SXSW Film Review: Midnight Shorts

Technical ecstasy adds to genuine late night shocks

The short film may be the perfect medium for horror: A concise, razor-keen concept can slash and burn, and the fact that the audience does not spend feature-length time with the characters means less emotional time when they are dispatched.

That reenforces the need to make the concept watertight (and bloodproof): Or, at minimum, imply enough of a wider world to let the viewer take their own path.

Something sinister stalks the green fields in "Welcome to Willits: After Sundown"

That's why Midnight Shorts opener "Bag Man" partially fails, and "Welcome to Willits: After Sundown" succeeds so completely. Both walk in to a scenario halfway through: In the former, a young boy finds himself in possession of an uncanny item that tests his moral compass; in the latter, a tweaking drug dealer goes through a mental meltdown that may or may not involve gruesome alien abduction.

Not that Jonathan and Josh Baker's "Bag Man" is a total failure: From a filmmaking perspective, and as a narrative, it is an eerie success, but its MacGuffin is a little too MacGuffiny. However, the execution, particularly the crafting on the pivotal artifact, and the CG destruction it wreaks, are superb, as is the cast. But while it leaves a frustrating hole that needs filling, "Willits County" world-builds perfectly to set up the creative team the Ryan Brothers plan for their planned feature sequel.

Barring vaguely puerile enema-centric animation "Anal Juke -anal juice-," every one of the Midnight Shorts excels as filmmaking: From the microsilliness of Brian Lonano's "Crow Hand!!!" and its shades of Canada's Astron-6 gonzo collective, to the in-your-face offensiveness of Ara Ball's bilingual Canadian sex horror "Le Pedophile." Both go for disturbing gut laughs, although "Le Pedophile"'s more realistic effects, plus finding revenge humor in child abuse, may be off-putting for some.

Slightly more mature sex-horror-comedy can be found in Gillian Wallace Horvat's jury prize winner "Kiss Kiss Fingerbang," in which Anton Yelchin takes advantage of Kate Lyn Sheil's digital fetish – a rock-solid idea, but one that just peters out with no climax. At least "Interesting Ball" doesn't even aim for an end point: Co-directors DANIELS (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) admit it is just a visually entertaining collection of every rejected idea for a commercial they've ever had. As a calling card, it's phenomenal, laden with running refrigerator jokes and Voltron made of dude-bros rather than lions. No plot, but it looks great.

But the best self-contained terror is undoubtedly Jeff Betancourt's "Knock Knock," a simple take on the classic supernatural sleepover. Simple, elegant, scary as Hades.

Midnight Shorts

Shorts programming
Thursday, March 19, 10:30pm, Ritz

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