Tiny Terrors: Reviewing Small Gauge Trauma
By Desmond Reddick
05 February 2007 — One of last year's most interesting releases had to be Synapse Films' Small Gauge Trauma, a collection of 13 award-winning short films celebrating the best of Montreal's famed Fantasia Film Festival — or at least the best of the last decade. If for nothing else, the Fantasia Film Festival is responsible for introducing Hideo Nakata (Ringu), Takashi Miike (Koroshiya 1, also known as Ichi the Killer) and Nacho Cerda (The Abandoned) to North American audiences.
But why short horror films? Two reasons: it's a format that allows for a barebones story to be completely packed with terror, cutting the fat along the way. And it allows for visual art. Either way, they're interesting to watch. I, as somebody who is almost entirely interested in the story above all else, had difficulty with the visual art aspect of it all, but eventually came around. The cinematic flash fiction, however, is something I'm fascinated with. That said, here are the 10 films worth talking about:
Opening the list is Abueltios (Grandfathers), a tale of a macabre and depressing home for old men. Their daily routine is painstakingly detailed within a moody atmosphere and an existential dread throughout. The fun begins in the final third of this 15-minute Spanish film when it is discovered that they are out of food — good thing children are readily available. The outcome is stark and stomach-churning, but it's also difficult to come away from Abueltios without some intense empathy for the poor old men.
Amor so de Mae (Love From Mother Only) is a lovely Brazilian film about a middle-aged couple trying to stay together while the man still lives with his overbearing elderly mother. The twist is of course that they practice Macumba Voodoo and will go as far as murder to get their way. The colors are vibrant when it isn't dark. The practical effects are classic and technical instead of being computer-generated. According to the DVD insert, this film was actually co-written by a Macumba Voodoo priest "who is currently behind bars." Whatever he's in jail for, it's not this film. The short framework makes for a breakneck pace, even if the bookend structure had me scratching my head at the end.
Speaking of scratching my head at the end: Chambre Jaune (Yellow Room). This Belgian homage to the Italian Giallo subgenre mixes voyeurism, S&M and self-harm. I hate Giallo films but Chambre Jaune is one of my favorites on Small Gauge Trauma. It's ingenious use of color washes, jump cuts and the lack of dialogue makes it something even the most distinguished of director's should strive for.
Gorgonas (Gorgons) is a severely flawed, but still interesting, animated film about Gorgons turning humans to stone. It is so very inspired by Heavy Metal (director Salvador Sanz is an Argentinean comic book creator) and a little bit of anime that it is stylistically interesting if not engaging in story.
The Portuguese I'll See You in My Dreams is zombie vignette. As someone who's seen more than 200 zombie films I found it rather boring. It tries to be innovative and clever but really comes across as middle of the road. It isn't enough to make a zombie fan buy the DVD, but it's good enough in its own right. The zombies also have the same look as those in Fulci's Zombi II, which is always a bonus.
French-Canadian Infini (Infinity) is a modern spin on something that has been told a million times in Twilight Zone episodes. This experimental film sees a man splicing together 8mm film strips of a dying junkie's memories as her life flashes before her eyes. The end is telegraphed one minute into this nine-minute film.
At 39 minutes, Japan's L'ilya was almost exhausting to watch. But not in a bad way. It makes this one stick out like a sore thumb. In a collection where the average length of film is 10 minutes of heart-pounding terror, 40 minutes of a slow, moody burn almost makes you change your perception. It is quiet, depressing and dark in true Japanese fashion: L'ilya is a filmmaker who documents people as they commit suicide, sets them to dance music and plays them in nightclubs. It's haunting, and, story-wise, probably the most accomplished of the collection. Fans of Japanese horror will dig this one.
The most beautiful of the collection rears its ugly heads (yes, you read that right): Robert Morgan's The Separation. This lyrical stop motion film invokes Cronenberg in every way. Conjoined twins begin the film just after their separation, and we witness the lonesome consequences of their lives; they still live together but are very much alone. Watching them try to remedy the situation makes this film (and the next two) worth buying this collection.
Sister Lulu is a five-minute black and white play on nunsploitation and live burial. Its title character is one of the most intimidating characters of all time; she would make Darth Vader and Hannibal Lector weep. Anyone who's seen The Vanishing (one of my favorites) already knows how this one ends.
Tea Break is the most gruesome and meaningful film of the lot. We follow a worker at a factory whose job it is to decapitate living victims who roll by on a conveyor belt. The monotony with which he takes his lunch break ("tea" in Britain) and returns to the job is chilling and delightful for the truly sick of mind. Tea Break, to me, is very indicative of the current state of horror: the slate of gore / torture porn is being churned out and stylized like they are factory made. Things are so bleak that the world is desensitized to the point that somebody somewhere has the job of decapitating living people — and he does so, not happily, but mechanically. The one problem is that the film still has impact, so I'm still not that desensitized.
While few of these films hold up to the amazing standard set by Nacho Cerda (Aftermath, Genesis and The Awakening) and Douglas Buck's Family Portrait: A Trilogy of America, they showcase some of the future masters of the genre. Cerda and Buck (both Fantasia Film Festival alumni) have both crossed over into the feature film area with The Abandoned and Sisters respectively. Keep your eyes peeled for these demented youngsters in a theatre or video store near you.