Small Gauge Trauma 2017 [Fantasia International Film Festival 2017]

Small Gauge Trauma is a programming block of shorts at the Fantasia Festival that sort of functions as a two hour anthology movie without a wraparound story. The shorts can be in any genre and are chosen by rough theme. In the 2017 edition’s case the theme was “Family” and while I know that this doesn’t sound overtly ominous, trust me when I say that it should.

Before I even start the review(s) I’m going to issue a mild to medium spoiler warning. Short films are, well… you know… short. So I have to talk about something and because the various runtimes are often under ten minutes I may mention stuff that happens towards the end. I promise I won’t ruin any twists and I will try not to describe every aspect of the plot and story, but I have to work with what I got.

5 mins
Language: Dutch
Directed by: Nico Van den Brink
Written by: Nico Van den Brink
Cast: Ilke Paddenburg
Company: Brink Film
This is probably my favourite of the bunch, if only because it gets right down to business and does what I like best in a horror story. It sets up a spooky premise, builds up atmosphere thick enough to cut with a knife, and then tries to scare the living piss out of you. Nothing fancy. Nothing clever. Just pure gut level terror.

A woman is trying to talk to her friend on the phone, but is constantly being distracted by the sounds of the kids in the apartment upstairs running around and screaming. She’s annoyed by how loud they are until she notices a news report of a murder suicide. A mother killed both her children and then herself in the apartment upstairs. The woman looks up in shock. The sounds of laughing and running and screaming do not stop. In fact, they keep getting closer and closer and closer…

HOW CAN I NOT LOVE THIS? This is what I was born to watch. This is a filmed nightmare. There’s no logic. No plot. No well-defined characters. No real story beyond the simple setup I wrote. The whole short is basically comprised of dread, eerie sounds, lights that won’t stay on, and a door that won’t stay closed. That’s all you need to be scared, and it works beautifully.

7 mins
Language: Spanish
Written by: Vincet Blonde
Cast: Jose Bermudez, Jesus Calvo
Company: Geofilms Entertainment
One of the more esoteric entries, and one that I admire but am not sure I like. The problem here is that the editing is seizure inducing. It’s too much for me. The shots whiz by so ferociously that Michael Bay would probably think it was too much. I didn’t count, but I doubt any shot lasts longer than a second. It’s like being machine gunned with images and sounds. Yeah, it creates a very definitive sort of feel and mood, but ooof…

A mother calls an internet service called iMedium to talk to her dead daughter in order to find out who killed the child. Beyond that? Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tow! That’s all I’ll say.

I’m making it sound terrible aren’t I? That’s not fair at all. Here’s what I liked: It’s creative, it’s got a coherent plot, it makes emotional and logical sense, and it’s not confusing to watch despite the editing. Does all of this add to something good though? Wellll… It’s not bad. Nothing this kinetic can be bad. My wife loved it, and she’s as big of a film buff as I am. So this may just be something that comes down to personal taste. So I give this a pass regardless of how I feel, and if you ever find it playing somewhere it’s worth your time.

13 mins
Language: English
Directed by: Adrian Selkowitz
Written by: Lauren Kincheloe, Sam Littlefield
Cast: Sadie Alexandru, Alexandra Fulton, Charles Halford, Jessica James, Lauren Kincheloe, Sam Littlefield, Jo-Ann Pantoja
Company: Cowboy Bear Ninja
This is the comedy segment of the bunch, and it is genuinely funny in a very very very dark way. Imagine if American Psycho was a comedy of manners set in Hollywood and you’d sort of be in the ballpark of what’s going on here. The comedy on display is rarely seen outside of indie films, which is why I’m so happy when I do stumble across a film or a short that uses the style.

You see, most comedies are either sophisticated or crude or silly or over the top, but very rarely are they demented. “Taste” is demented.

A fame seeking couple is hosting a dinner party for another, much more successful, couple. How successful we don’t know for sure, but the paparazzi follows them around, and in modern day Hollywood that’s viewed as a sign of having made it big. Everything would be going splendidly if it wasn’t for the fact that they find a naked woman collapsed in their driveway.

Every character is deliciously awful and shallow. Every conversation unfolds as a wonderful cutting, cruel, passive aggressive, almost witty jab. I love this sort of stuff. I think a whole movie of this might get a little overwhelming, there’s just so much of watching awful people being awful that I can stand, but a couple of minutes of decadent nastiness is always welcome.

16 mins
Language: English
Directed by: Kyle Ginzburg
Written by: Kyle Ginzburg
Cast: Charles Sprinkle, Michelle Cameron, Elise Kibler, Kyle Minshew, Doris McGill

This is one of those well made movies by talented people that I hate reviewing, because even though it’s good. It’s not… It doesn’t have… I can’t quite…

Okay, I’ll just come out and say it: This is an existential film about vampires, only they’re not vampires because they don’t have fangs, so they just drink blood and… OH MY GOD HOW MANY TIMES HAVE WE SEEN THIS? It’s not that Crop is boring or stupid. Far from it. It’s well made. There are some really interesting scenes, like how the Vampires dream during their daytime sleep. At the same time, for the love of all that is good, stop!

