Friday, February 16, 2018

Jack O'Lantern's Strong Emotional Core

I see hundreds of horror short films a year. Mostly they're the same setups, the same payoffs. Some films are well made, with good production values. Some are even scary. Only a few are memorable -- lingering in the mind, thought-provoking, emotionally affecting.

Erik LeDrew's Jack O'Lantern (2017) is such a film. Its economical five minutes packs a strong, emotional punch. Watch it now. Then I'll explain why I admire it.

As I said, it's an economical film. It says much with little. Under five minutes long (4 minutes, 45 seconds) and no dialog.

Many filmmakers mistakenly stuff their films with aimless chitchat. Vapid teens talking about their boyfriends or hookups, filling up time but doing nothing to advance the story. Dialog should have a purpose. If it doesn't serve a purpose, you don't need it.

Jack O'Lantern is "pure cinema," telling its story visually. A story. Not a vignette with just a setup and payoff, where a nondescript victim is stalked and killed by a gruesome but commonplace monster. But a story with fully-fleshed characters and emotional depth, a strong moral core and substantive theme.

The film opens with four young people on Halloween night. We never learn these characters' names (despite being listed on IMDB). Instead, they are archetypes. Which doesn't diminish their emotional depth. Considering the film's brevity, these characters are admirably distinctive, enough so as to engage audience empathy.

There is the Bully. He smashes Jack O'Lanterns with an ax. He seeks approval from the Mob, which is a guy and two girls. Yet while the guy and one girl cheer on the Bully, one of the girls, the Good Girl, conveys disapproval with her facial expression.

We empathize with her disapproval. And her disapproval helps support the impression that these smiling Jack O'Lanterns are alive. Helpless, harmless little creatures, happy to shine on their one night of the year before decaying. Yet the Bully kills them on their one night, because he's bigger, and stronger, and has an ax. We can imagine him bullying people the rest of the year.

The Bully continues smashing Jacks. The Good Girl hugs a Jack, tries to defend him, and finally dissuade the Mob from following the Bully.

The Bully gets his comeuppance. This is a well-trodden horror story arc, typical of Tales from the Crypt's moral dark fables. I doubt any horror film can be wholly original. But Jack O'Lantern treads this story arc especially well.

Jack O'Lantern lingers in the mind because of its strong emotional core. We revile the Bully. We love the Good Girl. We empathize with the Jacks. (Well, I did.)

Its emotional core is strengthened by a moral core. The man smashing the Jacks is wrong. The girl defending the Jacks is right. The film's outcome is just.

And the moral core supports a thematic core. Victims, and even former supporters, eventually turn on bullies. That's not always true in real life, but it doesn't lessen the theme's power or the tale's emotional catharsis.

If all Jack O'Lantern had to offer was a theme or moral message, it wouldn't be much of a film. Many anti-bullying films are hackneyed and trite. But Jack O'Lantern is also a very well made film.

I said how economical it was. Conveying much (an interesting, fast-paced story; emotionally engaging characters; thematic depth) in under five minutes. And no dialog. That efficiency is partially due to Tristan Noelle's cinematography.

Jack O'Lantern is beautiful. Shots are nicely composed, making efficient use of depth of field and rack focuses.

The sets are also economical. A house. A back alley. A city sidewalk. One scene only has the Bully and the Mob smashing Jacks on a city sideway, the Good Girl trying to protect one of the Jacks while resisting the Mob. Yet the beautifully lit Jacks, the stark street and alley, effectively convey the film's atmosphere and theme.

Jack O'Lantern is not subtle. Its story is lean, heavy-handed, and archetypal, stripped of all nonessential dramatic details. We never learn anything about these people aside from their attitudes toward smashing Jacks. But that's all we need to know for the film to work.

I can see a lesser filmmaker padding Jack O'Lantern to a half hour, opening with the characters' aimless chitchat as they plan for their upcoming Halloween, and who's dating who, and who will meet up with who at what party, planning to get some some beer, etc. Instead, director Le Drew and writer Malcolm Dewitt strip the story to its bare essentials, even dispensing with dialog. Such a minimalist approach might not work in every film, but it works very well in this one.

The actors also do their part to carry the film, especially the Bully (Christopher Gusella) and the Good Girl (Hayley Peppergrass). I don't know how talented they'd be with dialog. But their facial expressions and body language effectively create characters to the full extent necessary for this film.

Jack O'Lantern conveys the beautiful, dark mysteries of Halloween. Noelle's lighting evokes a Ray Bradburyesque atmosphere, assisted by contributions from Aaron Jackson (production design) and Abby Niederhauser (art direction).

For another short film with a strong emotional core, see my analysis of The Ghost and Us.


For more information about horror film themes, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.