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2023 in Review: The Best Horror Shorts from Fantasia!

Thursday, December 28, 2023 | Fantasia International Film Festival, Reviews


Last week, I ran my choices for the best horror features of 2023–a very good year for the genre. There were a whole bunch of fine scary short movies too, and many of them were part of the assorted showcases at the Fantasia International Film Festival, held in Montreal this past July-August.

One of the consistent must-see blocks at the fest has always been Small Gauge Trauma, and this year’s was no exception. Short films, by their nature, often tend to be one-location affairs, and there were a couple of especially striking settings this time around. For GET AWAY (pictured above), director Michael Gabriele found a great middle-of-the-desert house in which to set his clever, creepy meta-horror tale. Scripted by Anthony Jefferson and Gabriele, it sees a trio of female friends making the mistake of watching a vintage fright-flick VHS tape they find in that house, whose events begin bleeding into their reality. Solid tension and effects lead to a perfect closer in this film, which wound up landing Fantasia’s Gold Audience Award for Best International Short. A very different but equally impressive home is seen in ROLE PLAY, directed by Bill Neil and written by Alex Henes and Matt Merenda, in which a young man is brought by a slightly older guy back to his opulent mansion in the hills to indulge in the titular activity. Full of unsettling suggestion for a while, it ends with a burst of startling body horror.

Set in a single room, writer/director David Winstone’s THE NOLBERTO METHOD elicits effective black comedy from a depressed man’s session with a doctor who promises that a cure lies in licking a strange white slug. The will-he-or-won’t-he? is most enjoyable, and pays off with a perfect punchline. INCOMPLETE, written and directed by Zoey Martinson, focuses on a man subject to an unusual and complicated house arrest that becomes even more troubling when evidence arises that he’s sharing the place with ghosts. There are almost too many ideas and issues bouncing around in this 10-minute piece, but Martinson keeps it involving and sticks the scary landing. COVER YOUR EARS, from Swedish writer/director Oskar Johansson, is a moodier, literally quieter haunted-home tale, as two sisters use noise-cancelling headphones in an attempt to avoid a malignant presence that plagues them. It sustains an eerie tone, and also employs a simple but intriguing and ultimately chilling visual scheme.

STOP DEAD, directed by Emily Greenwood and written by David Scullion, takes place outdoors, but is no less claustrophobic, as its focus is on a police car that has broken down on a lonely road in the deep dark night. Its two occupants encounter a clearly traumatized woman staggering through the darkness, sparking a scenario marked by atmospheric photography and sound design and some jittery frights that will definitely make you jump in your seat. Writer/director Andrew Fuchs’ THE PUPPET MAN takes place largely in a small theater where the titular performer appears to let his marionettes express too many of his personal demons. Or does he? It’s a consistently intriguing exploration of the intersection between life and art, and how each can manipulate the other.

Three of the longest and most expansive Small Gauge Trauma entries were foreign-language films, two from France and one from Spain. The latter is called NO HAY FANTASMAS (THERE ARE NO GHOSTS), though its meaning is expressed in the way that title is revealed on screen in reverse. Directed by Nacho Solana and written by Jordi Farga, it’s about a young woman named Andrea who can pick up echoes of the dead, and is summoned by a grieving mother anxious for closure regarding her lost daughter. The drama, which becomes truly moving, arises not from spectral appearances but from what Andrea gleans about that girl, and what she chooses to reveal to her mom. TRANSYLVANIE, directed by Rodrigue Hart from a script he wrote with David Alexander Cassan and Axel Würsten, would make a great companion piece with Eskil Vogt’s masterful THE INNOCENTS, with which it shares a tower-block environment and a concern with corrupted childhood. Its protagonist is a young girl who thinks she’s a vampire and acts on that belief while pursuing a crush on an older boy. Right up till its final moment, the short holds us with the question of whether she is or is not a bona fide bloodsucker–and which would be more frightening.

The very longest of the bunch was the French/Belgian co-production LA MACHINE D’ALEX (ALEX’S MACHINE), written and directed by Mael Le Mée. It plays like a marriage of David Cronenberg’s CRASH and Julia Ducournau’s TITANE, in which Alex is the only girl in an “automotive biomechanics” class and gets, um, a little too close to her project, an engine that synthesizes metal and artificial flesh. Boasting great mechanical/organic effects by Pierre-Olivier Persin and POP FX, this is a study of unusual obsession that, like many in the Small Gauge lineup, makes me anxious to see what its creator could do with a feature project.

A couple of my favorite shorts in the fest were found in the less celebrated but equally worthy Are You Afraid of Fantasia? block, which despite its title emphasized the lighter side of the genre, albeit with a full commitment to the grisly and monstrous. I absolutely loved MURDER CAMP (pictured), directed by Clara Aranovich and written by Will Harris and Jeremy Radin, who also star as a pair of psycho killers who set their sights on a couple of camp counselors. The encounter doesn’t go the way the characters expect, and the audience is treated to a series of surprising and funny developments and reversals that make this a black-comic winner. Another highlight was JACQUES, in which writer/director/star Charlie Bellarose ignores the old caveat against working with animals and gets a wonderfully expressive performance out of canine star Jack, playing a stray cockapoo that becomes especially, and murderously, devoted to the gorgeous young woman who takes him in. Pitch-perfect narration by Bill Dawes helps make this one another dark-humored winner.

