Our coverage of Panic Fest 2022 continues with ten more compelling, entertaining, and unforgettable horror shorts well worth watching.
My talented colleague, Morbidly Beautiful’s Short Horror Editor Berlyn Nikolunauer, recently wrote a wonderful article highlighting ten of her favorite shorts out of this year’s Panic Fest. Berlyn and I share a real passion for the art of short film, and I loved her selections from the fest’s spectacular slate of shorts. But there was such a wealth of must-see content highlighted in several stacked short film blocks that we couldn’t stop at just ten. Thus, I’m thrilled to share ten more exceptional bite-sized bits of badass horror, highlighting some of my personal favorites from the fest.
GUTS is a horror-comedy short film about a day in the life of a guy who has his guts on the outside of his body, which is every bit as unsettling as it sounds. He’s having a very hard day having to deal with a jerk boss and some nasty bullies. Can guts guy Tim survive the day and stand up to the bullies and get that promotion?
Written and directed by Chris McInroy, GUTS is a riotously funny farce about the horror of office politics featuring a bevy of gross-out practical effects.
For those of you who caught Shudder’s pitch-perfect horror anthology Scare Package, you’ll already be familiar with McInroy’s work. He was the mastermind behind the standout short “One Time in the Woods” featuring the iconic Goo Guy (for which he received a coveted Drive-In Academy Award nomination from Joe Bob Briggs himself for “not allowing the plot to get in the way of the gore”).
If you crave a bit of depth with your depravity, it’s not hard to see this short as a witty allegory for how we judge, ostracize and discriminate against those who are different or don’t quite fit in. At the end of the day, however, it’s really just an excuse to have some visceral fun with blood, guts, and campy humor.
With a hilariously over-the-top, goretastic ending that pulls no punches, the squeamish would be wise to avoid this one. But for those who have GUTS, McInroy delivers a satisfyingly sick short that’s wildly fun.
(For more exciting work from this curator of carnage, check out the links below.)
2. Speed Trap
An eight-minute exercise in true terror, Chris Freeman delivers a stripped-down but highly effective thriller that hooks you from the first frame and never lets you go.
Speed Trap plays on the pervasive fear felt by women who find themselves alone and vulnerable, in an unfamiliar place — and the horrifying realization that you’re never really safe and no one can be trusted. It’s a simple concept, but Freeman exploits it for all its worth by creating a compelling short that’s unbearably tense from beginning to end.
Haunting, beautifully shot, and extremely well-acted, Speed Trap also delivers an extremely satisfying ending.
I tried to track down more information on this talented filmmaker and came up short. But I’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on what he does next given how impressed I was with this offering.
3. The Rotting of Casey Culpepper
Panic Fest hosted the world premiere of Daniel Slottje‘s The Rotting of Casey Culpepper, a remarkable short inspired by the emotional experience of an illness in his own adolescence. The film stars Slottje himself as the single father of a young girl battling leukemia. 13-year-old Lilliana Ketchman, known for her work on the show Dance Moms, makes her theatrical debut as his daughter, Casey.
Described by Slottje as a “personal body-horror story”, The Rotting of Casey Culpepper depicts the horror of illness and the unspeakable pain of watching someone you love dearly suffer at the hands of a monstrous force — a darkness that can’t be contained or controlled. As we watch Casey battle with an evil that can’t be seen and that attempts to destroy her from within, we ache as her father tries desperately to protect her while knowing he is truly helpless.
Both Slottje and Ketchum are extraordinary and do a perfect job bringing to life the believable relationship between a loving father and daughter.
As intensely chilling as it is heartbreaking and emotionally investing, Slottje delivers a powerful, allegorical monster movie about the emotional experience of illness and the horrifying toll of cancer and the process of chemotherapy.
“It’s a dramatized account of a rare, and debilitating hormone illness I had as a teen, and the fear, loneliness, and isolation I experienced because of it.” – Daniel Slottje
Combining incredible effects and truly nightmarish imagery, Rotting is truly frightening and full of mounting dread.
Slottje is currently developing the story into a feature film, and I can’t wait to see him expound on this captivating tale of hope and perseverance in the face of unspeakable fear.
4. Safe and Sound
While babysitting a precocious 8-year-old, Mia is stalked by a shadowy presence that trips the home security system. As loud beeps sound off whenever a door or window is opened, the system meant to protect her becomes an amplifying terror while she attempts to survive the night.
Ian Kammer‘s contained thriller masterfully achieves so much with so little. An eerie, atmospheric love letter to the horror and sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s, especially from auteurs like Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, Safe and Sound is a spine-tingling suburban nightmare — made all the more terrifying by an illusion of safety and a false sense of security.
