Do a YouTube search for science fiction short films and you’ll get a million results divided evenly between awesome, action-packed CGI and cringe-inducingly amateur blurbs with story lines so hackneyed they’d make a poltergeist out of Isaac Asimov’s ghost. These 10, however, take a different approach: stylish psychological horror. Most machines are built with bolts and steel, but these are built of nightmares.
Written and directed by Ruairi Robinson, “Blinky” is about a robotic helper that can do just about anything . . . except make a little boy’s parents stop fighting.
“Blinky” is dark. It’s the kind of film that plays on the horrors of a broken childhood and the restrained malice that grows from the depths of constant conflict. It’s chilling for the same reason people were terrified when a little black-haired girl crawled out of the white noise of a television and clawed her way across a dark room in The Ring. Because violence is all the more brutal when it’s spawned from innocence.
And “Blinky” is violent, sure, but it’s also extremely well made and beautifully rendered. With a budget of only $48,000, Robinson created a fully animated robot just as realistic as CHAPPiE or anything we saw in Pacific Rim, mostly because he designed, modeled, and animated the entire thing himself.
“Thresher” works as a short film for several reasons, but the clincher is probably that it adheres to the three-act structure you get in longer films. In just seven minutes, “Thresher” gives you the setup, conflict, and resolution. Maybe it’s a dash formulaic, but it’s nice to get an ending in a medium where avante garde is the normal thoroughfare.
The film was made by Mike Diva, the man behind a handful of music videos and a series of effects-laden YouTube videos with enticing names like “Dogstep” and “I’m On Crack.” His entertainment value is undeniable—and you definitely can’t argue with his skill behind the camera—but dancing dogs and flying addicts fall a little short of Hell’s nameless horrors. And that’s why “Thresher” is such a surprise. Its moody, low-key atmosphere and flawless sound design pull you in just far enough for your knees to crack painfully against the desk when you jump at the screamers, and once they start, they keep on coming to the end.
This is a film with no blood, no overt scares, and no action, and it’s absolutely gut-wrenching. Set in a world where teenagers are taken to “harvest camps” so that the government can claim their body parts, this six-minute short focuses on the harvesting of one teenage girl. Visually, you might expect a lot from that description, but the killer here lies in the sound.
Utilizing a minimal budget, the film was shot in a single room using claustrophobically close framing. In fact, the only thing you really see of the girl is her eyes, but the way the camera holds them while the sounds of bonesaws and tearing flesh echo through your ears sets your teeth on edge.
“Unwind” was based on a novel of the same name by Neal Shusterman, and plans are underway to adapt the story into a full-length film. This little short was developed by MainStay Productions.
When an android starts questioning the meaning of life, it’s time to start running. In the spirit of stories like “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and I, Robot, “Abe” tells the story of what happens when the lines between programming and humanity are irretrievably blurred. Writer and director Rob McClellan based the film on an earlier short of his, “Love . . . And All That,” which he made for the 2012 Colchester 48-Hour Film Festival.
Abe’s monologue is a beautifully written script, and several lines manage to be both touching and deeply chilling in the same instant. Combined with the robot’s eerily lifelike animation and a subtle dramatic score, “Abe” takes the misery of love to dark, unprobed depths. Because you can program a robot to love, but you can’t program it to cope when the people it loves don’t love it back.
“Cargo” puts a fresh spin on the zombie subgenre by looking past the run-and-gun to a heartbreakingly poignant scenario: A recently bitten father has to get creative to keep himself from killing his infant daughter when he turns. Co-directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, “Cargo” was a finalist at the Australian Tropfest Film Festival. It was filmed over a single weekend and the final cut was sent off two weeks later.
The film has no dialogue, relying instead on camerawork and music to advance the story. Somehow, though, it comes together into an emotional seven minutes. If zombies were originally meant to serve as a mirror to ourselves, as a glimpse into our primal nature, this film asks instead, “Is humanity stronger than the monster inside?” And while most zombie stories would err on the side of bleakness, “Cargo” takes a potentially tragic concept and sprints with it straight into a shining land of optimism.
