The inaugural Hysteria Fest kicked off Thursday night at the Arkadin Cinema, where it will continue this Saturday night, Oct. 22, with a repeat screening of the full program. This horror-themed short film festival, organized by filmmaker Paul Hibbard, provides a venue for genre filmmakers from St. Louis and beyond to show off their short-form work. The Lens contributor Drew Edelstein had a chance to view the festival offerings, and in this post he highlights some of his favorites.
A timid office worker needs to get his guts under control to succeed – in the most disgustingly literal way imaginable. Chris McInroy’s gory office comedy rests on a concept that is brilliant and stupid in equal measure. That it leans so hard into its stupidity makes it all the more compelling, especially given the gonzo special effects. The standout performance here might be from the prosthetics artists who create the organs and viscera that spill out of protagonist Horace’s (Kirk C. Johnson) body in every scene. This alarming situation is a common medical condition in the film’s reality, which is one way McInroy escalates the absurdity to such heights that it becomes genuinely charming. This is also true for the film’s depiction of office culture: The setting’s usual archetypes – office bully, cute crush, clueless boss – are portrayed hammily but enjoyably. The film flits quickly between its brief scenes with a keen sense of pacing, milking its central joke to its gnarly end without ever overstaying its welcome.
There’s something intoxicating about being forced to comprehend the incomprehensible. Such is the case for Marisa DeMarini’s “Member’s Mark,” which ostensibly a climate-horror short a la Todd Haynes’ Safe. The film’s non-literal narrative fractures words, images, and meaning to convey the chaotic perspective of a woman on the brink of either a violent hallucination or a psychic epiphany. The impetus for her dissolution is vague: It may be due to environmental stimuli, family history, a mental breakdown, or something more monumental. Directing this torrent of sensation into a vessel of concrete meaning is probably futile; what matters is the experiential flow of it all, a collage of echoing images and words threaded by a profoundly anxious discomfort. Whether or not the film connects with every viewer, the storytelling approach here is refreshing and the content deeply unsettling.
Gnarly, nasty, and playful, Ryan Shovey’s “Sloppy Seconds” thrusts the viewer into a moral quagmire with demonic glee. Clayton Bury (also appearing in “Some Visitors”) is an overworked office drone with a secret up his sleeve. With his self-serving smarminess, he’s a protagonist that’s easy to hate. As his situation becomes increasingly harrowing, the cleverness of Shovey’s approach reveals itself. The less the viewer knows about the plot beforehand the better, but suffice to say that the film dives into the realm of exploitation, full of wicked complexity and vividly rendered depravity. Whether this film is hilarious or just sick in the head is difficult to say, but it’s an undeniably heady experience.
The premise of Paul Hibbard’s film is deadly simple: In the midst of a wave of local home invasions, Jennifer (Jackie Kelly) is alone one night when a strange man (Clayton Bury) knocks on her door. What might have been a straightforward exercise in genre dynamics sustains itself in surprising ways throughout the film’s relatively hefty 27-minute runtime. There’s no room for layered subtext or commentary here: The film’s central conflict is the whole show, and while the story often feels unduly constrained, it certainly never dawdles. Much of the tension early in the short can be attributed to Bury’s wonderfully manic, slightly off-kilter performance. When the other shoe finally drops and the scenario devolves into violence, “Some Visitors” readily sacrifices some of its spatial and thematic clarity in favor of its fantastically executed performances and gore effects. Regardless, the filmmaking vigor on display here is commendable.
A wickedly gleeful holiday spirit is the pitch for Kyle Kuchta’s “The Woodsman,” which concerns a down-on-his-luck Christmas tree salesman. Shot primarily in first-person POV, the film is carried by John R. Smith Jr.'s lead performance, as his charismatic desperation proves to be the ideal energy for a story of folksy superstition. It’s a feature rather than a bug that this short often feels less like a theatrical film than it does a 90’s FMV video-game cutscene. There’s a schlocky charm that renders the material instantly endearing, which makes its genuine wit and cheeky slide into manic horror feel wonderfully earned.