We continue our look at the stellar short horror programming from Horrible Imaginings 2021 with a look at 10 more must-see shorts.
I recently highlighted 10 of my favorite standout shorts from this year’s Horrible Imaginings film festival, but that was only scratching the surface when it comes to the depth of talent and creativity showcased during this event. Thus, I was compelled to come back with another roundup featuring 10 more short films that deserve to be celebrated and recognized.
If you get the chance, I urge you to seek these films out at an upcoming in-person or virtual festival or keep them on your radar when they become widely available. Some of the films can even be viewed online right now. For others, you can follow the filmmakers on social, as well as Vimeo and YouTube, and check out their other projects. These shorts represent the future of genre filmmaking — and it’s a very bright future indeed.
1. A WAR ON FRIENDLY GROUNDS
Often, the most impactful and deeply affecting horror films are the ones that simply hold a mirror up to society and reflect real-world atrocities, the waking nightmares we can’t escape from after the credits roll. Such is the case with King Jaquell Martin’s engrossing and heartbreaking autobiographical tale A War On Friendly Grounds.
Martin is a native of Benton Harbor, MI. He enlisted in the United States Army with a passion to serve his country and make a better life for himself and his family. Being a high achiever, he moved up the ranks to sergeant and held his position until an unforeseen and challenging incident brought him face to face with age-old discrimination born of ignorance and racial hatred. This experience inspired him to write his freshman biography, which became this chilling 13-minute short about a veteran returning home from service only to find that, for some, the color of his skin mattered more than the integrity of his character.
This is social horror at its finest — a timely piece on racism and police brutality in America. It’s incredibly hard to watch because, sadly, we’ve all seen these horrific images play out day after day on the nightly news. Still, it never gets easier to confront this devastating reality, and it shouldn’t get easier. We should be outraged and horrified every time we see injustice, discrimination, and inhumanity.
A War On Friendly Grounds, directed by Martin and Deante Gray, is an important film, and I hope as many people as possible will seek out and share it. And for those of you who may be concerned, Martin isn’t making a political statement. He is careful to acknowledge and thank those officers who devote their lives to protecting and serving at home as he willingly did abroad. But good people in a broken system don’t make the system any less broken.
We need change, we deserve it, and we should demand it.
2. KOREATOWN GHOST STORY
Koreatown Ghost Story, a short film written and directed by Teddy Tenenbaum and Minsun Park, has been wowing festival audiences and judges since it made its world premiere at Grimmfest’s EASTER HORROR NIGHTS in April 2021. It has already amassed a whopping 66 festival wins and 30 nominations, nabbing its latest win for Best Director of a Short Film for Tenenbaum and Park at this year’s Horrible Imaginings festival. Having finally screened this much-buzzed-about short starring the incomparable Margaret Cho, I understand all the well-deserved hype.
In fact, the story has just been sold to Paramount Players with Tenenbaum and Park closing a deal to write and direct the full-length feature film. This should tell you a great deal about the quality and entertainment value of this stellar 15-minute supernatural tale based on a Korean marriage ritual.
In the film, a young woman named Hannah (Lyrica Okano) pays a visit to Mrs. Moon (Margaret Cho) for an acupuncture appointment. She soon finds herself pinned down both literally and metaphorically, as the increasingly menacing Mrs. Moon reinforces traditional Korean values while making Hannah a very non-traditional offer. What begins as a bit of a playful horror-comedy, with the extraordinary Cho chewing up the scenery, quickly escalates into a panic-inducing house of horrors — rife with creepy images and creeping terror.
Okano is exquisite, effectively conveying palpable dread as the camera pulls in tightly on her face while she lies immobile, face-down on a massage table with needles up and down her body, as unspeakable horrors begin to unfold. Cho is brilliant as the borderline caustic but still seemingly harmless and well-intentioned matriarch who quickly becomes something much more threatening.
The short tackles some great commentary on traditional gender roles and archaic but still enduring societal expectations for women — including getting married solely so a man can provide for them. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s also some really disturbing imagery and one scene in particular that will make you squirm.
Cho is attached to reprise her role from the short in the upcoming feature film and will executive produce.
That’s excellent news because I am definitely chomping at the bit to see more from this talented team and felt there was so much more of this compelling story to explore with a longer running time.
3. NAGUAL: THE SIN EATER
I was blown away by Nagual: The Sin Eater, a Western Horror short that helped open the Horrible Imaginings festival and stole audience hearts by winning Best “Monster Show” Short Film.
This 14-minute tale of karmic justice directed by Dan Laz Lazarovits boasts such outstanding cinematic quality. It’s well shot, well-acted, and beautiful to look at, while also delivering a sinister and wholly satisfying story along with some exceptional makeup effects.
