Shorts Thoughts

More than two hours of short films is not everyone’s cup of tea, so it was no surprise that the 4.15pm showing of the International Short Film Showcase was somewhat more lightly attended than the rest of the features. But, those who skipped missed some real gems. Short films, like short stories, are qualitatively different from features and allow different types of stories to be told, and the creators showcased in this years shorts program delivered on that promise. None were alike and all were worthy entries, even if some were not to my taste.

Below are some brief thoughts on each short film, in descending order of my enjoyment. I have included trailers where available. More details on each short are available on the Toronto After Dark website.


I’ll give “Manoman” this — is was ambitious and very different. An awkward, besuited man attends a primal scream therapy group and his inner monkey-man literally comes out to play. Together, they wreck havoc on the town. Simon Cartwright’s silent (except for the screaming) puppeteered short was definitely not for me (which is why it is at the bottom of this list), but it was a solid, if divisive, entry all the same.


It was exciting to see a rotoscoped short, but other than that, Morgan Galen King’s “Exordium” left me pretty underwhelmed. Strongly evocative of Heavy Metal, “Exordium” follows two knights battling against the elements and a guardian in search of the secrets of the universe. Technically impressive but pretty derivative. Probably a good short to watch on mushrooms.

Myrna the Monster

I wanted to like Ian Samuels’s short more, but it fell a little flat for me. The creativity and technical chops on display here are pretty remarkable, though. Samuels blends animation, puppeteering and live action segments seamlessly to tell the story of an alien captured by astronauts and now living the life of a struggling actor in Hollywood. Myrna’s inadvertent porn audition was a highlight.

Awesome Runaway

Everything clicks for Benjamin De-Los Santo’s s “Awesome Runaway”, but it was still mostly a middle of the pack film for me. The short is a “single take” (I would have to go back and look more closely, but I’m pretty sure there were subtle edits throughout) action beat ’em up that features a pretty hilarious ending.


At 23 minutes, “Boniato” was by far the longest short of the program and it feels like a screen test for a feature-length film. It tells the story of migrant workers held captive by their situation and malicious creatures. Boniato has strong camerawork, an interesting and provocative story, believable performances and surprisingly effective creature design on what must have been a shoestring budget. It is in the middle of my list mostly because I would have liked to have seen an actual feature made out of this story.

The Guests


“The Guests” was the first short of the afternoon and it opened the program with a bang. Our main character, Anna, is home along with her newborn baby when guests start unexpectedly arriving… and arriving. Beautifully shot and realized, Shane Danielsen’s short amps up the tension as the party grows louder and more raucous and Anna continues to lose her sense of reality.

The Black Forest

Paul Urkijo’s darkly humorous fantasy tells the story of a knight in shining armor rescuing the virginal maiden from the evil monster in the titular black forest, but with ample helpings of Army of Darkness-style camerawork and story elements. This was a definite crowd-pleaser and while the twist ending was completely telegraphed, it was still a joy to see unfold. Watching the knight flex and pose in slow motion was particularly tickling.

Movies in Space

This was an unexpected delight. Chris Smith’s sci-fi/comedy genre-bender “Movies in Space” was a standout of the shorts program. An astronaut, Travis Shepherd, in the not-too-distant future becomes Earth’s ambassador to an alien race. Along the way, he moves in with an aspiring filmmaker and inadvertently becomes the most famous production mogul in history. But, as with any rise, there is a fall and Travis struggles with space drugs, space sex and space fame. The jokes are densely packed, the comedy both broad and ironic, the effects outstanding and the story compelling both comedically and emotionally.


Holy shit, this movie. I am currently about sixty percent through all of the shorts and features at After Dark, and this is comfortably in the lead as the scariest. Vicious is the story of a woman, Lydia, living alone in a London flat after her sister has died. Her sister was haunted by something, and discovering the front door open upon returning home late at night, Lydia must confront her own anxieties, and possibly something living in a pile of clothes, before she goes to sleep.

The tension was almost unbearable throughout this 12 minute short. As Lydia continues to search her house, I could hear people groan and see them physically tense up in apprehension. When the credits rolled, there was an audible wave of relief through the audience as the harrowing experience ended. My heart was literally pounding afterward. Head and shoulders above the rest of the shorts (and most of the features) in terms of technical competence, storytelling and shear, unnerving terror.


Night two was Sci-Fi night at this year’s Toronto After Dark, and was largely occupied by Rooster Teeth fans in attendance for the Canadian debut of Lazer Team. That left a small, but diehard, crowd of festivalgoers for Synchronicity, a time travel romance in the style of Blade Runner produced by the creators of 2007’s The Signal. And let’s not beat around the bush, this is meant to look like Blade Runner.

