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.

J’attends la nuit: a little masterpiece full of ambiguity and stunning animation

Arthur Chaumay, “J’attends la nuit” (2018)

A delightfully ambiguous and dark short, with stunning animation that looks so realistic and which perfectly captures the atmosphere of a sultry afternoon that turns into an evening fraught with intense desire and inner turmoil at what may erupt: this is student animator Arthur Chaumay’s little masterpiece “J’attends la nuit”. Two young men spend the afternoon and evening together, first at a cafe and then by the side of a picturesque lake; one of the young men who remains nameless has a wound on his hand that attracts the attention of a fly. The nameless protagonist is caught between answering his mother’s texting on his mobile phone, of which said texts start to come more frequently and urgently as the evening progresses, and his own feelings for his friend Damien, who is equally attracted to him. As his sexual feelings become stronger, the wound on his hand breaks out afresh and the fly moves closer to the wound …

What makes this film so effective – apart from the voice acting which is intimate yet very casual and sounding very fresh in the way that French-language conversation often sounds casual, relaxed and fresh as if everyone involved had just got up ready and raring to go for fresh coffee, the minimal expressions of the characters with their sideways looks at each other, and the shots of a hand in shadow with the weeping wound and the fly crawling over to it inserted into shots of the two men about to kiss – is the way in which the simple plot is so minimally laid out that it invites at least two completely different yet valid interpretations. In one interpretation, the unnamed protagonist is secretly ashamed of his latent homosexuality or bisexuality, perhaps due to a conservative family upbringing that regards such sexuality as abhorrent or, on the contrary, being overly attached to his mother (as maybe implied by the constant messages she leaves on his phone), and the wound represents his self-loathing with the fly symbolising both his desire and sexual urges, and the fear of disease that might result from giving in to his desire and urges. This interpretation however does not account for Damien’s later disappearance and the protagonist deleting his social media link to Damien on his phone which suggests they will not see each other anymore. A second interpretation is that the protagonist is a cannibal monster that preys on human flesh or blood, and the fly represents his hidden monster subconscious id that assumes dominance over the protagonist when night falls; this interpretation explains Damien’s later disappearance, the protagonist’s retching and vomiting blood and his self-disgust and loathing, and his mother’s texting, as she may be aware of his double nature. Indeed the mother may have sent the son on a hunting mission that he abhors, to find a human for their whole family to feast on.

Whichever interpretation viewers prefer, whether complicated or outlandish, it at least acknowledges the subtle nature of the film itself: the protagonist is hiding a secret that causes him inner anguish, a secret that he feels he cannot reveal either to Damien or to his family yet which is an essential part of his being and which he cannot resist – to perhaps his and Damien’s tragedy.

Perfectly Natural: science fiction horror film about demonic possession of the for-profit corporate kind

Victor Alonso-Berbel, “Perfectly Natural” (2018)

No aliens, monsters, paranormal events or denizens of Hell or the 25th dimension abound here but this 12-minute short is as horrifying in its own apparently innocent, everyday-life-looking way as films about people being possessed by demons. In “Perfectly Natural”, the demon of possession exists in virtual technology, summoned by the corporate owners who employ Wanda as one of their company’s many IT workers. Wanda is encouraged to use the company’s babysitting service by her boss: the fees for the babysitting service come out of her pay packet and the service, using holograms and AI, supposedly streams knowledge, cognitive awareness and skills like knowing a second language into baby Max’s mind through a microchip attached to the side of his brow. Wanda discovers this service comes with many strings attached: it continually prompts her with emails sent to her computer to enroll Max into yet more programs that will stimulate his mind and intelligence, yet if she clicks on a tab in the emails to enroll him, she is hit with demands to cough up money. Gradually the realisation dawns on Wanda and her partner Zach that their baby has been captured by the corporation which has substituted virtual versions of Wanda and Zach not only to entertain and guide Max through the various cyber-territories he must navigate but to replace the real flesh-and-blood Wanda and Zach altogether. The child has become a real-life Snow White, dead to the world, while his parents face social censure and Wanda getting the sack if they withdraw Max from the company program.

The film proceeds in a straightforward way at a steady pace through the plot, the cast of three actors playing Wanda, her boss and Zach capably in the short time they have, which makes the film’s climax (when Wanda and Zach discover they have lost Max to the corporation) all the more despairing. They can rescue him physically but the program warns them he might suffer neurological damage if they pull him out too early – well, of course the program would say that, playing on the fear and guilt the parents will suffer if at some later time Max ends up being behind the other kids at school work.

