Kicking things off was Jo Osborne’s Requital, and its opening of two women meeting in a café, one of whom tries to console the other after a breakup, might not seem the most auspicious of commencements. However, things soon riff on the time-honoured tradition of Hell Hath No Fury, and soon offers some elegantly chilling shots such as a dark silhouette flitting across a glass doorway or blood dripping ominously into bathwater, and ends things with a gory but amusing wordplay callback that takes a couple of seconds to register, but is all the more grimly amusing as a result.
Katie Bonham’s Mindless has another subdued start, seeing a carer arriving at the home of Peter, a middle aged man slipping into dementia. While making subtle observations on how society perceives and treats its elderly and vulnerable, the story flows in a gracefully circular structure as later echoed lines are given retrospective significance. It’s initially ambiguous over whether something supernatural is at play or if Peter’s confusion is merely a symptom of his senility, and when the truth is revealed there is a suggestion that events are doomed to repeat themselves, as though Peter’s tenuous grasp of awareness has imprinted itself on the house with a self-contained reality of its own.
Karen Lam’s Chiral (a term the short defines as “an object that is not identical to its mirror image”) sees socially skittish artist Hank at an exhibition of his work, where an unfortunate encounter leads to his perception of himself becoming irrevocably shattered. Lam’s work typically has an otherworldly quality to it, and Chiral is no exception. It’s a head screw of a film that ruminates on the nature of identity, its disjointed sound and camerawork acting as a representation of Hank’s fragmenting sense of self, suffusing the story with the fluidity of dream logic as mirrors and reflections (both literal and figurative) each contribute to his slowly imploding identity.
Aviv Rubinstien’s With Whip, featured in the upcoming shorts anthology 2 Die For, sees a woman judged for her bland coffee choice forcibly inducted into a love for the stylish elegance of pumpkin spice lattes. A slightly surreal hipster variation on a vampire initiation rite, the overly trendy beverage substitutes for the more traditional flowing crimson blood, while the gaudy flair presents a real-life demonstration of how conformist consumerism propagates itself. Probably.
The first of a few films that were also featured at the inaugural Starburst International Film Festival, Izzy Lee’s Innsmouth follows a police detective investigating a mysterious murder that leads her to the titular town, only to discover a dark secret festering at its heart. Featuring sapphic seduction and gruesome death, the eerie tone remains true to its Lovecraftian inspiration (while also incorporating a neat gender switch of the characters), and features a brain-impaling climactic shot that will be indelibly seared onto your retinas with white-hot WTF.
Next up was the world premiere of Julie Robinson’s debut short Were, where three young women on a camping trip find their evening interrupted by a pushy man emerging from the woods and presenting himself as more than he seems. With a vision honed by Robinson’s career as a lighting engineer, the forest’s midnight-blue ambience contrasts beautifully with the orange-red campfire glow highlighting the trio’s faces. The mesmerising two-tone psychedelia is like a comic book come to life, while the brief story is smart enough to second-guess where you think it’s about to go and end up somewhere a little different, realised with some luscious makeup, gory prop work and visceral sound effects.
A new segment of the event not seen in previous years was a panel on the topic of women in horror, featuring a discussion between Were’s Julie Robinson; Requital’s Jo Osborne; Jessica Bowman, an assistant director and makeup artist; and Ben Thompson, director of twisty horror short Nutcracker.
The conversation brought up variant points like the importance of children having role models of each gender and the significance of the different perspectives they can present, the fine line between empowering women and fetishising them, and that movements like Women in Horror Month demonstrate what women actually want to see in films by highlighting ones made by them. Part of the reason for there being fewer female filmmakers is the lack of visibility and the conditioning this generates – inadvertently or otherwise – that prevents them from seeing such a path as an option, and that creating an international community of like-minded ladies allows them to realise that there is a place and a home for the “messed up, fucked up” ideas they have floating around in their heads.
Also discussed was the continuing rise of independent filmmaking, with people getting out there and making their own opportunities, assisted by anything from personal experience, improvisational techniques and YouTube tutorials. The consensus was that a great deal of creativity can be produced outside the studio system, some of the operators of which still utilise traditional sleazy methods of control, and the conclusion being that the production process needs to involve “less dick sucking; more filmmaking.” Should become an industry mantra.
Heading back to more films, Venita Ozols-Graham’s Used Body Parts sees a pair of young women driving lost in the middle of nowhere happen upon a petrol station, and seek assistance despite the undeniable creepiness of its attendant. Although somewhat familiar, the setup is augmented by a surreal ambience. Harsh lighting creates an island of illumination in the shadowed void that swallows the land around the garage, while the title’s double meaning is invoked in a darkened back room lightly tinted by the unreality of a burning neon glow.
Another short that we at Moonbase Alpha are huge fans of, Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist, sees lonely hairstylist Claire enact plans for her final customer of the day, hoping for an escape from her dissatisfaction with herself. Principally a tale of insecurity, sorrow and envy, a simple idea is expanded with gruesome yet beautifully shot realisation. It also ends on a compellingly poignant note, with Claire’s reaction to her own actions, along with haunting music and dreamlike visuals, instilling a confusing blend of emotions that leave you unsure of what you should be feeling, but certain you’ve just witnessed something singular and distinct.
Predormitum was directed by Jennifer Cooper, but a different one from our enchanting hostess (who stalked her out on IMDb after discovering the coincidence), and follows teenager Elizabeth who is in therapy suffering sleep paralysis and night terrors after witnessing her mother kill her stepfather. The title is a term for the hazy mind-state halfway between asleep and awake, where the mutability of dreams makes way for the intransigence of the waking world, and in keeping with this the portrayal of Elizabeth’s muddled sense of reality is augmented by discordant music and encroaching shadows.
Aside from the dark spectre inhabiting Elizabeth’s nightmares, there is not the slightest hint of the supernatural, reminding us that horror doesn’t need to be about unearthly creatures, or even brutally realised murder. Predormitum is an exploration of guilt, self-loathing and forgiveness, suggesting that sometimes the most destructive monster you need to overcome is yourself.
Rounding everything off was the evening’s main event: a screening of Starburst favourite Jessica Cameron’s sophomore feature Mania. The self-described “fucked up lesbian love story” sees girlfriends Mel and Brooke go on the run after the latter’s instability results in a dead body. No matter how far they go, Brooke’s manic episodes are never far behind, emerging as bouts of homicidal somnambulism and come-ons to random guys so skeevy it never occurs to them to question a hot girl appearing from nowhere to jump their bones, which usually ends in more bloodshed.
It’s an emotionally draining experience, and would have been difficult to endure were it not for the intimacy of the central relationship. Mel takes on the role of protector, doing all she can to keep Brooke safe despite knowing their road trip fleeing is not a life they can maintain. The psychological toll it takes on her becomes increasingly overwhelming, from both the exhaustion of being constantly on guard and her fears manifesting themselves in lurid nightmares. The periodic sex is sensual rather than voyeuristic, and the time the pair spend lost in each other’s arms are the only moments they are truly free.
Despite the film’s premise it doesn’t stigmatise mental illness as something dangerous to be feared, but instead is a brutal and tragic portrayal of two women utterly devoted to each other, the irrationality of love forever driving them forwards.
Another year, another wonderfully varied assortment of films showing that the female thirst for blood, death and terror is alive and well and still growing. Long may it continue.