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by Bill Chambers Back in my early-twenties, there was one summer job I had where I found myself doodling animals saying inexplicable--and, needless to say, often repulsive--things. It started out as an effort to break the ice with my only co-worker (we spent most of our time locked in a makeshift editing bay together), then escalated into a constant test of her boundaries. I happened across some of these drawings recently, and they are resolutely unfunny: a bunny threatening to kill your mother with an axe, a frog telling a fart joke; in retrospect, I wonder why said co-worker eventually invited me to her wedding. Stockholm Syndrome's my best guess. Nevertheless, during the subterranean Looney Tune that is Everybody (animated; ds. Jessie Mott; 4 mins.; ½*/****), I began to feel grateful that there was no real public forum to display those cartoons back then, because all I'd really be doing is inviting some asshole on the Internet to dismiss it as adolescent shit. This is adolescent shit. Rendered in crude, impatient watercolours, various deer, bats, goats, etc. are anthropomorphized via cheaply cryptic remarks like "I'm too small in the necessary spaces," and "You paralyze me with disgust. You're spilling open like a gelatinous achin' belly." To which I reply, by way of Al Pacino in Heat, "Don't waste my motherfuckin' time!"
Credited as "un film improvisé," Québec's Jardin Dead End (live-action; d. Stéphane Laponte; 10 mins.; **½/****) continues a nihilistic trend that will be hard-shaken by the "Creepy" program, but I laughed and was suitably impressed by how well it hangs together as an improvisation, which here clearly refers less to ad-libbed dialogue--the acting is free of Method tics--than to a sort of spur-of-the-moment invention. (Dressing up for an exorcism, a priest dons a lucha libre mask.) When a lonely guy hits on an unfathomably-single woman at a nightclub, she's receptive but warns him that she's possessed by the Devil. He clearly presumes she's being metaphorical, but before long she's spitting pea soup at him; while the sex is good, he can't take her to a nice restaurant. Alas, the opening shot of a dog getting pasted to the road by a passing car is a dreadful miscalculation: it's not just a Seth MacFarlane moment of bad taste, it's pointless bad taste, and the film instantly faces an uphill struggle to redeem itself.
Comparatively chaste, Britain's The Elemental (live-action; d. Robert Sproul-Cran; 12 mins.; **) is also peculiarly unsatisfying. The synopsis at the official site says, "Karen's mother used to terrify her with tales of a presence on the dark tenement stair--something you should never look at. Years later Karen reluctantly returns to the house she loathed to find her elderly parents, and finds it facing demolition. But her childhood fear still waits within..." This is all very helpful backstory at best abstractly indicated by the film, wherein Karen discovers her parents in a zombified state that I gather is out of the ordinary--though in my experience a lot of elderly English couples are just like this, vacantly waiting for their adult offspring to brew the tea. The problem, ultimately, is that the movie suggests a pre-credits teaser rather than a self-contained story. And maybe it's supposed to (i.e., maybe it's a sample scene to secure further funding), but I can't say the slow pace or banal monster made me wanna know more. Back to exceedingly poor judgment with the Canadian Jack (live-action; d. Kryshan Randal; 5 mins.; ½*/****), and no wonder: it was produced for the Bloodshots Canada 48-Hour Film Challenge, whereby contestants are given a horror subgenre, a weapon, a prop, a line of dialogue, and two days to fashion these ingredients into a short subject. In my experience, that kind of pressure cooker is more likely to breed gonzo irreverence than anything resembling inspiration. Sure enough, not only does the movie...overstep with its baby-in-peril climax, it also--I'm not the first writer to point this out--conspicuously recalls Treevenge in its tale of pumpkins getting even with humanity for the jack-o'-lantern.
What to say about the morbid MRDRCHAIN (animated; 10 mins.; ***/****), from Prague-based director Ondŕej Švadlena, other than that its title cracks me up? A vivisected, quasi-human being (apparently called Sliceman) traverses a dark city in the desert where all the architecture looks like stretched tendons or rectal cavities. A marquee gains temporary illumination as each lightbulb sacrifices itself to violently inject life into the next--until one of the little guys refuses to conform, thus breaking the "murder chain." It might just be a desperate bid to decrypt the film, but one can't help drawing an allegorical line back to Švadlena's childhood, when he escaped the Czech Republic by crossing the Yugoslavian-Austrian border on foot. His vision is an idiosyncratic one, in any case, finally seizing on the potential for those creepy botched character renderings sometimes shown on Pixar and DreamWorks DVDs to become misfit Mickey Mouses of their own.
It's disappointing to chase something so fresh with something as stale as Canada's 5 Minute Dating (live-action; d. Peter Hatch; 6 mins.; *½/****). How many more wacky turbo-dating montages must I sit through until I've reached my quota? How many more skits will solve the problem of an absurd character's bachelorhood by pairing him off with his distaff equivalent before that particular well runs dry? As the debonair monster who shows up late for speed dating (with his monocle, top hat, and apple-doll complexion, he could be an undead Mr. Peanut), Gustavo Franco cuts a sympathetic Beast hopelessly searching for his Beauty. Then he's matched with the disfigured Sarah, and it's kismet. I saw the twist-ending coming, but in fairness to the filmmakers, I thought it would be the mirror image of what we get--which is hilariously meanspirited. As conventional as it would have been to have these two waltz off into the sunset together, one is again left waiting for sincerity to return to the movies.
Another Canadian entry, Chloe and Attie (live-action; d. R. Scooter Corkle; 8 mins.; **/****), grows progressively less intriguing the more it reveals, both literally and figuratively. The schematically-chosen camera angles--faces are rarely the subject of shots at first--slowly morsel out the premise, in which a middle-aged woman watches over her ailing sister in a small apartment. (One is reminded early on as we peer through a doorway at a woman with her back to us of that moment in Rosemary's Baby that had audiences craning their necks to "see" around a corner.) The titular siblings have a co-dependent relationship that seems headed for a Dead Ringers-style denouement until the filmmakers effectively grant them a sentimental reprieve, and once we finally see how dangerous Chloe--or is it Attie?--is, it is to laugh, really. It's a short whose reach greatly exceeds its grasp, though it didn't tax my patience like Scotland's monotonous Battenberg (animated; d. Stewart Combie; 12 mins.; */****). Imagine a scatological Fantastic Mr. Fox performed with rotten and emaciated animals, as a squirrel and a magpie butt heads over the titular cake and other things in a country kitchen.
Again programmers saved the best for last. Shot in 'scope, the BAFTA-nominated Off Season (live-action; d. J. Van Tulleken; 13 mins.; ****/****) transposes the boy-and-his-dog archetype of post-apocalypse flicks to a frozen tundra that obviously and, I think, intentionally (so rarely do we see this much snow on screen), brings John Carpenter's The Thing to mind, using it to provoke a Pavlovian dread in the viewer. Our surly hero and his underfed terrier companion have survived something others have not, or have lingered longer in cottage country than they should have; he spends his days looting abandoned houses, his nights guzzling whatever liquor his scavenging has yielded. Indeed, this is a quietly devastating portrait of alcoholism couched in a genre framework rife with haunted houses and bitter "Twilight Zone" ironies. A truly frightening film, it heralds writer-director Jonathan Van Tulleken as the next big name in horror. With any luck.