During the Q&A, the moderator tried to dance around this fact while asking a question and the production designer cut him off, saying, “Jacob [the director] said up front that he wanted this to look like Blade Runner”. That means we’ve got high technology next to reel-to-reel players, Venetian blinds and beautifully composited shots of the Atlanta skyline with dozens of spotlight-wielding helicopters on patrol. The production design is practically another character in the film and it is wonderful to the watch. The script, however, is somewhat less inspiring.

Chad McKnight (who strongly resembles a young Mark Ruffalo) plays Jim Beale, the kind of scientist who wears a three-piece suit while inventing time travel. He and his team — Chuck (played by A.J. Bowen) and Matt (Scott Poythress), both of whom are great side characters — have created a stable wormhole device that can be used to send matter through space and time.

In one of the more inspired pieces of writing, their technology acts as both a wormhole broadcaster and receiver. They only have one sample of the MacGuffin — a kind of ultra-nuclear fuel called MRD controlled by Michael Ironside’s Klaus Meisner — so, Jim will initially use the wormhole device as a receiver, in the hopes that something uniquely identifiable will come through, proving that the wormhole works and setting up a causal loop that the team will fulfill in the future. After verifying that whatever object came through is genuine, Meisner will supply a second sample of MRD to the team to use to send the object back to themselves in the past, closing the loop.

After their first test, a dahlia under a glass case appears, as well as a brief flash on the monitors. Jim is convinced that a person also came through the wormhole and initially believes that it is Abby (played by Brianne Davis), a woman who shows up outside the lab moments after the test. While she insists that she is not a time traveler, the dahlia is in fact hers. Jim realizes that he must have some kind of relationship with Abby in the future and chose the dahlia as the object to send through the device because of it.

This leads to a romance between the two, which is short-lived because of Jim’s insecurities and belief that Abby is either romantically involved with or working for Klaus Meisner. Because the dahlia is actually a rare collector’s item licensed to Abby by Meisner, Jim has to sell him a 99% ownership stake in the wormhole device in return of use of the flower. Jim agrees, but when they use the device the second time, he also goes through to try and fix his mistakes with Abby and see if both his work and his relationship can coexist. This is the end of the first act.

Wait — the first act? Yes, there is still about an hour of movie left as Gentry’s script wanders through paradoxes, shifting timelines and the potentialities of parallel universes. I’ll stop the summary here, though, because while the script is very convoluted and ultimately a bit disappointing, this is definitely a worthwhile film for hardcore science fiction fans to check out and to continue would spoil the more intricate plot points.

There is no question that this is a confusing movie. Jeffrey Pratt Gordon, the production designer who spent his time on the shoot dumpster diving and breaking into hotels to achieve the awesome retro-future style, was in attendance and mentioned that this was actually his first time seeing the entire cut of the movie. When asked during the Q&A what his first reaction to Synchronicity was, Gordon replied simply: “confused”. To paraphrase him slightly,

I’ve read the script a hundred times to figure out how to dress the sets and what the tone should be, and I’m still really confused by it.

Me, too, Jeffrey. But, despite my confusion, I was charmed by Synchronicity. It is far from perfect, but the strong performances, inspired production design and the interesting ideas left me mostly satisfied.


  • The director was clearly intent on achieving an 80s feel throughout the film, and this comes through in the production design, the wardrobe and also the choice of the film style. This means that the whole thing looks like a bad VHS to DVD transfer. I get what they were going for, but it really just makes the whole thing look shitty. There are several shots where there is clearly a digital zoom being used and it looks terrible. The wonderful realization of the production design is really held back by this choice.
  • I can’t decide whether I loved or hated the wormhole sequences. They are bold, yellow-orange soaked frames evoking fractals and lava lamps and burst on to the screen with deep resonant tones and thrums. But, I couldn’t help but think they also looked a lot like early iTunes visualizers.
  • A critical plot point is that the MacGuffin has to be rotated by Matt to the left in the device or it will fail and Matt can’t tell his right from his left. It is beyond belief that Jim and Chuck would stake their reputation, millions of dollars, and perhaps the fate of the universe on this. How hard would it have been to pick a more believable problem? Say, the MRD is unstable and needs to be constantly manipulated during the wormhole process and because it creates large and shifting magnetic fields, a machine can’t do it, only a human can.
  • Another script problem are the changes in the timeline. Without spoiling too much, things are subtly different after Jim goes back in time. Some of the differences are just slightly extended scenes that are otherwise the same. I couldn’t tell if we were just seeing a slightly different angle on the same events. Other things are definitely meant to be different, such as a bartender played by two different actors, but are mostly too small to notice before the film spells them out for us with some Sixth Sense-style flashbacks.
  • All of the driving scenes and hero shots of Atlanta during Golden Hour were pretty to look at, but they remind me of something. I can’t quite put my finger on it…
  • Based on cheers and applause, the highlight for the crowd was McKnight, Gordon and producer Alexander Motlagh revealing that they basically snuck an entire film crew into the W Hotel in Atlanta for some guerrilla shooting.
  • “Klaus Meisner” is perhaps the best bad guy name ever.