It’s easy to feel comfortable and well-protected in a big house nestled in a nice, quiet neighborhood. A state-of-the-art alarm system promises to keep intruders out and protect those locked safely inside. But what happens when a system designed to protect becomes the source of terror? Kammer explains his vision for this effective horror short:
“Growing up in the suburbs, I’ve always had a deep fondness for horror and science fiction that revolved around contemporary, everyday life. Visually-stunning films that brought the impossible what-ifs and terrifying unknown into our homes and leave you questioning every bump in the night.”
With some subtle and smart social commentary on the push-pull between complacency and anxiety in a world of 24-hour news, Safe and Sound is intense and frightening.
In a clever twist, the film’s title holds a dual meaning. This is not a film full of visual scares. Here, the sound is the enemy, and Kammer accomplishes so much — and creates so much fear — through sound alone. We don’t have to see the threat to be utterly terrified.
5. Sweet Mary, Where Did You Go?
Surreal and mesmerizing, Sweet Mary, Where Did You Go? is an imaginative and artsy film that’s both beautiful and unnerving.
Australian writer/director Michael Kratochvil shot two back-to-back horror shots over a six-day period on a next-to-nothing budget, just as Covid first reared its ugly head. One of those shorts was Sweet Mary and the other was I Call Upon Thee. Both are what Kratocvil calls spiritual horror films, and both deal with topics of spirituality and the theme of transcendence.
Sweet Mary, Where Did You Go? deals with the idea of what our spirituality might look like in the future if we were immortal and unable to die.
How much of our morality is shaped by fear of death, a fear that infuses meaning into the consequences of our actions? What power would religion hold over us if not for the haunting specter of our mortality and the hope for something better beyond the pain and suffering of our Earthly existence? What would be left to believe in? What would give our life meaning if we didn’t hold precious the fleeting passage of time?
Sweet Mary is a spellbinding short for the arthouse crowd — those who appreciate a film that delivers more of a heady, visceral experience rather than a strictly linear narrative.
6. They See You
Riveting from the first moment, They See You from Jared Januschka is a triumph — technically masterful, beautifully scripted and acted, and truly memorable.
Two sisters struggle after losing their parents in a gruesome car crash. While Robin desperately tries to move on with her life and loving partner, despite being haunted by painful flashbacks, her sister Dana is spiraling out of control.
Dana has been holed up in her family’s cabin, battling her inner demons and mental illness. One day, Robin receives a hysterical phone call from Dana begging her to come to the cabin. Reluctantly, she agrees only to discover Dana may have crossed the line from disturbed to truly dangerous. What Dana finds in the cabin is shocking, but not nearly as shocking as what happens next.
Disturbing and surprising, They See You plays with a common trope — mental illness vs external evil — but deftly handles the material in a captivating and unexpected way while exploring potent ideas about grief and trauma.
Extremely well-paced, with a compelling and tension-filled mystery at its core, They See You is the kind of short that begs for feature film treatment.
I want more of this powerful story and would love to see it unravel at a slower pace while prolonging the mystery of what forces — real or supernatural — are behind the terror plaguing these women. In spite of that, it also works perfectly as a fully contained short film. Januschka, along with his co-writer Brian Carmody, packs so much story into such a tight runtime and takes viewers on a short but incredibly satisfying ride.
They See You had its world premiere at Panic Fest ’22.
7. Death in a Box
Making its world premiere at Panic Fest, Death in a Box from writer/director Simeon Gregory is my favorite kind of short — a Twilight Zone-esque mystery dripping in an ominous atmosphere.
Two young women are killing time in their apartment, when one friend, Samara, suddenly gets an idea. She asks her roommate Ava if she wants to experience something creepy. “What if I could take you to something that would tell you when you’re going to die?”
Ava, a sucker for spooky stuff, thinks she’s being invited on a fun adventure. But when the two women reach their destination, Ava becomes truly unsettled by the mysterious floating box in the middle of the desert.
Genuinely afraid, Ava doesn’t want to go near the foreboding box, but it seems to beckon to her, whispering something unintelligible. Samara tries to ease Ava’s concerns by approaching the box first. She reaches into it and pulls out a message. She then instructs Ava to do the same, taunting, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
Ava trepidatiously proceeds, pulling out a message that is cryptic like a riddle. Seeing it, Samara refuses to share her message, angry that Ava’s message is so vague while hers is eerily specific.
Ava becomes furious, feeling frightened and betrayed. She lashes out and drives home, leaving Samara stranded in the desert.
Genuinely creepy and entrancing, Death in a Box boasts a stellar concept, great use of a spectacular location, and a solid payoff.
I was hooked from the very beginning of this short, on the edge of my seat as I waited for the final reveal that definitely did not disappoint.
