Film review by Nathanial Eker
Indie horror and the city of London go together like peas and carrots. Perhaps its the ready-made mise en scène, characterised by dingy lighting, urban sets, and darkly dressed protagonists. Or perhaps its the years of spooky stories and urban legends that have bestowed it a mystical quality that many a British horror filmmaker have attempted to adopt as part of their raison d'être. Last Dance looks to capture the horrors of walking through London after midnight by delivering genuine scares; 'jump' or otherwise. However, a lack of narrative focus courtesy of a misplaced adoration for its internet-folkloric source material irreparably damages what could have been a wonderfully creepy short.
Daisy walks home from a night out alone to find her parents missing and the house deserted. After receiving terrifying pictures of herself in the shower, she runs back into the dark night, before encountering a spectral dancing man with an eerie smile.
Directors Danny Gibbons and Alex Scott want the underlying tragedy of Last Dance to be the disturbingly familiar story of an innocent girl missing, taken by an unseen force. However, the true villain here is a poor script that takes its Creepypasta roots too literally and fails to craft anything resembling a three-act structure. Things happen without rhyme or reason and for most of its runtime, the film can't decide whether its a supernatural haunting or a grounded, gritty stalking. While technically impressive, fast-paced editing and an obscuring depth of field can't save Last Dance from its own mediocre storytelling.
However, there is an unnerving build of tension throughout, as Gibbons and Scott certainly know how to establish an atmosphere. Slow pans of the camera and a frighteningly effective soundtrack utilising high-octave stringed instruments hint at a talented crew, making it all the more frustrating that the film never builds to anything. There are hints that Daisy may be in some kind of hell-scape, as a short radio bulletin tells us that she's been missing for three days, but this is a reach as long as the dancing man's unnaturally wide smile. Spoon-feeding expository information is one thing, but the audience needs more to work with than this.
Then we get to the man himself, waltzing around a quiet London park with a horrifying grin and an alarming penchant for the 'clown charge'. Yes, he's creepy. Yes, Philip Gyford delivers a stunning performance purely through abnormal physicality. Yes, this situation would be undeniably horrifying if one encountered it in Hyde Park at 3am. But none of this matters when we have zero alignment with Daisy. Who is she? What are her thoughts, fears, and regrets? The character isn't aided by a weak performance by Shian Denovan who serves as an adequate lead, but fails to convincingly sell what little dialogue she's given.
While the filmmaker's obsession with telling this urban legend as faithfully as possible is problematic, their love of canonised classic horror shines through this portrait of darkness. Intertextual references are aplenty and are skilfully placed to not becoming distracting, while giving the initiated few the chance to excitedly recognise their favourite horror iconography. While many will spot the reverent cues to Hitchcock in a certain shower scene, the lighting department's shadowed homage to Nosferatu will likely go missed by the layman viewer, while simultaneously giving the film's imagery a welcome splash of german expressionism.
Undeniably, Last Dance reeks of misplaced adoration for its source text. Creepypastas are not seen as high art for a reason; they are by their very nature amateurish, and while a skeletally thin man or one with an unnaturally large grin may be striking images, they require a spectacular screenwriter to craft a convincing narrative around them. See 2018's Slender Man for an example of how not to adapt internet folklore. It feels spiteful to compare this indie short to that film, as with a budget in the millions it had no excuse. However, as much as I liked the slow build of Last Dance, I was ultimately left befuddled and frustrated by its conclusion; and I've read the source material!
Ultimately, it's an excellent showreel piece for its cinematographer, composer, and editor, but when taken as a whole, it fails to tell a convincing story.