A Christmas Horror Story

George Buza (Santa Claus) entered the Scotiabank Theatre fifteen minutes before the show. Decked out as Saint Nick and with two elves in tow, Santa stalked the halls, encouraging festivalgoers to shout “Down with Krampus!” in return for candy canes and tee shirts. Thus began one of the more unusual, but nevertheless enjoyable, film experiences at Toronto After Dark so far.

I did not know that A Christmas Horror Story was an anthology movie until the last twenty minutes of its screening. During the Q&A, one of the directors mentioned that the creative team felt that they had the option to make a straight up anthology film, with distinct, self-contained segments, or they could weave them together to make an entire feature. In this, they were not successful.

Yes, the stories all take place on Christmas Eve in the fictional town of Bailey Downs and, yes, not unlike the more satisfying Tales of Halloween, they are glued together by a radio DJ — played by William Shatner — but beyond some superficial connections, there is no overarching story. This presents real problems for A Christmas Horror Story. Since the stories are not self-contained, we bounce between four largely un-related stories, which are never given a chance to shine on their own.

The four stories are:

  1. Santa and Mrs. Claus deal with a zombie outbreak at the North Pole hours before Christmas Eve deliveries are to start.
  2. A police officer and his wife cut down a pine tree from an ancient forest and get more than they bargained for when they discover they have brought home a changeling.
  3. Three students break into a school to document a grisly and supernatural double murder that occurred last Christmas and find themselves trapped as history begins to repeat itself.
  4. A wealthy and vapid family arrives at a distant relative’s to pull a scam but instead is menaced by the anti-Santa Claus: Krampus.

Because I did not know these stories were meant to be separate, I kept waiting for them to be tied together and did not realize until the last twenty minutes that they were not going to be. The creators mentioned in the Q&A that they tried to find some connections between the segments (such as having the police officer from the changeling story be the same officer that investigated the ghost story murders). But the primary rationale for making the film as four separate stories was for efficiency’s sake. With only a few months to write and shoot the film the producers divided the work between four writing teams and then found ways to connect the works.

Given the constraints, I feel that not cutting between the segments but instead playing each of them in their entirety and then moving to the next would have the served the film far better. The film opens in medias res with the Santa Claus segment and then returns to the beginning and the ending works well by telling the North Pole story this way. By cutting between the North Pole but keeping the other segments whole (stitched together with Shatner’s DJ shtick), each story would have been given more space to work and not have to vie as much with the other segments for tonal consistency.

In fact, one of the writers in the Q&A said that many of the comedic elements in the Krampus story had to be pulled back or cut entirely because they did not fit the overall tone of the other segments. Additionally, I felt that the more dramatic and serious tone of the changeling segment did not fit well with the other stories. Had it been a more self-contained story, it could have more comfortably occupied its dramatic space. By letting each segment stand on its own the film could have avoided these problems.

A Christmas Horror Story is also somewhat bedeviled by low production values. The CGI for the North Pole was very disappointing, to the point that I would have preferred that it be cut entirely in favor of a more mysterious setting (which would have served the ending better, in my opinion). Also, many of the action scenes were disorienting and almost nauseating to watch due to shoddy camera work and editing.

Despite these problems, A Christmas Horror Story was still an enjoyable experience. I can’t say that the festival crowd didn’t have an influence on me, and I am a little skeptical that I would have enjoyed the film as much on a small screen (it probably will feel right at home on SyFy). But, ultimately, the over-the-top Santa action scenes, genuinely spooky elements and the delightful William Shatner pulling everything together left me drunk on the joy of the season (and zombie elf decapitations). Perhaps we will return to Bailey Downs in the future — maybe for a Boxing Day Horror Story?


  • William Shatner’s booze-soaked performance (presumably it was a performance…) as he delivered increasingly troubling notices of some kind of disturbance occurring at the Bailey Downs mall was wonderful, especially his one-sided banter with the off-screen “Susan”.

“No no, Susan, I’m gonna talk about Jesus on the radio and you know why? Because it’s his birthday tomorrow!”

  • The ghost story was a real stretch to fit into the Christmas theme. The only connection was that the murders took place on Christmas. Honestly, this story could have been in any horror anthology and was probably the weakest of the four.
  • For a pretty low-budget flick, the Krampus creature design, used in both the Krampus and North Pole segments, was excellent. The filmmakers were lucky to discover their Krampus performer, Rob Archer (who was in attendance and is about as wide across the shoulders as I am tall).
  • Olunike Adeliyi and Adrian Holmes’s performances in the changeling segment — the second changeling story at this year’s After Dark after The Hallow — were particularly strong and emotional. Their more serious performance and story often felt at odds with the rest of the segments, though.
  • The final twist was both unexpected and hilarious. It brought laughs and cheers from the After Dark crowd at the Scotiabank.
  • Maybe I’m crazy, but shouldn’t this movie be called Christmas Horror Stories if it’s an anthology?