If you hit the age of 10 anytime in the ’90s, you probably spent at least one sleepless night huddling under your covers while your imagination conjured bloodthirsty entities out of the dim shadows of your bedroom. The culprit: Stephen King’s IT. Although the film is painfully dated by today’s standards, Pennywise the Dancing Clown stared down a young generation with bloodshot eyes and sowed in them a seed of coulrophobia that just won’t die.
At the risk of spoiling a 25-year-old movie (or an even older novel), Pennywise was actually a creature from another dimension who only took the form of a clown to embody the main character’s worst fear, because fear makes its food taste better. It hibernates for 30 years and awakens only to feed on children (who are the easiest to kill) before going back to sleep.
This short fan film completely disregards the storyline of both the novel and preceding film, focusing purely on the now-banal shock of a creepy clown. But it works because, against all odds, we’re still afraid of clowns.
“Perfect Drug” is a strange mix of dark comedy, sci-fi, and surreal imagery all meshed into a surprisingly coherent tale of a man who accidentally drinks something from a glowing vial that he’d stolen from a pharmacy for his boss. It was written and directed by Belgian filmmaker Toon Aerts and produced by Czar Films, a company which usually sticks to advertisements and car commercials. In “Perfect Drug,” they’ve built on an idea that could easily be extended into a modern cult film.
The look and feel of the film could contend with any large-scale production, and although the computer-generated special effects fall a little short, the real-world effects will make you squirm. The hallucinogenic imagery leans on both types of effects and leaves you wondering whether monsters are afoot or if the entire thing is happening inside the head of the main character. The insanity is so palpable you can squeeze it and let the juices run down your fist.
Two men wander a desolate wasteland, connected to each other with a breathing hose. Without the hose—without each other—they die. “Connected” acts as a snapshot into two lives inextricably bound. There’s no explanation for why they’re together or why the air is toxic, but the film doesn’t need that—like a photograph, the beauty can rest solely within the framework of what’s shown. But when one of the men begins to lose strength, we get a look at the depraved depths to which humans will go to survive.
“Connected” was written and directed by Danish filmmakers Jens Raunkjaer Christensen and Jonas Drotner Mouritsen, who met in film school and began working on the short as a side project in 2008. Filming took only three days, but post-production stretched out over the next year as the filmmakers tried to cobble the disparate pieces into a single film. The result is a bleak, post-apocalyptic setting with hints of spaghetti western influences and 45 of the most butt-clenchingly intense seconds ever put on film. If you find yourself holding your breath during the climax, you’re not alone.
Sam Barnett is a writer and filmmaker with a catalog of online short films much more surreal and disturbing than the one above. But since “Operator” commits to a story (of sorts), it’s one of Barnett’s only offerings that works as an actual film.
Using just clay and Lego pieces, “Operator” tells the story of a switchboard operator named Bob who works for a Brazil-esque corporation when he’s attacked by a “bio-mechanical parasite” intent on climbing into the back of Bob’s neck. Alone in the switchboard room, Bob has to fight the creature out of his own head and keep doing his job at the same time so he can get back to his family.
“Operator” is done entirely in stop motion, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s not as gut-wrenching as any live-action film. If anything, it’s even more so.
Mirrors and shadow, flickering lights and country music—if all the elements of horror came together, threw on a fedora made of monsters, and crawled on all fours into your living room, the result would be “Paralyzed.” This short takes a terrifying experience many people have actually had—sleep paralysis—and builds a slinking, chattering, featureless face under all the intangible fear. It’s short enough to be keep you interested, and leaves just enough to the imagination to have you watching the closet door later tonight when you switch off the lights.
“Paralyzed” was directed by Aaron Sims, who founded the Aaron Sims Company in 2005 and has since gone on to do animation, design, and effects work on over 60 feature films, including Edge of Tomorrow, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and I Am Legend. “Paralyzed” was his first bid behind the director’s chair, and he later went on to make “Archetype,” another short sci-fi film that’s just as sleek as this one.