While I love punishing horror as much as the next person, many genre films feel so bleak and nihilistic as we watch innocent victims getting slaughtered simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s such an injustice to it all; an exploitation of the randomness of the universe which doesn’t care who you are or what you’ve done. Terrible stuff just happens with no rhyme or reason. While that may be the reality of the world we live in, who among us doesn’t secretly hope for a world where everyone reaps what they sow?
Thus, there is something so satisfying about a horror film that dishes out just desserts and makes you stand up and cheer for the source of terror.
Additionally, the overlap of Westerns and Horror is not something we’re treated to often, and the two genres intertwine to perfection in the memorable Nagual: The Sin Eater.
It’s refreshing to see a film so effectively explore traditional themes of guilt and retribution while really bringing something new to the table.
Every so often, I watch a film that leaves such an indelible impression that I find myself at a loss for words. While that’s not great for someone whose job it is to talk about movies, it’s quite a remarkable experience for someone who loves to experience great cinema. Such was the case with Afterbirth. The sum of my notes for this mind-blowing film read simply, “Wow!!”
An artful, horrific, and beautiful exploration of grief, this Irish short directed by Catríona Mitchel follows a young couple mourning the loss of their newborn. We open on a disturbing shot of a baby’s skull sitting on a coffee table while a young couple huddles together on a couch staring at it. Soon the woman suggests that they give it a proper burial. They take the skull out to a lovely spot in the woods by a lake to bury it. We then abruptly transition to the man performing intense oral sex on his wife.
What follows is an onslaught of nightmarish imagery and unnerving sound design which conjoin deliciously to burrow under the viewer’s skin.
The most compelling part of this simultaneously sexy and disorienting short is the way it juxtaposes great beauty with immense horror, creating an effective allegory for the way inner turmoil is often masked by the outward appearance of tranquility and happiness. Far too often we learn, only after it’s too late, how much seemingly charmed people suffer quietly on the inside.
Clocking in at just even minutes, Afterbirth is simple but impressive — a wickedly dark tale that delights and surprises.
5. BLEU – EVERYTHING IS FINE
Canadian-born director Gavin Michael Booth’s impressive film, music video, and commercial work has been featured around the globe in theatres, on television, and online. His work includes collaborations with the band Third Eye Blind, NBCUniversal, Sony Pictures, Blumhouse, Royal Bank of Canada, and more. He’s an in-demand director-for-hire as well as an independent filmmaker, writing and producing his own films.
Most recently, he collaborated with the amazingly talented artist Bleu whose songs have been featured on the multi-platinum Spider-Man soundtrack. Bleu is also a writer/producer for Jonas Brothers, Meatloaf, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and many others. He brought on Booth to help direct a special Halloween Horror version of the music video for his song “Everything Is Fine” off of his 4th album “FOUR” released in 2010.
The concept for the masterfully executed video is genius. It’s a slasher horror film shot in reverse. It opens up on a final girl fighting off a masked killer, and then we see all the events that led up to this climactic, bloody showdown as Booth essentially rewinds the tape in a loving nod to the golden age of slashers and VHS tapes.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that “Everything is Fine” is so damn listenable. Though the lyrics are deceptively dark, the song sounds uplifting and feel-good, which contrasts wonderfully with the horror that plays out over the three-minute video. It’s not at all the type of material you’d expect, which is a big part of why it works so well. It’s disorienting in the best possible way.
Fortunately, you can check this one out now on YouTube (see below). You can also catch Gavin’s feature film The Scarehouse for free on Tubi.
6. JUST FOR THE RECORD
This is another short that absolutely floored me. An animated film from Vojin Vasovic, Just For the Record takes you on a powerful emotional journey in just 7 minutes. Both hopeful and heartwrenching, uplifting and apocalyptic, it’s a mini-masterpiece about the search for beauty in the face of horror.
In an abandoned attic, a dictaphone robot desperately tries to connect to a bird that stops on its window. Using his play button to say something, he finds himself shocked by the content and scares the bird away. He rushes to make her come back, to record over his “own voice” before his battery leaks.
Beautiful. Mesmerizing. Heartbreaking. An absolute triumph.
See it for yourself here.
Venus is a thrilling and thought-provoking cyberpunk story with modern-day relevance, directed by Andrew McGee.
Inspired by cyberpunk classics like Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and The Matrix — and more broadly films such as Ex Machina and Under the Skin — it embraces the action, excitement, and compelling visuals of the genre, while sensitively exploring themes of identity, autonomy, and objectification from a unique perspective.
Over four long nights, the cast and crew worked hard through wet and freezing conditions to make this incredibly ambitious story a reality. Featuring stunning camerawork and impressive world-building, Venus is absolutely beautiful and immersive. It feels like a feature film; substantial and atmospheric, with stellar performances and unmistakable cinematic quality.
Amidst this futuristic, urban dystopia, some pretty weighty issues are addressed. These include the inherent risks of technological advancements, the implications of our increasingly digital existence, the nature of humanity, societal inequality, sexism, and the very current and crucial issue of body autonomy.