Tales of Halloween

How do you open a festival like Toronto After Dark? Do you want to start with a bang or a slow burn? Should you celebrate something new and rising or lift up those who have been long laboring in independent horror? Apparently, you can have your treats and eat them too with Tales of Halloween.

Tales of Halloween is a collection of ten semi-related segments set in the same suburbia on Halloween. The frame story, insofar as there is one, is of a radio DJ played by Adrienne Barbeau (perhaps reprising her role from another film?) setting the scene and the mood for the whirlwind tour we are about to take through Anytown, USA on this, the most spooky of nights. Barbeau is the connective tissue that joins the segments together. She opens the film, which starts with a somewhat overlong, but still very cool, animated credits sequence and lends some interstitials over the radio as we move from segment to segment.

The narrative beds that open and close the segments lend to the overall feeling of a 2015 version of an EC Comics horror anthology. As do the beautifully crafted shorts, which all have premises that would be at home in Tales from the Crypt. I won’t describe each short — you should just go see Tales of Halloween for yourself, it’s a delight — but I will highlight some standouts.

Barry Bostwick in Demon Horns

My personal favorite short was “The Night Billy Raised Hell”. The titular Billy (dressed in a demon mask and cape) is out with his older sister and her boyfriend before the sun has fallen on All Hallow’s Eve. Billy is literally egged on by the boyfriend to prank the house of a recluse who never participates in Halloween festivities.

Moments before letting loose with an egg on the front door, Billy is caught by the owner — played to a tee by Barry Bostwick in bespoke suit, fedora and demon makeup. It seems that Billy is in over his head as Bostwick sits the boy down in his house (bedecked with all sorts of demonic paraphernalia) and tells him that he’s going to show him what Halloween is really all about.

The next five minutes is a comic tour-de-force as Bostwick and Billy proceed to terrorize the town. Bostwick whittles a toothbrush given to Billy by a well-meaning parent into a shiv, which Billy jabs into the man’s stomach. The duo hold up a convenience store, rob a woman of her car and spray-paint the town with tags showing Billy’s rise to infamy. The entire sequence is set to music and includes hilarious, Hanna-Barbara-style sound effects, particularly under all of Bostwick’s over-the-top antics. The short ends with an unexpected, and delicious twist, putting a neat bow on the proceedings.

Grim Grinning Ghost

Axelle Carolyn (who also is the lead producer on this project) directed one of the more straight up terrifying entries with “Grim Grinning Ghost”. Lin Shaye makes her industry-required cameo as the mother of Alexandra Essoe of Starry Eyes fame.

Shaye recounts to some Halloween guests, including her daughter Essoe, the story of a disfigured woman who was mercilessly taunted while alive and now haunts the living on Halloween night when the dead walk among us. Late at night, when you are alone on the street, you might hear the footsteps of the Grim Grinning Ghost and her cackling, but whatever you do — don’t look behind you.

After Essoe leaves the party, the rest of the short is one sustained burn of tension as you wait for the ghost to show up. Every time it doesn’t, or Essoe narrowly escapes, the tension ratchets up another click. By the end, Carolyn has built things up to a fever pitch and does not disappoint with the finale.


  • The After Dark crowd was a little more subdued than I would have expected at 7pm when the festival opened, but by the closing credits of Tales of Halloween, everyone was definitely in the mood for the next ten days of films. This was a great choice to open the festival and I expect Tales of Halloween to be a top contender for the audience choice award based on the cheers, clapping and all-around revelry we all felt after the credits rolled.
  • While it was not my favorite, the short that got the biggest laughs and cheers was definitely “Friday the 31st”, a send up of the Friday the 13th franchise that includes both a nearly perfect encapsulation of the series and the most adorable little animated alien you ever saw. His little, lispy “twick-oh-tweet” was a highlight of the night. As were the brutal decapitations.
  • There were a few duds: “This Means War” (a battle of lawn decorations between an old-school fellow and some metal heads) was strong on premise but weak on execution and “The Weak and the Wicked” (a Western-influenced story of revenge and demons) never seemed to really land. But, even these weaker entries were far from terrible and didn’t detract from the overall quality of the project.
  • Special mention has to made for “Ding Dong”, a truly strange retelling of Hansel and Gretel that seems like it should be a hot mess but actually was one of the most enjoyable and interesting entries. It has a relentless pace, even for a short, and has some of the most out-there style of the whole joint. The sound effect every time the woman/witch adjusted her boobs was a crowd-pleaser.
  • John Landis’s (pretty extended) cameo was delightful.