8. THE SOUND
Given director Jason-Christopher Mayer’s background in the music industry, it’s not surprising that he would make a short film that makes such effective use of sound as both a key plot point and a foundation for atmospheric chills.
Having been mysteriously deafened in her young adulthood, Alison (Emree Franklin), along with her sister, Lily (Sabrina Stull), are terrorized by an invisible force that may have been responsible for Alison’s hearing loss. Though it should be medically impossible, Alison hears sounds that Lily and other hearing people cannot. And those sounds seem to indicate danger is near.
Short and perfectly paced, I loved this film, which I found to be beautifully executed and effectively frightening.
Making masterful use of its single setting and only two characters — both women; it’s always a plus to see more female-driven narratives — The Sound boasts a strong premise and riveting tension.
I also loved that this short featured dialogue in sign language, as representation is so important. But thrills are what viewers really want, and the film’s wonderfully gory finale really delivers. There’s no skimping on horror here.
Director Jason-Christopher Mayer made his debut at the tender age of 23 with his old-school slasher homage, Nobody Gets Out Alive (RLJ Entertainment). This 2012 feature is a brisk hour and 17 minutes, and you can watch it for free on Tubi. Since that time, he has directed music videos and toured with Marilyn Manson, Motley Crue, Scott Weiland, and Alice Cooper.
9. Break Any Spell
In this collision of reality and fantasy, a teenage girl uses Live-Action-Role-Playing (LARPing) to cope and escape from her mother, who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s.
April (Rachel Boyd) is having a hard time coping with watching her loving mother (Catherine McGregor) slip away, as her memory begins to fade and they two lose the powerful connection they once shared. To escape, she takes up LARPing. And as silly and fun as it all seems, there is a deeper meaning for her — an outlet for her pain and fear.
April wants so desperately to believe in magic because it would allow her to have control over her world instead of being at the mercy of horrific real-life events that make her feel victimized and vulnerable. But she soon learns that, while she will never have control, she does possess a powerful kind of magic, just not the kind she was expecting.
Break Any Spell is the debut narrative short film from Anton Jøsef. It was inspired in large part by his mother, who was a support worker for 20 years caring for many patients who suffered from Alzheimer’s. The stories she shared left a huge impact on Anton and his sister, Lisi Purr, who co-wrote the film.
Jøsef also admits to being a big LARPing fan himself. He found himself captivated one day when he saw a live-action LARP event taking place in a park. He loved the passion, creativity, and theatrics that drew him in and sent him on a journey of discovery. He knew right away that he wanted to incorporate these elements into a future project.
It’s remarkable how he was able to combine this really whimsical, often comedic, fantastical element with something as sensitive, weighty, and devastating as Alzheimer’s. And it works, resulting in a truly beautiful film that feels unique and creative but also comes from a place of real emotional depth and heart.
It’s not a horror film, but it is something quite special and does deal with real-life horror and the ways we try desperately to cope with it.
A poignant mother-daughter story at its heart, Break Any Spell is a magical blend of drama, comedy, and fantasy — all centered around issues of mental health and trauma — backed by two phenomenal performances from actresses who truly feel like mother and daughter.
10. They Watch
In a terrifying alternate future, which feels a little too realistic for comfort, a single mother, Ann Hawthorne (Fawnda McMahan) desperately tries to protect her son from an oppressive and all-controlling bureaucratic system. Her passionate teenage son, Peter (Joey Luthman), is intent on exposing their corruption, no matter what the risk. Peter is on a dangerous course, however, because those who publicly question UNITY’s totalitarian grip on the country tend to vanish.
For his part, Peter believes he’s fighting for something far bigger than himself and more important than his own life. But, like any good mother, Ann cares far more about keeping her son safe than taking down Big Brother.
When she tries to curtail his reckless behavior, she discovers he may have something bigger to hide — something that puts him at greater risk than she once imagined. Unfortunately, in this dystopian world, no secret is safe. And both Ann and Peter are unaware that two strangers have suddenly appeared in their home. Though they are unseen by the occupants of the home, these mysterious visitors see everything. And come with an ominous agenda, courtesy of the system.
Andre LeBlanc has crafted something truly chilling and frighteningly prescient in light of the current political climate both at home and abroad.
They Watch is expertly crafted, with every aspect of the film’s technical components on par with top-tier filmmaking. And the story is a compelling one, especially for fans of science fiction. At its core, however, it’s a human drama about the lengths we go to protect what matters most. While we may not all be brave enough to sacrifice ourselves for a cause we believe in, most of us would gladly make the ultimate sacrifice for the people we love.
You can watch this one now, courtesy of Dust, right here.