Halloween is a great time for short horror stories. Here’s a few picks from my favorite haunting short films, that deserve to be watched with full attention. Dim the lights, adjust the volume, watch the films. Headphones recommended when without company.
Animation and horror have always been bonded to each other. As a technique to special effects, it has been one of the most important elements of horror films. From the first stop trick -films by Georges Méliès to various stop-motion monsters and digital monstrosities have been animated.
Most often animation and horror run into each other in video games. At least if we do not go into the world of hentai. Anime and especially hentai are a bit far from the genre, as are the cosmetically horror romantic big money animations at the cinema.
Horror is all but fictive live-action film only. Horrors and terrors can be experienced strongly in the mediums of animation, documentary, video games, and why not theater, circus and music. Most of the traditional live-action horror has actually became a bit dull, yet animated horror has also degenerated because of the digital coldness.
Live-action films are sometimes troubled with bad and unnatural acting. While watching a documentary film, one is touched by true human emotions, instead of acting. In case of animated film, characters are just as credible as their creator crafted them to be. The settings of animated films are special. Perfect setting for a vivid nightmarish place one can immerse in.
The brooding old school synthetic sounds. The edgy and beautiful techniques to tell a story and move a character. The film editing. The greatest legend of horror animation, Jan Švankmajer, left behind the puppet theaters just because he understood what one could do with film editing.
I. Zofia Oraczewska: Vulture (1987)
As a short intro we shall set the mood with this Polish cut-out animation by Zofia Oraczewska. She served Polish animation culture nearly 40 years and was known for a style similar to classic Polish poster art. The film starts with a vulture finishing a feast on a desert full of corpses. It spreads it’s wings and flies to a nearby cave just to reveal something far more shocking.
II. Raoul Servais: Harpya (1979)
A man interrupts a beating on a street. He attacks whom he think is the bad guy, and thus sets free a harpya, that will from this moment oppress the man night and day. Servais’ uneasy topics and atmospheres have been very captivating from early on. His earlier film, Sirene (1968) had giant reptile-like cranes on a construction site kill an innocent mermaid blatantly in the middle of beautiful backgrounds, colors and composition.
As it’s made without assistance of computers, Sevais’ time consuming pattern may actually be unique in film. Since the viewers are used to see people act and move the way the do in real life, it’s creepier to see such unpredictability. Shocking images, demonic harpya and constant grasp on the viewers nerve.
III. Jan Švankmajer: Down to the Cellar (1983)
Many would say Jan Švankmajer is one of the all-time greatest animated film makers, and I wouldn’t blame them. He’s known for the most beautifully grotesque Eastern-European stop-motion films, of which Little Otik and Alice are the greatest feature lengths. Many of his finest are still short films, and one them have had a bit too little attention; Down to the Cellar has next to none of actual animation in it, but maybe just because of that, it’s one of the key titles.
A little girl with a basket steps deeper into a dungeon-like cellar to get some potatoes. All kind of odd, harrowing things are happening in each storage. Girl keeps going forward, although she’s as wary as any kid would be alone in the cellar, even without seeing a set of leather shoes having a breakfast, or a man burying himself under the coal. Very little animation is seen, and maybe that’s the reason why it’s all the more effective. For more animated masterpieces, see Dimensions of Dialogue, Meat Love and Flora.
IV. Georges Schwizgebel: Ravissement de Frank N Stein (1982)
There’s a story in Arabian Nights, where a person who should pass a rocky mountain road to achieve something. Besides the path there are stone figures, statues, that will curse and blaspheme anyone who tries climbing the path. If the person takes a look at them, or turns around, he or she will turn to stone. This film has the same thrilling sensation.
Schwizgebel’s film has a very simple concept, but it works extremely well. There’s an endless dungeon of rooms that first all look alike, but start slowly altering just a bit at a time. The most important feature is the graphic angle. The experience is shown in a first person view, like in the video games, but without the ability to control the movement.
The faceless figures start appearing and standing up, and the viewer can’t see what they’re doing or where they going next. The “first-person view” is something that is, sadly, very little used in this medium. The soundtrack, a free roaming synthetic chaos, is also essential to this thrilling experience.
V. Jacques Drouin, Bretislav Pojar: Nightangel (1986)
Canadian Jacques Drouin is practically the only man in the world still surviving the tradition of European pin screen technique. When his craft was combined with the stop-motion puppetry of great Czech animated film maker, Bretislav Pojar, one of the most beautiful cooperations were born. A film with chilling atmosphere, amazing images, haunting sounds and ghostly music.
A lonely man, who whilst watching outside the window, thinks he sees an angel in the snowy park. As he quickly runs out, he gets hit by a car and gets blind-folded for a long time. Everything around him, the puppet, is animated in foggy black and white pin screen, to create the feel of blindness for the viewer. The amazing craftsmanship and mixing of techniques in a romantic, ghastly and beautiful tale makes it thus unequaled in many ways.
American duo who was so greatly inspired by the Eastern-European way to mess with the medium of animation, they decided to move working and later teaching in Europe. Mostly inspired from Czech stop-motion animation, Jan Švankmajer and the greatest pioneer of stop-motion film, Ladislav Starewicz. They almost became authors of pastiches.
They took what was already there and finished it. Perfected it in many ways. Maybe because of that, their work never surpassed the Slavic animations, since authentically it always needed to be even cruder. Still, works like Street of Crocodiles stand up as a great European dark animation. Relatively slow at tempo, but rewarding film, with very impressive and creepy doll figures.
This gothic horror film influenced with German expressionism has slightly more crooked Sandman the people are used to. A little boy is on his way to bed, and the walk feels lasting an eternity as he constantly fears that somethings always there.
The Sandman is actually rather rude take on the subject, and it opened the doors to the league of Burton and Selick. Berry did actually animate in Nightmare Before Christmas and Jack and the Giant Peach, but unfortunately died only in 40 years of age. Otherwise he might have been out there making films like Coraline today.
VIII. Alexandre Bubnov: Clinic (1993)
One of the latest greatest Ukrainian masterpieces, Clinic, borrows a lot from Nikolai Gogol. Especially his work Viy. A man is tormented by nightmares throughout a night. He keeps waking up in cold sweat. No wonder, as the terrors of his nightmares are so graphically violent.
The changes in Europe circa 1990 had maybe a bit unexpected and certainly unwanted effect on the future of European animation culture. Ukrainian studios had just started to blossom, but it kind of ended to Clinic. Kievnauchfilm and Borisfen-S-studio films worth checking out include; Michael Titov’s The Meeting (1984) and The Battleground (1986), Nazim Tulyakhodzayev’s There Will come Soft Rains (1984) and Sergei Kushnerov’s 9½ Minutes (1993). Why not Bubnov’s Blue Beard’s Wife (1996) too.
IX. Suzie Templeton: Dog
This puppet film certainly is no fun and games. The film approaches the fear and terror of a child in a very striking way. And the fear and terror of a grown up too. A dad is saying good nights to his son, and adds to it, that his mother did not suffer. Lights turn out, and the child is left with a splattered blood stain at the wall just next to his head.
Dog may be a bit too heavy for some viewers and would leave a very uneasy feeling, as the film is about giving up and having neurotic illness that affects the others in terrible ways. It’s not a very hopeful scenario, but the film is a masterpiece nevertheless, and a good film to end up this matinee.
Safe and restful Halloween!