Remember when Galaxy Quest dealt with conventions in a hilariously satirical way? And how the recent Con Man acted like a meta-commentary on fame (and Firefly) while occasionally being charming and funny? Yeah well, Conventional isn’t that at all. Conventional is a disturbingly bleak, yet moving insight at the post-fame life of one-time scream queen Rachel Milligan, created by writer/director Karen Gillan. Whilst attending a convention, Milligan starts to reveal, at a dwindling Q&A panel, her own personal demons about her fall from stardom.
This was released as part of Fun Size Horror’s Vol. 2 compendium of short films, and what makes this short so distinctive is how it presents to us a new kind of horror. That of both desperation and depression and how scary and messed up the condition can be, whilst also tying it thematically to the Hollywood industry. Gillan’s portrayal of Rachel Milligan is harrowing, disturbing and a caricature representation of the image industry, Hollywood stardom, as well as the film industry’s state of ageism and sexism, which is present in Gillan’s awkward-sized lips (kudos to makeup).
In just shy of ten minutes, with light and agile strokes, Karen draws out Rachel’s decaying years, depicting a "conventional" story that happens over and over. It’s through that we can tell and understand that she’s literally in her own hell, and Karen Gillan portrays that phenomenally well. Through the aching and disfigured face of Rachel Milligan, Karen beautifully conveys many emotions in mere seconds, from quirky to tragedy. Towards the end, Karen delivers this internal speech at her panel, and the way she delivers it is very nuanced, yet gut-wrenchingly powerful and dark. The desperation in this character is what's truly terrifying and uncomfortable; being human is true horror.
It makes it apparently clear that this story is very close to home. Karen Gillan has done her fair share of conventions and panels since her Doctor Who days, and it's apparently evident that she witnessed other female actors going through the same story of trying to remain relevant, connecting with a dwindling fanbase and desperately trying to fight and avoid the inevitable march of time. Rachel Milligan’s story could very easily be Gillan's or anyone's. Apart from Gillan’s mercurial performance and sharp writing, it’s clear that has a certain knack for directing. The way in which the camera pans, the way characters are composed within a shot, and how close-ups are utilised shows that Gillan has a pretty strong future as a director as opposed. Plus, the cinematography by Zach Voytas is impressively solid, with many brilliant uses of shadows and colour cues.
There are problems, but they are very miniscule in comparison to the quality that’s on display. The very last shot seems very off-kilter with the rest of the heavy drama that has happened before it and there is a dig at Wes Craven that was very ill-judged, especially in the wake of his tragic passing nearly two months ago (although this could’ve been filmed before that). Plus, this short may not work for everyone; people might perceive it as too grim, or it could propose a serious risk at alienating the fan-culture as it portrays them in a somewhat unflattering light.
Apart from those issues, Conventional is a harrowing and disturbing portrayal of depression, desperation, and being engulfed by your own demons. Those themes and messages is what drives the brilliantly concise narrative, which has been solidly crafted by Karen Gillan, who also delivers an outstanding performance. This just proves that, like with Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy and Occulus, Karen Gillan is a talent to watch out for.
CONVENTIONAL / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: KAREN GILLAN / STARRING: KAREN GILLAN, LARA SEBASTIAN, JAMES RANSONE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW