it promotes. The devil really does exist in the details of the prison.

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.

On / Off: a film on identity, memory and the consequences of inattention

Thierry Lorenzi, “On / Off” (2013)

This short space-exploration thriller film had been doing the film festival circuit for a number of years before DUST channel featured it in 2019. The story seems straightforward until the unexpected twist comes which explains quite a few puzzling aspects earlier in the film. Out on a lonely spacecraft in the near future, astronaut Meredith (Carole Brana) has a panic attack before she is supposed to set out on a space walk? The panic attack is severe and she just manages to inject herself with some clear-liquid horse tranquilliser; she then sets off on the space walk despite having a headache and the concern of her colleague and supervisor Cid (Arben Barjraktaraj) for her well-being. Quite what the space walk is for is never made clear. While Meredith floats about and goes off into a dreamy reverie, Cid goes off on a trance all his own in zero-gravity conditions while he’s supposed to be monitoring Meredith’s walk and making sure her lifelines are not disconnected. (One wonders where everyone else on the spacecraft has gone.) Inevitably Meredith meets with trouble, her lines are cut and she quickly drifts away from the ship.

Just when you think Meredith is lost forever, she wakes up to a stern lecture by Cid who has to explain (once again, I imagine) that she isn’t what she believes herself to be and that everything and everyone she knew has passed on. It seems that Meredith is fixated on the last things and memories she had just before some catastrophe, far beyond the scope of the film to explain (so it leaves out the disaster altogether), hit her, after which she had to be reconstructed completely – as a robot.

While the film may not look or play consistently or according to what most people would expect of human activity on a spacecraft – there should be more than two people on the ship for security reasons, people don’t go on space-walks by themselves without being monitored properly by the crew inside – it does put forward some intriguing views regarding the nature of identity and how memories and repeated behaviours define an individual. The way in which the real Meredith’s memories and behaviours have been collected along with her knowledge and experience and transplanted onto a database that is then placed into a robot which can then be exploited by the corporation or government that had previously employed the human Meredith may say something about how Western society regards people as commodities to be exploited. The horror that the climactic twist in the plot throws at viewers is in stark contrast with the serene and almost poetic images of Meredith during her space-walk. Viewers are left with an almost unspeakably cruel and horrific impression of what must have happened to the real Meredith that the robot Meredith is doomed to relive over and over.

Clean Cut: short whimsical sci-fi black comedy of an unlikely serial killer in the making

Andrew Hunt, “Clean Cut” (2015)

From DUST, an online channel specialising in screening science fiction films made by up-and-coming film-makers comes this very amusing and cheeky horror comedy short starring an autonomous robot vacuum cleaner. Roomba keeps the floors of its owner’s house spotlessly clean and the film also hints that the robot does double duty as a security guard. One night a burglar (Scott Jorgenson) breaks into the house but suffers a heart attack and spills his life-saving tablets all over the floor. Lying helplessly supine on the floor, he implores Roomba to save him by passing the tablets over but Roomba hoovers them up and the burglar dies. In a remarkable and breathtaking bird’s-eye point-of-view shot with the wooden floor as backdrop, Roomba zooms up and down: each time it zooms up the floor, it is carrying plastic bags, tape and an already bloodied electric saw. We hear noises of cutting from off-screen, then Roomba zooms down dragging the bag full of wrapped body parts!

From this moment on, though there is not much left of the film, we get subtle hints of Roomba’s growing self-awareness (the machine pauses to gaze at its bloodied reflection in a mirror) and the beginnings of an emotional life (it angrily flashes red when its owner verbally abuses it after all the work it has done for him). Viewers are left in no doubt that a new if rather gruesome vocation beckons for Roomba and the owner had better watch his own back.

While the plot is laughable and wouldn’t bear more than a five-minute short before it thins out, the film maintains audience interest by filming at the Roomba’s level and emphasising a minimalist approach to its story and characters with lots of close-up shots. The whimsical music adds to the general improbable theme of an ordinary, even banal household gadget, cute to look at and for toddlers to ride, having a secret life as a serial killer capable of emotions and having the motivation to choose its victims and plot its next murders. Even the smallest, most harmless-looking object, provided it has sufficient intelligence, can become a killing machine monster.

Hors Saison: a powerful character study of consequences arising from rash actions and interpersonal tensions

Nicolas Capitaine, Celine Desoutter, Lucas Durkheim, Leni Marotte, “Hors Saison / Out of Season” (2017)

Few films can portray character and tell a story complete in itself in the space of six minutes as does this impressive short effort from a group of 2017-vintage graduate students at the Gobelins school of animation in Paris. The story is set in a national park in the northern United States and revolves around park ranger Jude, aged about 50 years and perhaps suffering from career burnout as she tries to keep up with younger and chirpier work partner Karen. The sun is setting low in the west and Karen decides to hop back to HQ while Jude still needs to clean up a few branches cluttering up the road. With Karen gone, Jude gets a call from HQ to hurry up and something said to her over the radio rattles her enough for her to throw her radio into the thicket. On retrieving it, she discovers a poacher with suspicious booty in the back of his pick-up. While trying to arrest the fellow, he starts shooting at her and she fires back in self-defence. Having disabled the shooter, Jude calls HQ for an ambulance and reinforcement. While waiting for help, she peeks into the shooter’s shed – a decision that nearly costs her her life. Jude just manages to defend herself against the shooter’s partner – and then a third person appears in the doorway of the shed …

Quite a few themes establish themselves very quickly in the course of the film: there’s the obvious one of age, experience and perhaps world-weariness versus youth, energy and naivete in Jude and Karen’s interaction early on in the short which establishes a tension between the two. Jude’s conversation with HQ further reinforces the sense of isolation, psychological as well as physical, that the park ranger feels in the remote environment: an isolation that becomes more troubling and intense as Jude, alone, investigates a possible poaching ring involving at least two men who will stop at nothing to get their way. The consequences of Jude’s alone-ness, her determination to prove that she’s still fit and able, are messy indeed to say the least, and viewers can’t help but feel for her, knowing that she will have to explain her actions that will not only cost her her job but also warrant charges of manslaughter. The open-ended nature of the film’s closing, with Jude confronted by the awfulness of her actions arising in part from her fatigue and her stubbornness, made a powerful impression on this viewer and will certainly do the same for other viewers.

The animation, especially the background animation (with one breathtaking scene of a snow-capped mountain in the background behind a forest of fir trees), is well done: the backgrounds look three-dimensional though the characters are clearly two-dimensional and a little cartoony and exaggerated in some of their features. The villains especially appear rather stereotyped as surly sociopathic types. The most noteworthy feature is the voice acting with the actor playing Jude conveying the character’s tiredness, work fatigue and feelings of inadequacy when speaking to Karen.

This animated short deserves repeated viewings (in spite of scenes of violence and implied past violence) for its powerful story-telling and deep character study of a woman who makes one mistake after another.

In Orbit: a distinctive visual style in telling a rough story about survivor guilt

Soham Chakraborty, Hanxu Chen, M Joffily, Justin Polley, Julie Trouve, “In Orbit” (2019)

Similar to Gobelins’ 2018 release “Quand j’ai remplac√© Camille” in its theme of survivor guilt, “In Orbit” uses impressive visual imagery to explore an astronaut’s feelings of guilt at not having been able to save her colleague and lover from a space accident that has left her comatose, and the astronaut being forced by memory, visual associations in her work environment, and the mere fact that she is transferring to another work unit that will involve working outside a spaceship to relive the incident and gradually accept it. The film appears to owe a debt to past Alfred Hitchcock films (in particular, “Vertigo”) and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in its ideas and images.

The colour palette of the film is dominated by blues, purples and dark colours which mirror the astronaut Sonia’s depressed moods (though red for danger and yellow also appear). In a number of scenes there is an emphasis on the huge scale and empty rooms of the space station where Sonia is currently resident, making her and her fellow travellers look very small and at times as much isolated from one another physically as well as psychologically from the guilt-ridden Sonia. Changes in viewpoint reinforce a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia as Sonia is pursued by her demons: in one memorable scene, the audience viewpoint does a somersault up to the top of the vault-like corridors Sonia runs through, following the lines of the walls, and then focuses (almost vulture-like) on the tiny figure running across the screen.

Even though all the action takes place on a space station, and the horror exists mainly in Sonia’s mind, this film has most of the necessary elements of a haunted-house horror film: the changes in viewpoint, the dark colours and shades, the suspense and anxiety, irrational fears and memories playing tricks on the mind. While the plot is rough around the edges and has no real resolution – we do not even know if Sonia is still on the material plane of existence when she finally meets with her lover – the film has succeeded as a science-fiction horror film in its visual style.

Mehua: criticising the dogma and empty rituals of religion

Camille Aigloz, Simon Anding Malandin, Michiru Baudet, Margo Roquelaure, Diane Tran Duc, Lucy Vallin, “Mehua” (2017)

In real life, the Aztecs did not sacrifice their own women and girls en masse to their gods: they usually sacrificed prisoners of war in special ceremonies at certain times of the year and celebrated such ceremonies and the associated rituals with dignity and solemnity. The reason for human sacrifice lies in the Aztecs’ creation myths in which the gods sacrifice themselves for humanity and therefore require human offerings so that the sun can continue to bring day to the world. The stereotypes that mar this short film are regrettable as its message can be applied to any religion or ideology: dogmatism, complacency and perhaps ignorance of the original rationale for particular ceremonies and rituals (as time passes and generations are further removed from those traditions’ original context) can lead to ossified attitudes and resistance to change and compassion. Two women, one older than the other and who could be her older sister, prepare themselves for mass sacrifice at the top of a pyramid. When they climb to the top, the older woman lays herself down on the stone table, the masked priest raises his bloodied knife … and the younger woman picks up a flame-bearing pole and starts swiping and whacking the other priests in her attempts to save her friend.

As with other Gobelins animated shorts, the plot is vague and left open-ended. Viewers can assume a far worse fate awaits the two women for daring to disrupt a sacred tradition that keeps the sun rising every morning. The backgrounds and scenes in the film are beautifully done with an emphasis on blue and green shades. Particularly stunning is a sequence in which the older woman prays (in French-accented Nahuatl) to the snake gods who, arranged in a labyrinth that might resemble star charts consulted by Aztec priests to determine sowing and harvesting dates for farmers, arise from their slumber and watch the black background above their heads crack to reveal sunlight. Swathed in gorgeous tones of jade green and bright blue against the black backdrop, the scene looks computer-designed but displays bright imagination as the snake gods raise their heads and hiss and roar in fury.

No matter that they have broken their people’s most sacred customs and laws and must face their community’s wrath, the two women support and trust in each other, standing against the world as the guards and warriors climb the pyramid to discover they have killed the priests. What punishment awaits them – or perhaps what reward the women will receive for removing a parasitical class – we can only guess at.