Editor's note: This article includes mentions of self-harm.
The Portland Film Festival (PFF) is currently running through November 8 and has made available an impressive lineup of virtually available films you can watch right from the comfort of your own home. Across 320 films showing are some worthwhile shorts to check out, especially if you’re looking for a bit of bite-sized horror as we get into Halloween.
The Women’s Voices Short Block of horror films approaches the genre from a variety of perspectives, styles, and lengths. There are more emotionally centered character studies, musically infused murder mayhem, some brutal body horror, and darkly humorous looks at family. No matter your fancy, there is something you’ll be taken by in this block of shorts. Here’s a look at some of the incisive and frightening fare you’ll find if you dare take the plunge into the varied world of horror on display.
USA, 2019, 12 min., Dir. Celina Arslanian, Janne Ebel
A short all about trying to find your way back to yourself, Small Deaths centers on the journey of Sonia. After experiencing profound loss, she’s trying to find direction in her life by consulting a tarot card reader. She certainly gets more than she bargained for when the cards and the imagery on them begin to seem to seep into her life, challenging the world she thought she knew. As she struggles to get a handle on her life, we are taken through surreal and strange glimpses at her world through an ever-changing lens.
The most standout part of this short is its haunting imagery and the way it creeps up on you. Never did I think a sudden appearance of a lobster could foretell doom, though that’s precisely what happens here. The moments where the visuals of the cards come to life create an acutely unsettling atmosphere that keeps you on your toes, making you uncertain how much you can trust what is happening. It’s not a film that may resonate if you’re looking for a grounded story, though it is elevated by its sharp eye for visuals.
USA, 2020, 3 min., Dir. Tian Tang
The shortest of the films on this list, Feel Better is a murderous music video that has a lot of fun playing with its vibrant aesthetics. It follows a committed duo who are on the continual hunt for a victim to muder, doing so on repeat in a variety of ways. The music itself from the band CocoVera suits the series of scenes perfectly, giving it all an irreverent and upbeat tone that mixes well with the hyperviolence on display. It’s a song you just vibe with, despite it being alongside scenes of murder.
In particular, director Tian Tang brings a good eye to capturing some stunning moments amidst the chaos of the violence. Be it the illumination of a fire on the beach reaching up to the stars above, or the pink sky behind pitch-black crows taking flight from a tree, all the colors compliment each other well. Thoroughly saturated, these colors instill it all with a bright and beautiful tone.
USA, 2021, 16 min., Dir. Dan Repp, Lindsay Young
Here we begin to see one of the heavier shorts. Be warned: This film has quite a bit of self-harm throughout it. Cutter focuses on Nadia Alexander’s Raelyn who is recovering from her cutting under the watchful eye of her mother. Alexander, who some may recognize from her standout tragic role in the television series The Sinner, gives a similarly affecting performance as she begins to be haunted. The most bloody and gruesome of all the shorts, it doesn’t shy away from painful scenes of full-on body horror.
Added to that is a sense of claustrophobia as the short is almost entirely set in a single apartment with no escape for Raelyn from what is tormenting her. The pain and suffering she endures is not purposeless, drawing from aspects of her past that she slowly begins to discover. Cutter isn’t for everyone because of how deeply it cuts, literally and figuratively, though there is a transcendent nature to what’s being displayed. Even as it’s hard to look at, that is only a testament to how well-executed and realistic the creation of all the cuts are. It doesn’t hold back, leaving a mark on you in its final moments.
USA, 2020, 8 min., Dir. Lauren Sick
A creeping little short set during what appears to be the Christmas holidays, Pare follows a woman who's alone out in an isolated home in the wilderness when she finds a jacket that she believes belongs to her husband. However, said husband is nowhere to be found. What follows is director-writer Lauren Sick taking us on a steadily frightening and well-directed wander through the home, where something doesn’t feel right. It all ratchets up the terror with a precise and committed intensity, creating some key moments of silent stillness that are sure to set your skin crawling. It just keeps building and building beyond that.
In particular, some moments of normally cheery lighting that illuminates the central character’s face prove to be eerily terrifying. Said character is played with subtlety by Dana Drori, who can speak volumes with a simple turn and change of expression. Tying it all together is some well-timed editing by Brett W. Bachman, who also worked on this year’s outstanding Portland shot and set film Pig. Bachman knows just when to cut to pull the rug out from under you, as if breaking a spell. Pare keeps many of its cards close to the chest, leaving an air of mystery and dread hanging in the air from start to finish.
The Tale of the Daughter
USA, 2020, 22 min., Dir. Savannah Sivert, Taylor Hinds
In what is hands down the best of these shorts, The Tale of the Daughter tells a darkly humorous story that skirts the line of being a true horror film, but proves to be the most engaging. It focuses on a delightfully charismatic and charming Jazlyn Yoder as the daughter mentioned in the title. Taking care of her mother (Leslie Stevens) who just had a stroke, the daughter is content to spend her time working on axe throwing and pot smoking. As she finds herself out in a home in the woods, one of those activities will end up coming in quite handy. When a threatening loan shark shows up looking for money from her mother’s scummy boyfriend, the two will have to come together to get out of a threatening situation.
There's a tension between mother and daughter that is surprisingly authentic in the middle of a dark comedy. The Tale of the Daughter has a cheeky style and edge to it all, with a well-written relationship that gives it more to chew on.
USA, 2020, 14 min., Dir. Nicole Ihasz
A rather straightforward revenge flick, Becky plays out mostly as you would expect it to, while still having some fun here and there. The short focuses on the titular Becky, a mostly off-screen presence, who wants to be friends with the ever popular Steph and Ariel. However, the two are incredibly rude and callous toward Becky, who they mock repeatedly for her stutter. When they go on a road trip, it presents the perfect moment for Becky and her father to take violent revenge on the two of them.
Becky is certainly trying to be the most edgy and darkly funny, though it doesn’t quite always work. This is coming from someone who appreciates pitch black humor that really goes to some sick places, though this short doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression.
USA, 2020, 16 min., Dir. R.H. Stavis, Katherine Fisher
The most reflective and stripped-down of all the shorts, Posies is bursting with pessimism as well as a prevailing beauty if you look deep enough. It centers on Anna Diop’s Maddy, an understandably cynical and burnt out character who is deeply disillusioned with the state of the world.. The evil of the world is manifesting in people, quite literally, becoming monsters. Maddy is trying to fend this off by putting flowers under her skin in what may be a futile forestalling of the inevitable.
A short that dips its toe ever so slightly into body horror before leaping all the way in, the journey this one takes may catch you more than a little bit off guard. However, at its core, Posies is an interesting parable about being increasingly fearful about how rapidly things are shifting into chaos. With Diop giving an understated yet effective performance, it carries a painful melancholy that shows how all consuming the evils of the world can be. It doesn’t pull any punches, just as life itself doesn’t.
You can watch these shorts here; sliding-scale streaming access for the entire block starts at $10. You can stream all PFF selections through its website through November 8. If you’re a Comcast Xfinity customer, you can also access the films through VOD.