Directed by Steve Desmond
Written by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman
Starring Caitlin Carmichael, Ione Skye, Christopher Wiehl, Joey Luthman
Short Film Review by Euan Franklin
In a dark, well-furnished underground bunker, nine-year-old Jenn (Caitlin Carmichael) peruses a house-design catalogue – wondering what it’s like on the outside. Her family keep her locked inside to keep her safe from the “monsters”. But Jenn harbours a desire to escape. Despite the frightening descriptions from her brother Isaac (Joey Luthman), she unlocks the heavy metallic door while everyone’s gone and walks outside. She discovers that this world is far more complicated than she’d thought.
Writer-Director Steve Desmond achieves what every short filmmaker dreams of doing: he squeezes a feature film into eleven minutes. This is no small task, and he executes every element perfectly. Each character is vivid, possessing clear and appealing idiosyncrasies that guide us through the story with our eyes stapled to the screen. Even the inconsequential father, Henry (Christopher Wiehl), presents a memorable, tough-American demeanour despite his regrettably limited screen time.
But it is ultimately Caitlin Carmichael’s deep and multifaceted performance that drives our attention. Casting directors spend millions seeking that sort of talent from young actors, and Desmond was lucky to find her. Her character, Jenn, is more sensitive than other tough little girls in similar stories. Usually, these archetypes have to go through some traumatic experience that removes their innocence and makes them strong. With Jenn, she is strong but has no idea about the world outside, making her sensitive to harsh realities. She is forced to battle with her weaknesses and, as a result, her character is more human.
The story is ferocious in its twists and turns, never leaving inconsiderate pauses that stunt the action. The thrill is in the mystery. Although Monsters is labelled as a horror, there’s nothing particularly frightening about it. But the fear is in not knowing, exactly, what’s going on. When events escalate, we feel like we have no control. We are scared because we don’t know what’s happening, but there’s also an overbearing curiosity to see what’s beyond the door – much like Jenn. In this respect, Monsters has echoes of Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane in its crippling claustrophobia and lack of any clear answers.
The issue with the short film is that, by the end, it feels like a well-designed pitch instead of a tightly knit short. Some of the narrative integrity is stripped away by the inconclusive climax, promising more chapters to the story. Desmond clearly made Monsters with an unsure intention of extending it into a feature film, which is probably why the slice is deliciously thick for eleven minutes. And stuck on the end is a superfluous credits sequence that, though superbly done, transparently rips off the Walking Dead titles. Long credit sequences in short films rarely work, so I can only guess it’s part of the pitch.
But, the film is strong and exciting. Desmond possesses a remarkable grip on story and character, especially for a filmmaker with only two other shorts to his name (both made eleven years prior to Monsters). It could easily play as an extended trailer to a feature film, and I would be the first to go and watch it. And despite not feeling like a short film, I have no doubt that Monsters will lead onto bigger and better things. There’s no mystery there.
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