Something that always dispirits me at film festivals is how often makers of shorts say that the next project they are working on is a “feature-length” version of the movie that was just screened. Of course, there have been many instances of short films successfully transforming into features by the original creators—DISTRICT 9, THE BABADOOK, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, THE EVIL DEAD, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, THX-1138, WHIPLASH, LIGHTS OUT, MAMA, BOTTLE ROCKET, etc. And there are certainly ways to expand on these under 40 minutes stories, by worldbuilding or deeper character backstories, or other avenues that come about with more time, money, and other resources.
But often this statement occurs after seeing a very strong short film that gets in, gets out, all killer no filler and works perfectly as is and it simply feels like either the safe choice or a matter of padding to go back to the well. I’m sure it’s reflective of the genuine passions of the artists who do see ways these nuggets of cinema can widen, but sometimes I prefer things to just be as they are. In other words, “sometimes dead is better.”
I have no clue if there are any plans or moves by the filmmakers of any of the three shorts in this review round-up to become a feature, but I wanted to highlight that they work really great just in their current momentary format. Each establishes something, arrives at a point, and then leaves without needing a bunch of mythology or tangents or excess fat.
These three short films that were all supposed to screen at SXSW 2020—REGRET, HEAT (aka HITTE), and QUILT FEVER—across genres and styles are self-contained movies that are perfectly timed while showing tremendous potential on the part of the artists. I would love for all directors to be get a chance at telling a longer tale with more at their disposal, but I hope these are left as is in the form of evidence of artists’ beginnings in their evolution forward (there’s one possible exception, but we’ll get to that).
Originally scheduled as part of the Midnight Shorts program at SXSW—which usually includes weird/”gross” humor, experimental bizarreness, and/or a lot of horror—REGRET would have been a great film to see with an audience. Comedies and horror movies are almost always best enjoyed with other people for a few reasons. Part of the entertainment is witnessing others react to these stories—joining in the chorus of laughter or being amused when an image or jolt startles the audience into gasps and screams.
Written and directed by Santiago Menghini, the Canadian short film is a nice build-up of dread as one man’s lonely night gets increasingly weirder, darker, and deadlier. Wayne (Brent Skagford), clearly an absentee businessman far removed from anything resembling an affectionate life, is staying in a nice hotel as he fields calls about the recent death of his father and is being aloof and avoidant about attending the funeral or discussing the matter in any emotional way with his family.
As the night progresses, Wayne feels increasingly ill-at-ease while odd sounds and events occur around him. These escalate rapidly and in terrifying ways until REGRET devolves into a waking nightmare caught in the shadows of death. Menghini’s film has some flaws—there are odd behavioral inconsistencies by Wayne and a bit too much obscurity on some of the backstory (especially when contrasted with how blatant and overt a lot of the other elements are in the story). But REGRET is incredibly well-made, with precision timing at deploying shocks, using arresting imagery, and cultivating this dreadful dark night of the soul for Wayne.
Skagford does a great job in his role (he’s on screen almost 100% of the time), by making the character seem like a jerk, wounded, and ultimately vulnerable to the horrors befalling him; this isn’t a case of rooting for a character to be killed off by some malevolent force, but a fairly complex portrayal that is incredibly engaging. Menghini shows a deft hand and impressively assembles the short that has some resemblances to a few other stories, nonetheless is executed very well that makes it stand on its own. Hopefully REGRET will hit the Internet soon and this will lead to more work from its writer/director.
HEAT (aka HITTE)
At a few seconds over two minutes, HEAT is a great bit of WTF spectacle that shows up, weirds you out, and then strolls away. Written and directed by Thessa Meijer (with Bo van der Meer assistant directing), this blast of freak air is reminiscent of two seemingly opposing works: Brian Yuzna’s horror superhero film FAUST: LOVE OF THE DAMNED from 2000, and a bunch of those squirm-inducing commercials for candies and the like. With its pastel palette and quickly establishing the simmering temperature, HEAT (hailing from the Netherlands) is confectionary chaos whose apparent sweetness coats a truly disturbing scenario.
A woman (Famke Louise) enters an ice cream parlor and tries to order some refreshing treat from the overly pleasant vendor (Daniël Kolf). Then things get weird and devolve quickly. And that’s it. Meijer and crew employ excellent f/x work as well as nicely incongruous tones that seem pleasant but is utterly disturbing. Since it’s so short, HEAT is hard to discuss without ruining it—but the acting, imagery (via Production Designer Floor Knaapen), and score (made by Ella van der Woude) are all pitch perfect and unique in the way that immediately induces a sense of striking saccharine nightmares.
HEAT is embedded below and I strongly recommend you watch—though please note that there are no subtitles for the Dutch lines spoken, but suffice it to say that nothing in the dialogue indicates or is in line with what is occurring.
If there is an exception to wanting to keep all of the shorts I’ve seen and loved from SXSW 2020 as shorts, it’s QUILT FEVER. In less than 16 minutes, director Olivia Loomis Merrion tells a complete story about a lesser known event where many people gather for Quilt Week in Paducah, Kentucky (“Quilting City, U.S.A.”), immediately immerses viewers into the lingo and the vibe of the scene, and introduces a whole host of intriguing and engaging people. It would be totally fine if Merrion’s short only existed in this format—it would remain an incredibly endearing, entertaining, adorable, and fairly fascinating snapshot into a world that many don’t know exist (at least, not to this extent).
But if this were expanded into feature length, then viewers would learn a lot more about the history of this annual occurrence, delve into some of the techniques involved in making a quilt, the various cliques and niches within this community, get more involved in the competition as quilters compete for various awards, and—most importantly—spend more time with Eleanor Burns (the so-called “Queen Of Quilts”) and Linda Schmitt & Alan Jackson, the hosts of The Quilt Channel. Without feeling like caricatures or thinly written sketch comedy characters, all of the subjects in QUILT FEVER have a quirky sensibility to them that makes them funny, charming, and incredibly likable.
The various duos that quilt together, or the people wandering the floor of the quilt convention, and more all seem to derive pure joy out of this activity while finding camaraderie and sharing inside quilting jokes that KILL in these packed rooms. Merrion does a great job in QUILT FEVER in avoiding fetishizing these people, making them mascots without depth, or even ridiculing them—there isn’t a harsh bone in QUILT FEVER‘s body and even amidst the pleasant vibes and adorable natures there are hints at hardships and tragedies that simply make the quilting all the sweeter.
It does seem ripe for a Christopher Guest-type mockumentary (or the basis of an episode of Documentary Now!), but QUILT FEVER is an incredibly sincere and enthralling short that immediately establishes its vibe, provides all of the necessary information to follow along, and then explores this overlooked enclave to fully appreciate what this event, activity, and community means to so many people. Merrion’s short documentary embedded below and I cannot stress enough that you should watch this.
QUILT FEVER is a spiritual salve that discovers drama where it wasn’t expected, passion where it’s often ignored, and warmth when we need it the most.
Tags: Alan Jackson, Bo van der Meer, Brent Skagford, Canada, Daniël Kolf, Documentary Now, Eleanor Burns, Ella van der Woude, Famke Louise, Floor Knaapen, Heat, Hitte, Kentucky, Linda Schmitt, Midnight Shorts, Nemesis Films, Netherlands, Olivia Loomis Merrion, Paducah, Quilt Channel, Quilt Fever, Quilt Week, Quilting, Regret, Santiago Menghini, short films, SXSW 2020, Thessa Meijer