It’s a lot to bite off for an entire feature film, let alone a short, but somehow this mesmerizing 14-minute film delivers surprising depth while still dazzling with visual style and thrilling action.
While wholly satisfying on its own, Venus definitely leaves the viewer hungry for more. There’s so much room to further explore and expand this fascinating world and these important ideas. Fortunately, this Kickstarter-funded short was always intended to be used as a proof of concept to launch a full-length feature film. So, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that said feature comes to fruition.
I for one am eager to dive back into the bleak and beautiful world of Venus and explore much more of the tremendous depth and potential hinted at in this captivating short.
After its festival run at the end of the year, Venus will have its final home on the DUST YouTube channel, where it can be watched online by everyone.
From Alon Avidar comes this very Burton-esque animated tale that is both grotesque and beautiful.
A shy man sits on a bench next to a beautiful woman. He is desperate to talk to her but he can’t muster up the courage. As he contemplates his inability to connect with others, he fantasizes about what life might be like if he pursued his desires. But the fear of everything that could go wrong haunts him and keeps him trapped inside his own head.
With a jazzy, discordant soundtrack and a bevy of striking visuals, this is a hypnotic and wonderfully strange journey into the world of self-doubt, anxiety, and the prison of one’s own mind. It’s about the things we long for and the gnawing fear that everything we think we want will become poisoned and happiness will constantly elude us.
It’s a dark but resonant exploration of the human condition — and such an absolute visual treat.
I’m blown away to discover that this was Avidar’s student animation, graduation film project. Check out the making of this remarkable short here.
9. WITHIN THE FRAME
Shot primarily in black and white, this low grain, ultra-low-budget short was filmed during the COVID lockdown.
Within the Frame is a film that makes the most of its limited resources, utilizing an effective mix of interesting color and sound to create a truly creepy and haunting tale inspired by a terrifying urban legend.
A woman walking alone hears whispers; they are calling her name, beckoning her. She journeys to a nearby property of infamous lore. There she discovers a trail of polaroids spread out on the ground. Unable to resist the lure of curiosity, she begins to pick them up. As she turns over each one, she’s greeted with images of a family. They are tangible memories — snapshots of both happiness and horror.
Many of the photographs have messages written on them. As she explores the emotional tapestry captured within the photographic frame, she is drawn in deeper to a fate she cannot escape. Attempting to piece together the mystery of the strange photographs, she discovers a personal and portentous message spelled out in the final set of chilling images.
I was fascinated to discover this short was inspired by a real urban legend known as The Polaroid Trail, and I had to do some digging to learn more.
Shades of Death Road is a two-lane rural road of about 6.7 miles located in central New Jersey. The road is the subject of folklore and numerous local legends. Weird NJ published correspondence from two anonymous readers who said they found hundreds of Polaroid photographs, some of them showing the blurred image of a woman, possibly in distress, scattered in woods just off the road during the 1990s. The magazine claims the local police began an investigation but the photos “disappeared” shortly afterward
Within the Frame is a student film from Jay Kay, who was tasked with creating a less than six-minute short with limited dialogue. It’s simple but effective. And I loved the contrast of color photographs with black and white scenery, interspersed with flashes of sepia and bold monochromatic tones.
It’s a great showcase for a talented up-and-coming filmmaker and enough to make me curious about what comes next.
10. I AM ALONE, AND I AM AFRAID
Picking my favorite film from such an impressively stacked selection of truly extraordinary short horror programming is a near-impossible feat. But I’d be hard-pressed to find a film that affected me more deeply than Jacob D’Amour’s stunning stop-motion animated short I Alone, and I Am Afraid.
Winner of Best Animated Film at Horrible Imaginings, this five-minute stop-motion horror film is a powerful meditation on mental illness. Dealing with ideas of loneliness, self-doubt, and difficulties trusting and opening up to others, it’s a sublimely personal film from D’Amour that attempts to normalize discussions of mental health.
The tagline of the film asks, “Who’s behind the door?” But the real question is, “What’s on the other side of crippling fear and self-sabotage, and can we find the strength and courage to find out?”
The hero of the short is Buckley, a man hiding from the world; a prisoner of his own social anxiety and depression. The world can be such a terrifying place, especially when. you don’t feel equipped to face it head-on. But as confusing and frightening as the world often feels, nothing is more formidable than the demons we battle in our own minds — the monsters we can never escape.
D’Amour explains the inspiration for the film:
The goal was to create something that would reflect the struggles some suffering from things like social anxiety face internally. Part of why this film is being made is to help increase awareness about the importance of mental health in hopes that someday we are all more comfortable talking about it.
As heavy as the subject matter is, this breathtaking short is ultimately hopeful and so incredibly moving.
D’Amour is a senior filmmaking major at Champlain College, and this is his first major top-motion project.
It’s remarkable to see such vision and skill in a burgeoning filmmaker, and it makes me eager to see more from this emerging talent.