A few of the Are You Afraid? entries were only two or three minutes apiece, and delivered even in those very short runtimes. Writer/director Graham Robertson’s MURDER is a neat black-and-white bit taking off on the alternate definition of that word; LÉA, by Carnior, presents an amusing and original gag in the midst of a zombie apocalypse; and SANTA SOMBRA sees Argentineans Paula Boffo and Patricio Plaza delivering a striking black-white-and-red animated introduction to the avenging title character.

Continuing on the Spanish-language tack, writer/director Michael J. Ruiz-Unger’s SAVE THE FLEA combines a charming teen romance with satisfying supernatural comeuppance as the two young leads try to stop nasty developers from taking over the flea market that employs their families. Another save-the-business scenario is seen in DEAD ENDERS, which grabbed the Bronze Audience Award for Best International Short. Directed by Fidel Ruiz-Healy and Tyler Walker, and written by the duo with Jordan Michael Blake and Conor Murphy, it takes place at a Texas convenience store on a night when fracking has unleashed possessive oversized bugs, and our only hope against them might be an employee looking for direction in her life. Much gruesome, giggly fun ensues.

UP ON THE HOUSETOP comes from directors Dakota Millett and Michael Fischer, who also scripted with Laura Herring and play two of a quartet of squabbling siblings cleaning up their deceased parents’ house on Christmas Eve. The actors have good comic chemistry and a number of funny lines, especially after one of them accidentally shoots Santa Claus, though when one of his monstrous reindeer comes after the group, we don’t get a good enough look at the creature. There are no such issues in FUNGUS, the most serious-minded of this selection, a brooding story of father-and-son trappers who have a very tenuous arrangement with fearsome beings dwelling in the forest. Excellent visual effects overseen by writer/director Ryan Maddox assist in the creepy spell this one casts.

Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy of the Astron-6 team contributed FORGOTTEN LAKE, with makeup effects by team member and filmmaker Steven Kostanski. This one is also a takeoff on summer-camp slashers, involving a hulking maniac known as “Blueberry Boy,” with some clever moments and a fun punchline; its only issue here is that it can’t help but be overshadowed somewhat by MURDER CAMP. Finally, writer/director Chris McInroy’s WE FORGOT ABOUT THE ZOMBIES wrings a lot of amusement from a couple of guys who believe they’ve found an antidote to the undead plague sweeping through their area. It all leads to a great final gag that closed Are You Afraid of Fantasia? with a big laugh.

Things were much more serious in Things That Go Bump in the East, Fantasia’s annual showcase of Asian fright shorts. Particularly grim and harrowing, though with its own moments of morbid humor, was FOREIGNERS ONLY (pictured), which took the Gold Audience Award for Best Asian Short. Bangladeshi writer/director Nuhash Humayun addresses a real-life concern–the titular restriction commonplace in his country–and spins it into the macabre tale of a tannery owner who runs up against that rule when trying to find a place to live and deal with an unpleasant skin condition. He ends up finding a very direct way to deal with both that’s among the ghastliest turns in any of these shorts.

The Bronze Audience Award for Best Asian Short went to another Things That Go Bump offering, NIGHT OF THE BRIDE by Indian writer/director Virat Pal. This look at the worst arranged marriage imaginable comes to a satisfyingly gruesome end, though it ultimately feels like a proof of concept for a longer film. The same goes for ENGLISH TUTOR, from South Korean writer/director Koo Jaho, in which a young woman takes the eponymous job and becomes haunted by it. Both the chilling veneer the filmmaker creates and the rather abrupt ending leave you wanting more once it’s over.

SARANGI, made in the UK by writer/director Tarun Thind, concerns the titular instrument turned lethal and does a tighter job of exploring that subject than the recent CELLO, with moments in the second half that will definitely have you cringing. Photography is the pursuit given a very dark side in YOU WILL SEE, from Singapore writer/director Kathleen Bu, in which a young woman attempting to capture images of pure truth comes into possession of a camera that seems to have occult properties. Bu creates imagery that’s quite resonant–more so, in the end, than the narrative.

The other three films in this section were animated, with varying approaches and levels of success. TWO SIDE, written and directed by China’s Bi Xue Yang (Luo Mingyang), utilizes vibrant, expressive traditional animation to tell of a teenage bully who receives otherworldly comeuppance that torments his psyche. I was less impressed with TANG from South Korea’s Kim Minjeong, which I found an unrewarding exercise in CG ick about a young woman trapped in a realm of bulbous, scatological creatures. The last and longest of the block’s movies was also one of its highlights: Taiwan’s A NIGHT WITH MOOSINA, written and directed by Tsai Shiu-Cheng. Done in lush, gorgeous anime style, it’s a mini-epic of a girl who is lured into the deep woods around her home by a duplicitous spirit, with many fantastical sights and freaky moments. Watching MOOSINA, I was reminded of the mission statement Fantasia started with way back in the ’90s: to expose a wider audience to the best and most exciting of what Asian genre cinema has to offer.



Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).