The Dunwich Horrors Shorts (2023) ‘BUFF’ Review: This year’s installment of The Dunwich Horrors at the Boston Underground Film Festival seems to weave themes of horror as a contagion, which manifests in subtle and overt ways. While some shorts function as tongue-in-cheek pastiches that mimic standard tropes of cults and ritual sacrifices gone wrong, others delve deeper into the horrors of memory, the unknown, and the quintessential other. Among this year’s stacked lineup for the category, some entries naturally stand out for their bold thematic through-lines and interesting visual language, wherein entries with longer run-times fare better to evoke fully-formed ideas and the right amount of scares.
However, I was particularly impressed with how some shorts managed to stun and deliver with runtime as short as 3 minutes, which is a testament to the narrative’s ability to swiftly, yet surely, get under your skin. Here are some of the best horror shorts in the Dunwich Horrors category, and they all have one thing in common — the undeniable nerve to do something different.
Andrew Connelly sets up a macabre world within the 5-minute runtime of Last Train, a horror short that perfectly paces its big reveal while building a taut atmosphere. A man walks home alone at night, edging closer to the train stop for — you guessed it — the last train of the night. A hooded, mysterious figure is seen depositing a bag inside a trash can, which intrigues our protagonist. While waiting for the train, he curiously opens the trashed bag, only to find a carved-out face of a man inside it. Panic surging, he pins his hopes on the last train rapidly arriving on the platform, but the stranger we see earlier, who is revealed to be faceless, gets to him before he can make it out alive.
Although Connelly’s short plays around with the oft-used faceless man in the dark trope that embody qualities that are Slenderman-esque, the narrative’s greatest strength is the atmosphere it is able to create along the way. Last Train accomplishes a lot with little, and there’s something especially creepy about being stranded on a desolate train station at night and being chased by a man with no face, especially after you find a face inside a discarded bag. A good starting point for the wider, connective theme of the erasure of identity that dominates the category this year and what it means to transform into a being outside of perceived normalcy.
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SKIN & BONE
One of the best entries in the category, Eli Powers’ Skin & Bone uses the ideas of seclusion and deadly familial secrets to concoct a hellish descent into madness. Christian (Thomas Sadoski) is on the lookout for work, which leads him to a farm in the middle of nowhere, owned by Serene (Amanda Seyfried). After interrogating him about his experience in farm-work, Serene offers Christian the job and inquires him about the optic defect in his left eye, a condition he was born with. Although Christian is proficient in his work, he suffers from increasingly terrible migraines and disturbing visions, wherein the stable animals claim to be human males from Serene’s bloodline, whom she is hinted to have trapped inside the animal bodies. Christian is understandably shaken by these visions.
What’s most interesting about Skin & Bone is the slow-burn nature of its narrative, built meticulously via subtle cues and brilliant central performances by Sadoski and Seyfried. While Serene embodies the right mix of resilient and eerie, Christian emerges as a man plagued by a terrible truth, which he must unravel, no matter what the cost. We are never sure whether Christian’s visions are real or hallucinatory right up till the last moment, and the final shot echoes with the power of a shriek in an empty graveyard.
Horror stories about doomsday cults make for effective narrative cruxes, and Nathan Sellers’ The Watcher uses this central idea to create a story submerged in trauma, grief, and possible freedom. The film’s visual language does most of the heavy-lifting here, as it adds hues and tints that are vibrant enough to heighten the somber mood of the story, where the titular watcher is in charge of supervising the perceived resurrection of the members of her cult.
The tapes left behind by their leader, Father Enoch, fill us in on the details, which mimic the usual tropes about salvation and the coming of Christ, with talks about ascension peppered in. The watcher is expected to wait till the final day and join them in this journey in the end. But what happens when the ghosts of the dead reach out from the beyond and stop you from joining a misguided, lost cause?
The Watcher is jolted to the gravity of the situation — the dead bodies of Father Enoch and her fellow sisters mock and haunt her now, as opposed to emerging as beacons of hope for a new era of salvation and cleansing. Now that her watch has ended, will she be able to shed the weight of her beliefs and live with the guilt? The implications are troubling.
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Amber Chilton’s Pray is set out to demolish the idea of the perfect American suburbia, and it does this by situating an eldritch femme fatale at the center of this twisted narrative. Vera Day moves to Sunnyvale, and her presence alone is enough to disrupt the veneer of normalcy. A beautiful, Poison Ivy-esque figure, Vera lures men into her home and seduces them, their moans of pleasure gradually changing into screams of terror.
Although Pray does not boast layered themes or heady ideas, its effectiveness lies in its simplicity, notched up to the max in the climatic moments (heh) when she turns into a tentacled creature of some sort while she murders a very unfortunate plumber. The visuals and color palette are stunning, complementing the idea of suburban perfection, perfectly contrasted by the gruesome underbelly hidden beneath. Bonus points for the eldritch chittering that can be heard whenever Vera moves in rather sinister ways.
Expanding on the faceless entity theme in Last Train, Eric Bielakiewicz’s Rest Stop is astoundingly eerie. A young college boy is seen drunk driving, and he stops at the Hatch convenience store for another drink. Sloshed and unable to walk straight, he fumbles around the fridge for the drink and makes his way to the empty cashier section.
Nighttime convenience store settings have made for terrifying horror, as evidenced by several Chilla’s Art video games that hinge on this primordial human fear to etch stories about demons, vengeful spirits, and creepy stalkers. Rest Stop uses its short format to make the most out of this premise, and when the young man is marked by a faceless entity inside the store, the stakes get significantly higher.
There’s a bit of subversion that makes the ending so chilling, where our protagonist feels a false sense of security after reaching home. Although one would expect the entity to pop out of nowhere to haunt him, it turns into a classic case of self-haunting: our man has been turned into a faceless individual himself, possibly due to the fact that the original entity was able to draw his blood. Is this a contagion, or merely a mental idea that spreads in the minds of victims, like a deadly infection? No matter how you spin it, the results are spooky. Moreover, thanks to solid pacing and some interesting camerawork, Bielakiewicz’s short rises above standard genre fare and delivers a faceless man fright with a twist.
Rarely has a short been so layered and bafflingly captivating as Rachel S. Thomas-Medwid’s Penny, which touches everything from the bizarrely surreal to the grounded traumas of experiencing and dealing with mental illness. We open with a flashback from Penny’s childhood, which was undoubtedly a difficult one — her mother, suffering from what seems to be mental illness, asks Penny to save herself from those who are out to get her, as they are bound to “poison” her one day.
She gives her a jar of pennies to pass her time with while she and her husband get into an altercation. Cut to the present, Penny plans out many at-home dates and cooks dinner for her potential partners, but the dates always screech to a halt when she serves them dessert: a cup holding a single penny, with a plate garnished by what might or might not be blood.
The reveal at the end is bolstered by several visual cues about Penny’s literal and metaphorical poisoning, where she is addicted to consuming actual pennies and contending with the demons of her past. Familial trauma finds a way to haunt you and shape you as a person, keeping you prisoner to cycles that are often repeated. There’s death, an ominous-looking pan that carries the weight of the past, and trickling drops of blood that threaten to destroy Penny’s fragile sense of reality. There are many ways to unwrap this expertly made, nuanced portrait of hauntings and trauma, which lends to its rich complexity and truly terrifying vignettes.