The international shorts on offer at this year’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival are among the strongest of the entire lineup. From bizarre Norwegian folk horror to a one-night stand gone wrong, these films comprise a dark, bizarre, and undeniably memorable experience. Here are our thoughts on the International Shorts Showcase.
The Blood of the Dinosaurs
Akin to an Adult Swim short, only on the negative end of a three-day bender. The Blood of the Dinosaurs is an incredible fever dream of a short film and prologue to the upcoming film The Wheels of Heaven (2022) from the minds of Joe Badon and Jason Kruppa, with Joe taking on directorial duties. Under the pretense of a public access children’s TV show, Uncle Bobbo (played by Vincent Stalba) with help from Purity (played by Stella Creel) teaches us where oil comes from.
Seeming disjointed and fragmentary by design, Blood of the Dinosaurs takes an outwardly inert concept of a children’s TV show and injects its own unique level of unsettling terror. Producing an enjoyable level of discomfort this reviewer hasn’t felt since stumbling across This House Has People in it (2016) on Adult Swim at 3AM. Along with this main skit, incredibly abstract scenes of psychedelic imagery, miniature dioramas of dinosaurs, and a prelude to their next short film delivers very little in narrative overall. However, the short certainly makes up for that fact with an overtly creepy atmosphere and unnerving performances that will undoubtedly resonate with fans of the old Adult Swim.
Sandra (Julia Atkins) wakes up covered in bites. Her friend thinks it might be bed bugs, so Sandra calls in an exterminator (David ‘Big’ Krause, who also co-produces) to take a look. Unfortunately for Sandra, they discover something worse than bed bugs underneath her mattress. Daniel DelPurgatorio’s short plays out like one long joke. At first, it is funny, but then the joke goes on to the point of being annoyingly long, right into the credits. Your mileage may vary on whether or not the joke ever gets funny again. Still, wonderfully squishy VFX (special makeup effects come courtesy of Crystal Portillo) and a premise that balances horror and comedy perfectly – at least for a little while – make Bug Bites a fun, memorable little tale.
“Don’t forget to feed it!” calls Paul (Raphaël Quenard) to his wife Emma (Maud Wyler) as he leaves on a business trip. “It” refers to a praying mantis that Paul, an entomologist, plans to kill and mount on his return. Emma, who is uneasy around insects but does not feel comfortable killing them, soon forms a bond with the creepy crawly. Based on the 1993 short story Caught in the Gin Trap by Graham Farrow, Stef Meyer and Pascal Bourelier’s film is a dark, bloody, somewhat predictable tale. If you know anything about female praying mantises, then you may be able to guess where this story is headed. Still, foreknowledge cannot ruin the fun. Wyler is a captivating screen presence, and her tête à tête with the mantis (sometimes CG, sometimes seemingly not) is brilliantly written. The film is also visually stunning. Their perfect house becomes a sweaty, steamy Jungle; Antoine Carpentier’s cinematography lets us practically smell it by the end. Currently, a feature-length version of the film is in production, and that may solve some of the pacing issues, but the tone, and the tension building toward the inevitable climax, are brilliant.
A surreal exploration of addiction, O follows Jasmin (Nadine Scheidecker), who becomes obsessed with a hole in a wall. When she discovers that it has been sealed up, she seeks more and more extreme ways to fill the void. Written, directed, produced, and co-edited by Dominik Balcow, the film has a clear aesthetic vision. Shot in black and white, and towards the beginning evoking something of the German Expressionist movement, O is a wordless visual assault on the senses. At over 14 minutes, however, it struggles to maintain the strength of its premise. Certain visuals are too contrived and artistic: the stuffed bird sitting above Jasmin; a perfect blood spatter. These take away from what is otherwise a very visceral and, at times, gruesome experience. Scheidecker gives a valiant, dedicated performance, totally embodying Jasmin’s desperation, and her deadly obsession. In the end, however, the emphasis on artistic interpretation robs the short of its power.
When Mark (Jason Caceres) comes home with Andre (Ryan Kendrick) after meeting at a club, he is cautiously optimistic about the promise of intense roleplay. However, once in the bedroom, things go horribly wrong. Immediately obvious about Bill Neil’s fascinating short is its focus on the senses. Andre’s hot hand leaves an impression on the glass door; he rubs his stubble across Mark’s cheeks, making goosebumps rise on his arms. From the get-go, the film centers on Mark’s desire. He is flirtatious, and uncertain but intrigued. Andre dominates him physically and, Mark hopes, sexually. A certain reveal towards the end (Lisette Santana does brilliant work with the SFX here) may upset some viewers. Without spoiling anything, it is difficult to imagine that Neil would not have understood what he appears to be implying. In any case, though, Role Play is a dark, twisted slice of queer horror that must be seen to be believed.
Written and directed by Bastiaan Tichler and Niels Bourgonje, respectively, Shut follows Jonas (Sanne Den Hartogh), who drives into the woods to visit his reclusive father (Jack Wouterse). Realising that his father’s mental health has rapidly deteriorated, Jonas struggles to figure out how to proceed. First, though, he decides to open up the garage his father has barricaded. A very simple film, Shut plays with that precarious horror trope: sick old people. It is difficult to present an experience of a mental health issue that is horrific without unintentionally implying that the sufferer themself is horrific. Shut just about succeeds, dropping little breadcrumbs for the audience to follow, and building to a dramatic climax. At 15 minutes, this is one of the longer shorts in the group, but it still feels somewhat lacking. There would have been time to develop the story a little further, but Shut is still a well-made, thought-provoking film.
Smile is described by Toronto After Dark Film Festival as: “One part clarinet, all parts WTF.” Opening with writer/director Ryan Joseph McDuffie playing Charlie Chaplin’s eponymous tune on the clarinet, this two-minute film very quickly devolves into absurdity. At such a short length, it is difficult to know what to say or reveal about Smile. Terrance Stewart’s cinematography is bright and sunny, and Anthony Bodlović’s SFX is fittingly bizarre. Beyond that, it must be said that this short really sticks out among such a strong lineup. This is not to say that horror should not be absurd or humorous, but it feels out of place here. Levity is always welcome, and humour is of course subjective, but McDuffie’s film tries too hard to be funny; it is absurd for absurdity’s sake. As a result, Smile is perhaps the weakest of the shorts in this particular Showcase.
Last but not least, Tistlebu is a bizarre, fascinating fable set in the Norwegian countryside. Based on a book by Alexander Delver (who co-writes the screenplay with director Simon M. Valentine), the film follows Karl and Sanna (Sjur Vatre Brean and Sacha Slengesol Balgobin) as they venture into the solitude of the country to reconnect with nature. Under the instruction of widowed farmer Anne (Oda Schjoll), they learn how to build a secure fence to keep in livestock. Soon, however, they realise that they will be tending much more than sheep. From the very beginning, Tistlebu feels like something special. Torfinn R. Sanderud captures the effortless beauty of the Norwegian landscape, often keeping the camera still so the audience can truly take it in. These astonishing shots combine with Wei Ting Tseng’s score to give this story weight. Add to that a weirdly dark exploration of sex and desire, plus goopy special effects from Adam A. Losurdo, and Tistlebu is one of the most memorable shorts to screen across the entire festival.
We Watched International Shorts After Dark Showcase as Part of the 2022 Toronto After Dark Film Festival Line-up
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Isabelle is a writer from the UK who enjoys alternative manga and horror films. When not writing, you can probably find Isabelle buying books or obsessing over Martin and Lewis.