We honor 10 of the most surprising and significant shorts of Horrible Imaginings 2021, a year notable for its impressive short film program.
Returning to a hybrid model for the 2021 edition, the California-based Horrible Imaginings film festival showcased a diverse slate of voices and narratives within the genres of horror, science fiction, dark drama, black comedy, and fantasy. This year’s extraordinary programming slate of short films redefined the use of standard tropes and themes like alternative knowledge, broken trust, dark inspiration, isolation, social anxiety, transhumanism, and truth. These selections allowed for fresh darkness to wash over the viewer through a range of complex and challenging conflicts, stories, and characters.
After being blown away by the dazzling display of filmmaking talent on display through the various thoughtfully-curated short blocks, as well as those shorts that were perfectly paired with the fest’s feature films, I took up the difficult task of narrowing down my Top 20 picks for the best, most notable shorts of Horrible Imaginings 2021.
Part one of my list appears below. Stay tuned for part two coming soon.
1. THE THING THAT ATE THE BIRDS
From Alter and BFI comes a stunningly beautiful short folk horror tale that reflects and ruminates on the current climate of rising anxiety, reactionary mindsets, and self-destructive dogmatism. The Thing That Ate the Birds premiered at SXSW Online 2021 and recently won Best Short Film Screenplay at Horrible Imaginings 2021.
I was in love with this short from the opening title shot. Filmmakers Sophie Mair and Dan Gitsham have created a remarkably tense and hypnotic nightmare that leaves an indelible impression.
The film follows Abel (Eoin Slattery), a game warden whose apparent alcoholism and quick temper are threatening the tenuous bonds of his marriage to Grace (Rebecca Palmer). Something has been beheading the birds that Abel is responsible for. When he stumbles upon the creature responsible, he wastes no time opening fire — despite protests from his assistant Jake (Lewis Mackinnon) and a lack of any indication that the creature, though unsightly to look at, poses any threat.
It’s clear this isn’t the first time he’s made a rash, ill-advised decision, letting his base impulses supersede his humanity. But it very well may be the last time.
Dripping in an immersive atmosphere, with breathtaking cinematography and anxiety-inducing sound design and Foley work, The Thing That Ate the Birds manages to tell a rich and deeply affecting story in only 11 minutes — delivering more memorable imagery and depth of story than many feature films. It also boasts some stellar effects and impressive creature design, with an impressive ending that more than delivers for horror fans.
It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking that makes me yearn for more while still leaving me wholly satisfied.
2. THE FUZZIES
Directed by Josh Funk, The Fuzzies is a short film that incorporates live-action and practical visual effects with stop-motion animation and hand puppets. And that’s every bit as visually captivating as it sounds. Combining the visual language of horror films with a surreal interpretation of children’s television, Funk deftly delivers one of the most imaginative and engaging shorts of the fest while subtly exploring themes of anxiety and isolation.
Josh Funk — a filmmaker, animator, and Assistant Professor of Digital Media — explains the inspiration for his notable short:
“The Fuzzies started out as an exploration of surveillance but slowly morphed into a twisted journey through horror and puppetry. My experiences living in isolation with my five-year-old son during the pandemic and learning to reinvent the space we lived in bled into this film. The Fuzzies is a collaboration between myself and the year 2020.”
For the past ten years, Funk has worked with stop-motion, 2D, and experimental animated processes for independent films, music videos, stage performances, and feature films. His genre-focused films have been screened all over the world. He is best known for his work in short narrative films including 3 Keys (2018) which premiered at the Museum of Northern California Art before screening internationally at film festivals. It won 7 awards including Best Art Direction and Best Animation.
You can experience Funk’s uniquely captivating visual style for yourself by watching 3 Keys — a fantasy/thriller short film set in the world of one woman’s nightmares — for free online.
3. ALL OF YOU
Winner of Best Dramatic Short Film at this year’s Horrible Imaginings, All Of You is a riveting exploration of loneliness and desperation. It follows one woman’s journey to find love while coming face-to-face with the physical manifestations of her deepest fears regarding romantic relationships and her inability to find happiness.
The short, from director and co-writer Shahrzad Davani, tackles the implications of societal pressure to define our self-worth through romantic partnerships — a pressure that weighs heaviest on women. As Frankie (Sasha Compère) is persuaded by her friend, Arezoo (played by co-writer Nazanin Nour), to attend a spiritual retreat designed to open her up to love, she is met with a barrage of anxiety-inducing rhetoric: “You need to surrender to the journey…nobody’s happy on their own…we’re running out of time.”
Her desperation to find love — fueled by the deafening chorus of well-intentioned people who see her as flawed and incomplete without a partner — is palpable and unsettling, manifesting in a series of nightmarish encounters with men who only want to use and abuse her. Yet, she is pressured to settle and prodded, “You need to give these guys a chance.” The implication is that choosing any man, even the wrong man, is preferable to ending up alone.
