In the Shadows

This week we’re focusing on the art of storytelling through film in Visual Aesthetics.  For this we’ve been watching Hillman Curtis short films, and some shorts from Studio AKA.  The Studio AKA films our class watched were a set of three called the “Pica Towers” shorts.  Overall I really enjoyed watching all these films.  They were really clever, well-done and interesting; like Pixar shorts gone bad.

I think one of the best techniques in film for creating a sense of foreboding is good use of shadows.  The Pica Towers shorts really used shadow well to heighten the sense of unease throughout the shorts.  In short films, there’s so little time to set  a mood, and the long shadows in both “The Good News” and “Hounds of Flesh” really do a good job of setting up the fact that the plot behind these cute little robots is actually quite sinister.  I thought the way the long staircase in “Hounds of Flesh” was shown with huge shadows going up the wall behind it was particularly creepy.  The high contrast black and white was also really effective in creating this really eerie mood.  It reminded me a lot of the movie “Sin City,” it gave the shorts a very gritty, dirty feel, like Pica Towers was a seedy place that you really didn’t want to be.

These three films also posed a challenge for storytelling since they are short and the characters do not ever speak.  The filmmakers achieved a cohesive story line by taking a comic book approach to the shorts.  All of the main plot point could have been still frames, the motion wasn’t what was important, but rather what the audience was seeing.  The details were sometimes away from the main action which makes it more interesting visually.   Sometimes the story would be hidden in the foreground, like when the little dog was lapping up the blood from the dead TV set bible-seller in “Hounds of Flesh.”  Other times the story was in the background, like robot machine hanging in the background of “The Good News.”  None of the stories were really resolved, which worked with the uneasy mood of the three shorts.

The Hillman Curtis short films I watched were in the same vein of a little suspenseful, but very creepy, uneasy films.  I think it takes a lot of emotional investment and good storytelling to achieve that really good creepy feeling from a fiction scenario.  But Hillman Curtis just figured out the key to that feeling in record speed.  I really got the chills after watching “Circles,” and it wasn’t even three minutes long! It reminds me a lot of Roald Dhal’s short story “The Landlady,”  there is an uneasiness from the beginning and the whole story is left very open-ended for the viewer to interpret.

The whole mood of the movie is very uneasy, from the music to the lighting. There is a palpable tension between the two characters the entire scene, their two different personalities and motives clash beautifully.  Curtis so effortlessly establishes the “skeptic” and the “believer” through some great dialogue.  Neither of them have to come out at say “I believe….” rather their vocabulary choices and tones of voice.  When the bald guy says “this would be better if we would were doing mushrooms and in one of your drum circles,” he is clearly polarizing himself as the ‘voice of reason’ and his friend as the new age hippie.  His tone is very brisk, business-like, exasperated that his time is being wasted by crazy talk of spirit worlds and the Mayan calendar.  His friend, on the other hand, speaks with a lot of pauses, trying to grasp at a larger meaning and purpose to his theories.  Even their physical attributes separate them: one is seated, the other standing, one wears white and the other black, one has hair the other has none.  This stark contrast adds to the uneasy tone, and makes the ‘grey area’ of the spirit world really stand out.

I honestly can’t believe how much this film accomplishes in such a short time.  I feel like I’ve watched a movie but it only took 3 minutes.  Within this very short time the viewer experiences the whole range of emotions one visits during a horror/suspense flick: curiosity, skepticism, belief, fear, panic, and an uneasy feel that things aren’t resolved but yet that no solution might be the only solution.  I also watched “Roof” and found that it really pales in comparison to “Circles.”  “Roof” doesn’t have the same tension that “Circles” does, and I think it’s because there is a vocalized and at one point, physical conflict between the characters.  “Circles” has this conflict, but at no point does one of the characters say “You’re wrong” or really degrade the other like the men do in “Roof.”  This makes “Circles” a little scarier of course, but I think this tension also makes the film feel like it’s moving along, whereas “Roof” feels very static (which is ironic since the characters talk about how they’re going to have to be on the move).  Both of these films are very good though, despite their differences, and so now I have to go watch “Circles” about 5 more times and creep myself out further….

So, watch either Studio AKA or Hillman Curtis’ films for a great creeptacular Halloween short film marathon.  Happy Halloween!