Fantastic Fest: Ranking the Best of the Horror Short Film Selections

Ranking the little films that might be the best part of Fantastic Fest.
By  · Published on September 23rd, 2017

Horror shorts are often the best part of any genre festival, and the Short Fuse 2017 selections at Fantastic Fest this year are no different.

Here’s a little festival pro-tip for you: take advantage of any opportunities you have to watch a horror short film program. While most festival goers will clamor for the high-profile feature releases, the short film programs are often more diverse, more rowdy, and – let’s face it – more interesting than their longform counterparts. Not only that, but today’s short films are typically the genesis for tomorrow’s breakout independent filmmakers. You think you’re cool because you saw a director’s first feature at a festival? Just imagine how much stronger your street cred will be when you can say you saw their five-minute short two years before that screenplay got optioned.

Oh, and here’s another factor to consider: for many of the smaller festivals that pop up around the country, you’re far more likely to have access to quality horror shorts than quality horror features. I cut my teeth on regional horror festivals like the New York City Horror Film Festival, a family-run festival that takes place every year in Manhattan. Given the rules regarding premieres and the viability of New York City as a limited release market, the feature slots were/are often occupied by low-budget films long on creativity and (frequently) short on craft, a tradeoff you’re bound to encounter at genre festivals in every major city. Shorts, however, are a different beast altogether. Since these directors are – by the very nature of the format – more interested in exposure than selling a product, there’s no downside to playing a short horror film in as many different festivals as possible. And audiences can and do reap the benefits of that arrangement.

Fantastic Fest’s Short Fuse 2017 program is no different. Ranging from the low-budget to the high-touch, and even including a full stop-motion feature along the way, Short Fuse 2017 gives the attendees an opportunity to connect with some of the exciting new voices in horror before… well, before they’re actually the exciting new voices in horror. Here are the Top 5 selections from the horror shorts program.

Tara Price/Fantastic Fest

T-5. Earworm (dir. Tara Price)

To describe Earworm as body horror confectionary might seem like an odd distinction, but Price’s film manages to take a very silly idea about the invasiveness of contemporary pop music and turn it on its ear (pun intended), making Earworm one of the more genuinely unnerving shorts to play during the program. It’s also a short that perfectly utilizes the post-credits scene, a practice that – based entirely on this sample size of these eleven shorts – seems to be pretty popular with filmmakers these days. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the final shot is what makes Earworm work; don’t lose faith if you don’t understand the appeal right away.

Gonçalo Almeida/Fantastic Fest

T-5. Thursday Night (dir. Gonçalo Almeida)

Given the slight running times of most short films, one endearing or creative element can often be enough to have a short film stick out in your mind. What makes Thursday Night stand out is the performances Almeida wrangles from his canine stars. The short, which depicts the dreamlike final moments of a beloved family dog, is simplistic enough in execution that a mediocre performance from its ‘lead’ would’ve been the creative kiss of death. Instead, Thursday Night‘s star delivers what might actually be my favorite performance of the festival thus far, a complex and bittersweet exploration of his loved ones before he bids his family farewell. If Almeida decides he does not want to continue his career in filmmaking, he would do well to consider becoming a reality television star for Animal Planet.

Sofia Carrillo/Fantastic Fest

4. Cerulia (dir. Sofia Carrillo)

I’ve seen a handful of animated short films pop up at the various genre festivals I’ve attend, but I’m hard-pressed to think of one as skillfully designed as Carrillo’s Cerulia. On its face, the story is pretty simple: a young woman is lured back to her childhood home by her imaginary friend, only to discover that her friend is not as imaginary as she once thought. What shines, however, is the character design. Carrillo’s main character is endearing soulful, with her large, wet eyes morosely taking in the surroundings around her. The real star of the show, however? Her stuffed bunny, who administers uneasy therapy sessions while hiding behind a loosely fitting human mask.

Justin Harding & Rob Brunner/Fantastic Fest

3. Latched (dir. Justin Harding, Rob Brunner)

It’s always interesting to see which short films operate as self-contained stories and which shorts serve more as proof-of-concept for features. For example, Natalie James’s Creswick – which also plays during the Short Fuse program – is clearly meant to tease the director’s vision and technical skills, hopefully culminating in a feature in the near future. And then there’s Latched, Justin Hardin and Rob Brunner’s dark little fairytale of a film. It’s best to go in as cold as possible, but know that Latched offers enough interpretive dancing, mythological creatures, and breast milk for a trilogy of features should the filmmakers so choose.

David Mikalson/Fantastic Fest

2. Stay (dir. David Mikalson)

It’s not an accident that the Fantastic Fest programmers chose to play Stay and Great Choice back-to-back to round out the program, because there’s no denying that these are the standout shorts of the festival. Following a group of satanists who perform a blood sacrifice to summon a demon, Stay shows what happens when you… well, when you catch feelings for the Prince of Darkness. With a beyond-dry sense of humor and a credits sequence that had the audience in tears, Stay makes a strong case for more horror-comedy from Mikalson. It’s refreshing to see more filmmakers who understand why ‘horror’ comes first in the ‘horror-comedy’ moniker.

Robin Comisar/Fantastic Fest

1. Great Choice (dir. Robin Comisar)

Here it is, the short film that will have everyone at Fantastic Fest buzzing this year. In a media landscape where Took Many Cooks became an international phenomenon, we shouldn’t be surprised that a dark meta-horror short about a woman trapped in a Red Lobster commercial could still catch us by surprise, but Great Choice is… well, great. It certainly doesn’t hurt that an actress as great as Carrie Coon plays the main character, but even with a nobody in her stead, Comisar’s film has absurdist humor to spare. And believe it or not, Comisar is apparently working to turn Great Choice into a feature film. Any producers out there with a ton of money and a Stay Tuned fetish?


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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)