By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Terence Anderson, Sophie Jane Oliver and Zander Emlano
Directed by Alessio Liguori
Written by Daniele Cosci
With all due respect to Robert Frost and his fine poem, the road less traveled isn’t always a traipse through sublime beauty en route to a transcendent self-actualization. Sometimes, it’s beset by fallen trees and rotting livestock; by mutilated human corpses and marauding tongue-eating serial killers; by abandoned military installations and wild, stalking creatures straight outta THE OUTER LIMITS. Sometimes those “leaves no step had trodden black” that so tempt one’s foot are followed by foliage obscured by blood and disinterred viscera once it’s too late to turn back. Sometimes that road less traveled is really a hellmouth that threatens to swallow you whole.
Or at least, that’s the bright, flashing caution sign erected by the enchantingly demented new creature feature SHORTCUT, in which a school bus takes a fateful turn off the pavement onto a dirt road through a dense, fog-shrouded forest, where the five teenage passengers are forced to fight for survival on myriad fronts. This sort of youth-in-peril tale is, of course, hardly novel, so any more direct discussion of SHORTCUT’s story would likely serve little purpose save spoiling some of the dark funhouse setpieces within. To paraphrase Jon Bon Jovi, it’s all the same, only the monsters change—and while, to its credit, SHORTCUT sports solid fiends both human and inhuman, execution in such a crowded corner of the genre is clearly paramount.
Happily, the film truly shines in this respect. First and foremost, SHORTCUT gets the spiritual center right, wearing its heart on its sleeve both figuratively and literally. The five teen roles are archetypal, sure, but the actors who fill them—Jack Kane, Zak Sutcliffe, Sophie Jane Oliver, Zander Emlano and Molly Dew—are both endearing and authentic enough to generate empathy and a real concern for their well-being. Like many youths in such films, the fact that they so confidently believe they’ve already lost their innocence makes their traumas and triumphs all the more powerful. There are also solid supporting turns by David Keyes as the aforementioned maniacal tongue-eater and Terence Anderson as the philosophical, kindly and doomed bus driver.
Director Alessio Liguori and scriptwriter Daniele Cosci–who previously teamed on the 2019 supernatural thriller IN THE TRAP–do an admirable job of building a dreamlike atmosphere sharply punctuated with screaming nightmares. The leaps in logic and often baffling sequences of events would be a serious detriment in any other corner of the film universe, but here it helps viewers occupy the headspace of the main characters—together, we’re in a place where the normal rules of nature and society simply no longer apply.
Finally, cinematographer Luca Santagostino and production designer Miriam Judith Reichel need to be singled out for effusive praise: SHORTCUT is absolutely gorgeous in the way it is conceived and shot, allowing for a degree of immersion and suspension of disbelief without which the rest of the film would not work. It is world-building in the very best sense of the word, and should be held up as an example to other indie filmmakers of the major dividends investment in this creative area can pay.
SHORTCUT may not reinvent the wheel, but over the course of a wisely lean, tight 80-minute runtime, it sure rolls us through some interesting and disturbing back roads.