Morbidly Beautiful

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“Cram” is a short but satisfying, tension-filled exploration of the one monster we can’t outrun or outwit: our own tormented mind.

Ever had that nightmare where you are constantly trying to get ‘something’ done, and life gets in the way?

You’ve got a final in a test for a class you forgot to attend all year; you can’t remember the combination to your locker, and all your books and homework are being held hostage; you’re waiting tables and are suddenly inundated with multiple high-maintenance tables all at once. We’ve had those horrible stress dreams where we are overwhelmed, in over our heads, and frustrated at every turn.

Cram is a lot like those nightmares, exploiting something we can all relate to — a fear of failure combined with an overwhelming desire to throw in the towel when times get tough.

Cram starts with Marc (John DiMino) and his college peer group discussing their final submissions in the library. It’s late, and he hasn’t started this paper. His friends are trying to motivate him, but he defaults to an apparent stock response of doing the bare minimum, which this group takes him to task for. He resorts to asking if his friends can share what they’ve been working on. In his mind, he won’t learn anything if he tries to complete a semester’s worth of work in one night, so they might as well help him avoid failing.

Tired of his constant whining and begging to copy their work, his friends finally bail and leave him alone in the library to get his work done.

The world, it seems, is against him. He’s tired, mentally and physically burnt out, and he cannot understand why his friends won’t let him repurpose their hard work. But with no other options, he finally buckles down and puts his mind to writing a thoughtful paper based on his research. It’s a slog at first, but he eventually finds his rhythm and starts to flesh out some interesting ideas.

And then, the unthinkable happens; he falls asleep and wakes to find his work gone and realizes that there is something wrong. Someone is there, watching and waiting….

What I appreciated about Cram is that it isn’t just the standard horror narrative with a predictable chain of events. 

You expect it to be a film where Marc must find his work, face off against the unknown, and submit his paper while saving the world. But it’s something more profound than that.

During its short run time, Cram manages to put Marc in a seemingly never-ending nightmare where even his own psyche is against him.

At a scant 44 minutes, the tight runtime really works. It plays like a modern take on the Twilight Zone and anthology type of story, and the film doesn’t try to take its single idea and pad it out needlessly into an extended length.

Cram seamlessly blends what we believe are actual events and what looks to be Marc’s dreams. Each sequence builds on the one before. There is a particular standout scene where Marc essentially vomits out his own negative character in a moment of gruesome body horror and psychological chills.

It keeps us on edge because at no point is it apparent what is real and what is a dream.

There is a ‘creature’ here, but it doesn’t present how you might expect. To describe what it is and what it does would ruin the experience, and I am desperate to avoid any spoilers. All I will say is that it shows Marc it is up to him to find his way out of this nightmare.

It’s an effective and relatable look at how our own minds can work against us and how the greatest horrors are often those of our own creation.

Visually, there are some arresting images. The use of color is perfectly aligned with the soundtrack, with screaming notes and classical motifs used well to instill tension in the viewer.

The main lead is compelling as he goes through a wide range of emotions, evolving before your eyes from someone who wants to be rescued to someone who has agency over his life. It all culminates in a highly satisfying conclusion.

I do feel that the marketing has skewed this towards being more of a traditional horror film, but it really isn’t. There are plenty of horror elements, but it’s more a mediation on how everyone is capable of rising above their own self-imposed limitations and how our own psyche can be our most formidable enemy.

I’m hoping that we see more from the writer-director Abie Sidell because he has done a great job making a compelling piece of tight filmmaking that looks and sounds outstanding.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 3

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