This isn’t like beating a dead horse anymore. We are far beyond that. This is like resurrecting the dead horse’s rotten corpse with electricity, sewing miscellaneous animal and human body parts to it, and then having sex with the god damn thing. The Vampire genre is dead. Not just dead, but bloated and putrid. It was killed by Twilight and bad Goth music. Look, I get it. Vampires are cheap to film. You just get some plastic fangs, some black hair dye and mascara, and you’re good to go. So I understand the economic temptation. That said… STOP IT!

Hard as it is to believe, I didn’t dislike this short and I will even recommend that people check it out. I mean, it’s well shot and the acting is good and there are bits and pieces of very clever ideas sprinkled everywhere. I personally think this is worth watching and I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I’m saying this sucks. It doesn’t. Except that it’s the same old story being recycled for the billionth time, and I’m getting the terrible feeling that this was meant as a full length movie that was turned into a short because they didn’t have enough money. I cringe at the very idea of over 90 minutes of sad vampires.

If the filmmakers read this, please don’t take it the wrong way. I’m not writing a negative review because I think you suck. I’m writing a negative review because I think you can do better. *I* believe in you. Just… do something different. You have great style and skills, use them to do something that’ll wow the pants off of people. Don’t settle for recycling the dregs of the horror genre.

9 mins
Language: English
Directed by: William Boodell
Written by: William Boodell
Cast: Bella Anderson, James Henderson, Paula Lindberg
Company: BoodellArts

This short sets up a very disturbing back story. So much so that I thought I might have to look away a few times, because it does this with such somber realism that it was kind of hard to watch.

A little kid is sitting with her dad in his car. They’re parked across the street from a bar. The mom calls to ask the man if he’s drunk again. He denies it, even though he’s drinking a beer as he’s telling her how sober he is. They argue. Finally, both parents get tired of arguing and hang up on each other. The father leaves the kid to go into the bar, but pleads to her before leaving “Don’t be like me, okay?”

This is some deep dark stuff, and really well done. The scenes of the kid waiting in the car for her dad to come back, trying to make the best of things, trying to have fun, trying to be a kid, but always with that look of permanent worry on her face because she’s not sure what kind of dad is going to come back, are all realistic and well-acted.

Then – and I’m posting a huge SPOILER WARNING here because there’s just no other way to discuss this while keeping the ending a secret – the kid gets kidnapped by a Satanic Cult. At any other time my rule of thumb is that cults, especially Satanic ones, are fucking stupid. However, I will say that in this rare case I think it does sort of work because there’s a really good punchline. I won’t tell you what it is, because I wouldn’t dare ruin it after spoiling the weird twist, but I will say this movie gets a mild pass. At the same time, the serious side of the short was so well done that I sort of wish they’d gone in another direction. I mean, I understand why they did what they did. It works really well and there are plenty of serious dramatic shorts in the world. However, these guys are good at dramatic serious scenes. Like, really good. So if they ever did something that was more like the beginning of their short than the end I think they’d knock our socks off.

16 mins
Language: English
Directed by: Jay Rathore
Written by: Jay Rathore
Cast: Philip Granger, Mackie Bryson-Bucci, Conner Beardmore, Alden Doyle, Fiona Vroom
Company: Owlbear Productions
I can’t quite tell you, even as I’m writing this review, if Pumpkin is a simplistic vengeance fantasy or a philosophical musing about the true nature of vigilantism. It plays itself as the former at times, but drops a lot of clues about the latter. These two contrasting themes leave me on the fence, unsure of what Pumpkin is trying to say, though I lean towards philosophical musing. So, I’ll be philosophical.

Three high school kids kidnap a middle-aged pedophile, tie him to a chair, and stream it all over the internet. He’s either going to admit what he is, or else… As far as story goes, this part is familiar: An evil vile man is tied to a chair, helpless to the whims of our heroes.

However, are the three protagonists the heroes? The kids aren’t shown as wanting to exactly help. They’re shown as borderline sociopaths who simply want a victim that society won’t mourn or miss. A victim whose screams for mercy they don’t have to care about. Not to mention that the man is such a sleazy and disgusting creep that we automatically empathize with the boys. There is no question about his guilt. It’s obvious he’s guilty.

However, this begs the question: Should we empathize with these kids? Obviously, we don’t empathize with the man, but their methods and the rationalization for their actions leave a lot to be desired.

