(In this Dark Side Cinema special edition, I’m taking a look at short films. For the purpose of this article, I only selected films around or under 30 minutes in length and I tried to find a wide variety of films. There is a great deal of sick shit out there, so it’s entirely possible there will be more of these in future.)
Sometimes you just don’t have the time to dedicate yourself to a full-length feature film. Life is busy, after all, and sometimes a person just wants a little taste of entertainment, a quick bite of something for their mind. Short films are fantastic for that. They also allow for concepts that would grow dull or tiresome in a feature-length format, providing fertile ground for all kinds of weird artistic expression. Short films are also much easier to access online, as many are free to view on vimeo, youtube, and other streaming services. In addition, shorts are a good way to see if someone is ready to go headfirst into the world of disturbing cinema – if you can’t handle Salad Fingers, you definitely can’t handle anything by Takashi Miike or David Cronenberg.
So whether you’re just dipping a toe into the dark side or you’re a die-hard sicko, there’s something for everyone in the land of shorts. Here are some to get you started.
Un Chien Andalou (1929)
The big mama of all unnerving shorts, Un Chien Andalou clocks in at just under 16 minutes and is chock-full of disturbing imagery. The infamous opening scene is of a man slicing a woman’s eyeball open with a straight razor in close-up, gory detail. A man drags dead donkeys on a piano, one with maggots wriggling out of its eyes. Ants crawl out of a hole in a man’s hand. A woman is groped and cannot get away, much to her horror. The entire thing plays out like one giant nightmare scene or a bad acid trip.
This surrealist masterpiece was a combination effort by French director Luis Buñuel and Spanish artist Salvador Dali, and the bizarre imagery makes it easy to see Dali’s influence. While it’s definitely uncomfortable and the whole eyeball-slitting thing has become well-known in pop culture as being brutally realistic (which it is, as a cow eye was used), the film is honestly more unnerving than disturbing in our modern age. Regardless, it is worth mentioning because Un Chien Andalou is the Citizen Kane of disturbing shorts.
Dog of Man (2008)
And now for something completely different. David Firth, creator of the aforementioned Salad Fingers, is the master of creepy shorts. I wanted to feature his 2004 music video for Aphex Twin, Milkman, but then I discovered this little piece of animated hell. The thing that makes David Firth animations so incredibly unnerving is the content of the pieces, and not necessarily just the gore. Sure, some of his work is violent, but it’s not the violence itself that is unsettling. Dog of Man illustrates this in standard Firthian fashion. (Which is, of course, that it makes the viewer want to scrub their soul with steel wool.)
Clocking in at only four minutes and twenty seconds, this short is, indeed, short. It manages to pack all kinds of uncomfortable stuff into those four minutes though, including a man who only makes wretched sounds as a means of communication, a dog that speaks through electrodes in its head and an electronic device that comes out its mouth, little-Alien-head-style. The screeching man decides he needs a friend and implants tumor seeds in his chest, only to have the tumor slowly kill him, at which point his dog offers his body to the man for survival. It’s gross, it’s creepy, and it’s really very sad. Dog of Man is a glimpse into the mind of a deeply troubled individual, his soul laid bare before his audience.
The reason that Firth’s films are so brutal is because there is a kind of honesty to them. He’s not trying to be gross or filthy, like so many other artists on his distributing site of choice, Newgrounds.com. This is not a 13-year-old boy who giggles at gore. There is a lot of pain behind David Firth’s films, and that pain seeps through the animation itself.
Aftermath is the second in Nacho Cerda’s trilogy of films, preceded by The Awakening and succeeded by Genesis. The other two films are unsettling but do not contain the same kind of horror on display in Aftermath. This film is a gorehound’s wet dream and an interesting, if brutal, experiment for an art-house fan. There is no real spoken dialogue and any sound is diegetic, coming from within the setting itself. There is no soundtrack here to save the viewer from the sounds that would come from the acts onscreen, and some of those sounds are even worse than the visuals.
Aftermath almost didn’t make the cut, hovering right around the 30 minute mark, but it’s easily one of the most viscerally gory films I have ever seen. It tells the story of a young woman who died in a car crash and what eventually happens to her body in the morgue when a mortician becomes infatuated with it. Several autopsies are shown briefly, each in different phases of the procedure, and they look very real. When the mortician gets alone time with the car crash victim, he mutilates her corpse before having sex with it in front of his camera. It looks real, it sounds disgusting, and it’s very hard to watch.
Necrophilia is a pretty disturbing topic to begin with, but the sheer violence of this film added to it make things even worse. The mortician doesn’t just rape the corpse, he annihilates it in every way, penetrating her with scissors and slicing her like a Ripper victim. The pleasure he takes in it just adds an extra pinch of awful to the entire thing.
There was a period in my life when I wanted to be a forensic pathologist – to do so I would have to dissect bodies regularly, so I watched a lot of autopsy videos to make sure I had the stomach for it. What makes Aftermath so terribly uncomfortable for me is how real the majority of the footage looks. The gore is incredibly realistic and it takes a well-trained eye to spot the special effects at work. It’s impressive despite being horrific.
Herbert White (2010)
While we’re on the topic of necrophilia, let’s take a gander at James Franco’s short based on a poem, Herbert White. I love James Franco. He is either a giant bag of crazy or trolling everyone (or some combination thereof), and either way I’m a fan. The art projects he puts together are usually worth at least looking into, and his 2010 short film about a necrophiliac with a family is worth the 15 or so minutes spent watching it.
The big difference between Herbert White and something like Aftermath is the general sense of malaise that leaks through the film like a bad odor. Aftermath makes what’s going to happen pretty obvious and is pretty to-the-point about everything. In stark contrast, the majority of Herbert White is just Michael Shannon looking creepy or hanging out with his wife and kids. It’s only after he announces that he has to “take a pee” on a road trip and then sneaks off to masturbate in the woods that it starts to sink in that something is seriously wrong with this guy. By the time he starts stalking a pretty lady, the sense of dread is palpable and the viewer is simply left to wait and see what kind of horror unfolds. It’s not all that graphic, but it’s still unnerving.
The poem is all kinds of dark and weird and honestly should be read before watching the film – it gives things more context and definitely adds a bit to the thin narrative. This is art-house stuff, for sure, but it’s pretty decent.
Cutting Moments (1997)
Douglas Buck’s Cutting Moments is only 24 minutes long but they are 24 very difficult-to-sit-through minutes. Part of a short film compilation of the same name, the film tells the story of domestic troubles and one woman’s attempt to fix them. The protagonist, Sarah, is completely subservient to her husband and tries desperately to get him to pay attention to her. He begins paying sexual attention to their son and she decides to take drastic measures to get him to look at her – she cuts off her lips with a pair of scissors. The bloody result is that her husband takes her to the bedroom for some kinky sex involving gardening shears, boob mutilation, and genital removal.
Like Herbert White, this film has a slow-burn quality to it, seeming mostly innocuous to begin with and building a sense of dread until everything comes to a gruesome climax. The special effects are amazing (because they were done by Tom Savini). The lip-removal scene in particular is gut-wrenching. It starts to get a bit silly once they’re having bloody murder-sex, but at that point there isn’t much else of real interest anyway. Sarah’s “transformation” is absolutely worth watching, but the remainder of the film is for gorehounds only.
There are many, many short films floating about on the internet, and many of them are designed specifically to make viewers uncomfortable. There are all kinds of supernatural horror shorts, the wealth of disturbing crap that comes with Flash animated films, and there are shorts from larger collections like 2012’s The ABC’s of Death. Sometimes all you need is a little bite of the dark side.