All Of You is a chilling and effective examination of misogyny and the dangers of trying to force love under the misguided notion that happiness is unattainable without it.
This dreamy and flawlessly acted short, from French director and screenwriter Eva Muñoz, opens with a quote from French poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire. “And hell is always: I wish she loved me.” Another powerful short film dealing with the hunger for love and desperation born out of fear of being alone, Hannya is an exquisitely executed work of art that subverted all my expectations.
When the easy-to-dislike Mathieu (Mathieu Lourdel) brings his reserved and insecure girlfriend of three months, Ana (Anaïs Parello), to a party, things quickly get tense and uncomfortable when Mathieu’s old-flame Marie (Sophie de Fürst) shows up unexpectedly. Marie is everything Ana isn’t — inhibited, free-spirited, confident, and magnetic. And Mathieu makes no attempt to hide his attraction to Marie from Ana, in spite of her obvious discomfort.
Throughout the party, Ana makes panicked calls about Mathieu’s behavior to her mother, who worries it is too soon after some unknown incident for her to be this involved in another relationship.
The film takes its name from a mask used in Japanese Noh theater, representing a jealous female demon. The titular mask is introduced early on by Marie, and it’s an overt harbinger of things to come. Yet, knowing what may be coming in no way prepares the viewer for the totality of the journey.
Prepare to be taken on a sexy, unsettling, and heartbreaking ride in this stellar 28-minute short.
Billed as a dark comedy about identity, hypocrisy, and single-use plastic, the Swedish short Fjällnäs (named after Sweden’s oldest mountain hotel and exclusive sanctuary), is a hilarious and poignant skewering of the ways we craft inauthentic identities in a social media-obsessed world — and the ways we lose ourselves in the reflection of external perception.
Directed by Megan Maczko, the short immediately impresses with its awe-inspiring scenery. Shot at what I must believe is the most beautiful place in the world, enveloped by immense and unspoiled wilderness, Fjällnäs is absolutely breathtaking to look at. It’s the kind of picturesque model of serenity where it feels impossible to allow for a moment of discontent. This idyllic setting creates an inspired juxtaposition for the internal chaos of Alba Fianna (the outstanding Imogen Doel, who co-wrote the film with Maczko).
Alba is a renowned artist who has created a masterpiece. Her sculpture composed of single-use plastic has taken the world by storm, propelling her to fame and fortune. But when she arrives in remote Sweden as the guest of honor at a symposium on identity, a critic will stop at nothing to expose the truth.
Doel is mesmerizing as a complex character struggling with her own sense of self. The score by Saul Simon MacWilliams, which rightfully won Best Short Film Score at the fest, is ethereal and immersive. It’s equal parts thought-provoking and sidesplittingly funny. Consider this a must-watch for anyone who has ever ached for validation or grappled with imposter syndrome.
You don’t have to be an artist or creative to appreciate this spellbinding film, but it certainly helps this exceedingly clever script resonate on another level, especially when a rapidly unraveling Alba screams, “What I do matters. I’m a fucking artist. I can save the world!”
6. TUMBLE (POLISH TITLE: FIKOŁEK)
The 30-minute comedic treasure from Polish director Milena Dutkowska begins with a look at Heaven that feels far remarkably removed from any romanticized notions of a pastoral afterlife. This Heaven is filled with dull, lifeless men in ill-fitting gray suits who joylessly toil away as guardian angels, assigned the unenviable task of watching over Earth’s miscreants and undesirables. One man stands out among the insipid and the uninspired.
That man is Angel Mirek (Bartlomiej Firlet), an enthusiastic oddball who is ostracized for his exuberant dancing and zest for life. When an assignment comes up to guard a misguided man named Adam (Piotr Polak, Horrible Imaginings winner for Best Actor in a Short), no one is remotely excited to volunteer for the job, and Mirek is forced to do it.
Adam is a struggling musician, sleepwalking through life. His father has recently passed and he lives with his co-dependent mom, whom he regularly steals from; she is well aware and looks the other way for fear he might leave her if she confronts him. Mirek’s sudden arrival in Adam’s life is at first a nuisance, a constant companion only Adam can see. But as Mirek becomes visible to others and embeds himself as a more intrusive presence in Adam’s world, tensions rise.
It all culminates in a heartwarming and gleeful ending, featuring a Big Mouth Billy Bass and the return of Bobby McFerrin’s classic bop Don’t Worry Be Happy, that defies you not to fall head over heels for it.
More than any short I watched during the fest, I desperately wanted Tumble to be a feature-length film. In a world gone mad, we could all use more films like this and more reasons to just “be happy”.
7. MINIMALLY INVASIVE
I know I’m not alone when I say that hospitals stress me out, and horror films set in hospitals are inherently terrifying. Being poked and prodded while lying on a cold table in a sterile and isolating environment is viscerally unsettling. This is compounded by the anxiety of what the doctors may uncover, what it will mean, and how it might forever alter the course of our lives.