We live in a society where criminals have rights, but those rights aren’t there to protect the guilty, as so many buddy cop movies imply, they’re there to prevent people from committing atrocities under the guise of justice. Because at some point, if we do monstrous things to monstrous people, we become monsters too. You have to become very cold and cruel and heartless to hurt someone who can’t fight back, and that cruelty doesn’t just go away after you’re done punishing the wicked. It stays with you, working its way down into your soul, digging into your psyche forever.

This “desire for justice” has been used throughout history to justify vile and sadistic acts. The problem always rests with how much violence you’re ready to commit and how much sadism you’re willing to forgive in the pursuit of your goals. The short certainly seems very ambivalent towards the boys’ behaviour, portraying them more like the sort of guys that you find on 4chan message boards trolling female video game critics. Their internet audience is certainly shown as being much more interested in seeing real life torture than any sort of justice. Just take, for example, the scene where their live video feed gives out and they stop torturing the guy because, after all, if no one can see it then what’s the point?

This is an uncomfortable short to watch and it brings up very uncomfortable ideas. However, it’s done in this slick, hip style that undermines those ideas. It’s not torture porn, but it’s almost trying to be torture porn, and so it doesn’t quite work, but it comes so close that I can’t say it’s bad with a clear conscience.

15 mins
Directed by: Alberto Viavattene
Written by: Alberto Viavattene
Cast: Stewart Arnold, Roxane Duran, Sydne Rome
Company: Lights oN

This is the most surreal entry here. To the point where I’m not sure what happened at the end, or in the beginning, or during anything that happened in between. Maybe that’s a good thing.

A nurse, I think, arrives at a retirement home and is ordered by the security guard to take pills and go do a “Birthday” for someone. Now, when I say this is surreal I don’t mean it’s something like Lynch or Dali or Jodorowski would make. There’s no complete break with reality. It’s more like Fulci or Argento’s version of the surreal, where it’s weird but it still follows a semi-coherent narrative. I’m sure that if I sat down and looked for clues I could figure this out.

I enjoyed it. That’s all there really is to say about Birthday. It’s weird and artistic and unpredictable. It’s not perfect. It’s a bit too “Twilight Zoney” which is a problem with a lot of shorts, but at the same time there are worse things in the world to be than a really good episode of The Twilight Zone.

United Kingdom
25 mins
Language: English
Directed by: Andrea Niada
Written by: Andrea Niada
Cast: Jemma Churchill, Richard Ginn, Kate Reed

This is a very British short about a very British mother and daughter, both of whom happen to be insane. The mother homeschools her child, filling her head with complete nonsense. We sense a deep religious upbringing, but never quite get to the religion. Which is fine since it would probably be too much back story. Instead we jump in just a little bit before the end.

The problem with being crazy is that it isn’t sustainable. Especially when you keep reality far at bay. At some point lying to yourself as regularly as breathing makes it impossible for you to function because you’ve created so many rules and loopholes that you lose track of what you can and can’t do, or what you’re supposed to love and what you’re supposed to hate, of what makes you calm and what makes you scared. After a while you get confused and anxious, and the world you created begins to crumble.

Because this is very British story, and even the very mad in Britain have manners, there is no loud apocalyptic reason for the crash of this family. They simply quietly, politely almost, fall apart.

The film is like watching a slow motion car crash. It builds and builds and builds until the last shot, as the mother comes to the realization x about the cost of her madness and the cost it’s had on her daughter. It’s a good scene, and a perfect ending.

(” Die Besonderen Fähigkeiten Des Herrn Mahler”)
29 mins
Language: German
Directed by: Paul Philipp
Written by: Belo Schwarz
Cast: André M. Hennicke, Dante Gutierrez Janssen, Jasmin Schwiers, Matthias Lier
Company: Aug&ohr medie

As British as the previous short was, this is very German. Set in East Germany in 1987, Mr. Mahler is an investigator for the secret police who is questioning two grieving parents about the death of their child. He is not a psychic, he says, but he can sense things. So we instantly think he’s a psychic of course. However, Mr. Mahler will prove to the audience that he is not psychic in the least, while at the same time methodically solving the case.

A bit too gray and drab to be fun, this short is still very hypnotic and engaging. Mahler speaks in a slow deliberate somber voice that instantly captures your attention, leaving the music and cinematography do the rest.

I’m not sure about the final few minutes of the film, because it’s a twist ending in a story that doesn’t need one, but the buildup is so great that I can’t really say anything bad about it. Unlike a lot of shorts, I’d like to see this as a longer movie. As long as they get rid of that ending, I think this would be awesome.

Well, that was Small Gauge Trauma. You had some great stuff, some good stuff, some okay stuff, some bad stuff, but all the stuff was always interesting to watch. Writing this review, it occurs to me that shorts, even the ones I dislike, always provide me with so much more pleasure than a normal length movie. It’s impossible to truly hate watching a short film. It’s like being able to hate playing with an excited puppy. It may not do everything perfectly like the big dogs, but it’s perfect just the way it is.