The presentation is excellent with great cinematography and editing. The plot is a bit rough around the edges: the nature of Wanda’s work is not too clear and we have no idea how she came to be employed by the corporation. Why Wanda’s boss manages to raise her own children without subjecting them to the babysitting service is not explained: one would have thought such a service would be compulsory for all employees. Because the film has been made as a short, there is no explanation for the corporate agenda behind the babysitting service – a full-length film would be needed to show and tell, as well as detail how Wanda and Zach discover what their roles in the corporation are, what the corporation has in mind in using Max as a guinea pig, and how the parents manage (or not) to wrest Max and his mind away from permanent enslavement.

Memo: a man’s struggle against Alzheimer’s disease and being helpless and dependent on others

Ines Scheiber, Jules Durand, Julien Becquer, Elena Dupressoir, Viviane Guimaraes,Memo” (2017)

A very touching film on Alzheimer’s disease and its impact on sufferers’ daily lives, “Memo” derives its punch from a man’s struggle to preserve his independence and maintain control over his life as his mind is threatened by the creeping onset of the disease. Louis wakes up to find the kitchen and bathroom fixtures almost covered in post-it notes placed by his daughter Nina to remind him of the things he needs to do and that she is coming to have breakfast with him. He discovers the coffee canister is empty and, as if on cue, Nina phones him. They talk briefly and Louis tells Nina the canister is empty. Straight away Nina tells Louis she’ll get the coffee; Louis stubbornly decides he’ll get the coffee himself just to show Nina he can take care of this errand. He goes down to the supermarket and goes through the aisles to search for coffee … and finds himself lost as his visual and spatial memory cloud over in blankness, and he can’t remember where the coffee is kept. He manages to find something and rushes out of the store. To his horror, his mind completely clouds over under the stress of forgetting and being lost, and everything goes blank.

The animation is very clear and does an effective job of suggesting the action of Alzheimer’s disease on a person’s mind by rubbing out (in effect, deconstructing) the animated objects surrounding Louis and devolving everything back into a blank white background. (As if the film had originally been conceived on white paper, which it might well have been.) The film’s point of view closely mirrors Louis’ point of view so the clouding effect is likely to make a strong impression on viewers’ minds. While Louis through his actions is a character easy to sympathise with, the plot is very threadbare and Nina is as sketchy as can be so the film cannot sustain very much more than five minutes of story. Viewers must bear in mind though that this animation was created by young undergraduate students at the Gobelins animation school. More experienced animators might have introduced a sub-plot in which Louis comes to resent being dependent on Nina, and Nina perhaps feeling irritated at Louis’ peevishness and also a bit resentful at having to look after her father while other siblings shirk their obligations.

The straightforward, realistic visual style of the animation contrasts strongly with the fading of the objects and backgrounds of the film. We feel Louis’ terror and confusion as his world is overcome by the chaos of nothingness. The film makes its point quickly as the characters beat back the disease with familiar routine and more post-it notes – but for how much longer until Nina is forced to find round-the-clock care for her father, we don’t know.

The Last Knit: dealing with a personal inner hell of addiction and compulsion

Laura Neuvonen, “The Last Knit” (2005)

Technically this digital animated short is well done but the very simple plot of a woman addicted to knitting a long, long scarf that ends up pulling her over a cliff doesn’t really justify the effort put into the cartoon. The short’s theme on addiction and on how individuals risk their lives and health to satisfy that hunger or need that can never be satisfied become obvious early on. The problem though is that once the theme and the sole character are established, the plot seems at a loss as to what to do with the woman so it keeps digging around in its own groove, the woman knitting and knitting and knitting until the wool runs out so she has to use her hair … all while the scarf grows longer and longer, runs over the cliff’s edge and threatens to pull her into a literal as well as existential void. Come to think of it, all this repetition might be part of the theme of addiction as well … the film is just as addicted to keeping the woman on a one-track journey to her own hell.

Just when you think all is lost for the character, she manages to break her addiction to knitting, only to fall for another … Unfortunately the film does not supply any more information about how the woman came to be addicted to knitting in the first place and whether that addiction replaced still another compulsion. Viewers aren’t likely to feel much connection with or sympathy for the character. The cliff-side setting is attractive and important for the plot but again we learn nothing about why the woman must be there in the first place. The whole scene looks set up for a suicide and perhaps as the short comes to a close and the woman shows signs of developing another uncontrollable obsession, the prospect of suicide as a release from a personal inner hell becomes a possibility.

At the time of its release, the film was popular in film festivals around the world but its theme and the implications of that theme, along with the shortcomings of the plot and the character design, seem to have made sure that the film would be forgotten.