The human body, while miraculous and awe-inspiring, is also this ticking time bomb of uncertainty and inevitable doom. It’s as if we carry around a hostile alien lifeform that can — and ultimately will — turn on us at a moment’s notice, destroying us from within.
New Zealand filmmaker Adam Harvey exploits this notion in his wickedly funny, frightful, and gruesome horror short Minimally Invasive.
The expertly-paced 10-minute short starts out with a man Alasdair (Ben Fransham) as he lies on an operating table, preparing for an exploratory procedure to determine the source of his health problems. He’s visibly anxious, a state which is exasperated when he finds out his trusted doctor will not be performing the procedure. His concerns are dismissed by the medical team, and he’s mocked and scorned for his hesitation to let another doctor operate on him.
As the procedure begins, Alasdair is given a local anesthetic to numb the pain, but he remains wide awake and is given an inside look at his body via the monitor in front of him. What he sees is enough to make him, and the audience right along with him, hyperventilate. The gut-punch of an ending cuts deep; horrific and unnerving.
Minimally Invasive is a masterful exercise in tension, terror, and the manifestation of all our worst feels about healthcare and the hostile nature of our own unpredictable bodies.
Written, directed, and starring Emily Bennett, Bed is a compelling exploration of trauma and the inability to escape your nightmares. Bennett plays Madeline, around whom the entire 10-minute short revolves (she’s the only actress who appears onscreen). Driven to desperation after being tormented by her inexplicable fear of her bed, Madeline locks herself in her room, isolating herself from the world, in an attempt to face her fears head-on.
As she suffers in a fugue state of depression, isolation, and sleep deprivation, she ignores persistent calls from friends and loved ones. The messages they leave her are not concerned or empathetic. Instead, her best friend and mom lash out at her for selfishly avoiding their calls, while her boss unceremoniously fires her. No one comes to check on her or exhibit any true concern for her well-being. Her mother even callously remarks on the answering machine that she assumes Madeline is either dead or a terrible daughter.
As Madeline eventually comes to terms with the source of her fear and confronts her demons, Bed becomes an incredibly affecting allegory for what it’s like to deal with trauma — the loneliness, the inability to let go, the lack of support from loved ones who don’t understand and just want you to get over it already. Madeline discovers that no one can save her; she has to save herself. She can’t outrun her demons. Only by confronting them can she hope to find any release.
With a raw, heartfelt, and riveting performance from ‘Best Actress in a Short’ winner Emily Bennett, Bed is a piercing and transcendent rollercoaster of emotions that is devastatingly beautiful.
David Mikalson’s 14-minute short Stuck was voted Funniest Horror Comedy Short at Horrible Imaginings, and it’s not hard to understand why. Hilarious and delightfully twisted, this unflinching revenge horror impresses with its darkly comedic tone and killer practical effects.
Nicola Lambo is enthralling as the badass coach of a girl’s gymnastics team. Fiercely protective of her young athletes, she doesn’t hesitate to confront a creepy man (Davey Johnson) lurking suspiciously in the gym’s private parking lot. Defiant and dismissive, the man verbally berates the coach and taunts her, implying there is nothing she can do to stop him if he wants to be there. Worried about the safety of her girls, she calls the cops but is once again dismissed out of hand.
However, when the man sneaks into the building, hiding inside a cushioned gymnastics mat, the coach proves she’s no pushover and isn’t afraid to do whatever it takes to take out the trash.
The result is a wickedly sadistic but oh-so-satisfying finale that will have you doing backflips.
Dar-Dar, from Spanish director Paul Urkijo Alijo, was selected by Horrible Imaginings audiences to receive Best Cinematography (Gorka Gomez Andreau) and Best Effects recognition in the short film category. This extraordinary, 10-minute folk horror is shot in striking black and white, mirroring the days of early silent cinema with sparse dialogue delivered through title cards.
In this devilishly grim and frightening adaptation of Basque folklore, a woman and her young daughter shelter in a dilapidated hut. In the morning, the mother goes out to forage for food while the daughter is left to clean the ashes from the fireplace. But a dreadful creature lives in the chimney, and he demands she feed him the flesh of a finger lest he returns later that night to consume her soul. Terror-stricken, she gives in to his horrible request. But her offering does not satiate him, and he returns each day to demand another finger.
The girl keeps the nightmare of her ordeal secret from her cold and distant mother until she has only one finger left and fears what will happen when she has nothing left to offer the demon. However, the ill-fated child soon learns there is no comfort or safety in her mother’s arms.
Despite the lack of spoken dialogue, sound plays a pivotal role in amplifying the nerve-wracking tension and eerie atmosphere of this beautiful but bleak gothic fairytale about villainous neglect and stolen innocence.
Featuring phenomenal creature design and an arresting visual style, Dar-Dar is a fantastically creepy short that lingers long after its brief runtime.