★★★ Directed by: Eric Bair Written by: Eric Bair Starring: Carol Hannan, James E. Clark, Joseph Tanner Paul Short Film Review by: Chris Olson
Stories of overcoming personal struggles are always more compelling when they originate from an authentic source. Filmmaker Eric Bair’s short film, Descensus ad Mortem, does this by approaching an emotional topic and exploring it with oodles of dramatic tension and palpable foreboding.
Carol Hannan plays a widow whose recent loss of her husband (James E. Clark) is made worse by the onset of bathmophobia. No, it's not the fear of baths, but the fear of stairs. Clutching the urn in which her husband's ashes now rest, our protagonist sits isolated on the upper floor of her beachfront property, terrified to descend. However, we learn that before her husband popped his clogs, he set his wife one final quest, the treasure of which is buried in the sand multiple flights down from their home.
Honing in on the central character's sense of crippling fear and isolation, Descensus ad Mortem creates a gripping atmosphere that is always one slippery footstep away from tragedy. As Hannan grapples with her phobia as well as her growing determination to find her balance, the audience is cemented into the narrative and become her most eager champion, silently encouraging her to keep going. This was an impressive tone to create and maintain, allowing for the slightly more televisual aspects of the drama to be forgiven.
The short film is heavy-handed with its use of cinematic flair and sound design at times. A crazily varied sequence showing the journey up the stairs was unnecessarily distracting, and the saccharine score that plays over a flashback sequence was borderline nauseating. Had the film opted for a more restrained approach it could have relied more heavily on the solid fundamentals, which were a good story and believable characters. That being said, Bair does pepper his movie with plenty of poignant moments that are enhanced by the visuals, such as the overhead shot of the ocean which captured a breathtaking sense of time, life, and the human journey.
An, ironically, sturdy performance from Hannan and the emotion clout of Bair’s story make this a powerful short film that gets slightly let down by a couple of cinematic missteps. Far from toppling over, though, Descensus ad Mortem keeps the audience gripped, quite literally, to the handrail, leaving fingernail marks as proof.