“Undertaker” (2021) – Short Film Review

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ***** out of *****

“Undertaker” (2021), from director Chris Esper, is a masterful meditation on the inherent need for mankind to understand life. It also concerns the confusion that arises as we attempt to comprehend our wants, desires, and surroundings. The ten-minute short film also focuses in on how fleeting our time is on Earth. This is cleverly illustrated in the piece through several efficient and effective sequences that range from the commonplace (the search for a perfect cup of coffee) to the transformative (uncovering a key romantic relationship). Furthermore, the account can also be viewed as a singular glimpse of the world that may arise after death.

As is the core component of a great number of works by Esper, the universal relatability in these themes, as well as the compassionate and upfront manner with which they are addressed, is emotionally compelling from the first frame to the last. The same can be said of the brilliantly handled symbolism inherent in the project. Because of this connection, onlookers effortlessly comprehend the mentality of the lead of the exercise, referred to as only The Undertaker (rendered in a terrific, quietly layered, and mature portrayal by Dustin Teuber).  The gorgeous black and white cinematography from Colin Munson adds an air of nostalgia to the narrative. It beautifully compliments these qualities as well as its noirish demeanor.

The deceptively simple story, which involves a man realizing that everything around him is not what it he believes it to be, is given superb depth via the wonderfully penned, intimate yet ambitious screenplay by Kris Salvi. The script is especially striking in demonstrating sharp dialogue. Such speech capably teases the fundamental mystery The Undertaker is attempting to unlock about himself and his environment. This is without ever being wholly direct. Such measures add a heightened sense of elegant poetry to the proceedings that is simultaneously theatrical and organic. In an equally successful decision in this arena, the characters are also cryptic.

The excursion also triumphs in terms of its secondary roles. Justin Thibault is memorable in his brief turn, which occurs in the engaging opening segments, as Passenger. Salvi is equally good in the understated, yet gloriously poignant, final scene as The Driver. Teddy Pryor as The Identical, Michael Lepore as Waiter, and Jen Drummond as Customer also make a considerably indelible impression.

From a technical angle, the undertaking is also outstanding. The stylish, yet nuanced and thoughtful, direction from Esper is a highlight. His editing is also proficient. The music from Steven Lanning-Cafaro is appropriately gentle and spellbinding. It captures the spirit of the development with tremendous grace. Moreover, the score is used both delicately and sparingly. Such a method punctuates the underlying sentiment of certain instances. This is without taking away from the immersive value of the construction. Continually, the production design from Gabrielle Rosson and sound from Ryan Collins and Jay Sheehan is just as remarkable.

Playing like a condensed, yet still wildly inventive and timelessly relevant, episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), “Undertaker” is a confidently paced, smartly structured, and unforgettable example of cinematic art. The dreamlike drama once again showcases Esper as an incredible talent who consistently crafts top-tier material. His latest venture is another unique, intelligent, breathtaking, powerful, and refined achievement that will assuredly resonate with spectators of all degrees. Extraordinary on all fronts and endlessly absorbing, it is at the top of the list of my favorite short films of the year.

“Strawberry Lane” – (Short Film Review)

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.

“Strawberry Lane” (2016), the outstanding and enigmatic twenty-three minute and fifteen second debut from writer-directors Jeremy Arruda and Aaron Babcock, is thematically and visually designed to unnerve. Arruda and Babcock have created a living nightmare on celluloid. This is via a collection of sinisterly striking images. All of which, even down to the otherwise simplistic visage of the child’s doll and ventriloquist’s dummy casually spied in the second half, are guaranteed to linger in the subconscious long after they are viewed. The upshot of these brilliantly delivered constituents is undoubtedly an extension of horror in its purest sense. We, the audience, are continually made to feel uncomfortable, apprehensive and alarmed. Yet, we are wholly engaged and intrigued throughout. This is by the notions and scenarios that are unfolding. Likewise, those that could potentially be right around the corner. In an era where most related yarns are more than content to go the safe route, with jump scares and routine motions galore, Arruda and Babcock give us a presentation of credible, sobering and unwavering darkness. It is one that is anything but predictable. The unsettling quote from American serial killer Albert Fish glimpsed in the opening moments set the clinical atmosphere and violent chain of events which are to follow quickly and proficiently.

Adding to the tonal ingenuity at hand, this wonderfully creepy concoction derives heavy inspiration from avant-garde maestro David Lynch, most notably Eraserhead (1977), as well as the chairman of many controversial comedies, John Waters. The eerily erected commencing and closing credits, made increasingly incredible and unflinchingly bizarre by the deliberately old-fashioned music from Arruda, make this point sharply evident. Such augments an endlessly intense, marvelously macabre impression. It is one which pulsates proudly through every frame of the proceedings. Such beautifully mirrors the exploitation features of the 1970’s. This is with Tobe Hooper’s quintessential masterpiece, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), frequently coming to the forefront. Yet, the anti-heroes that pose as our leads are appropriately repulsive, menacing and impossibly mesmerizing. Such is in the tradition of the best cinematic villains. The duo of murderers who form this uncommon “love story”, as it is declared in the sub-title of the depiction, Harry Meyland (in a performance by Kris Salvi that is terrific) and Billy (in an enactment by Justin Thibault that is just as accomplished as that of Salvi) summon a certain parallel to Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill. Such iconic entities were found in Jonathan Demme’s Best Picture Academy Award- winning  The Silence of the Lambs (1991). These aforesaid mirrors to the past also provide an undercurrent of nostalgia to the piece. Such makes the overall feel of the labor akin to watching a long-lost classic for the first time.

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All of this is punctuated, memorably and appropriately, by an extended, ardently gut-wrenching and impressive finale. Such readily calls to mind the oft banned invention of fright, Nekromantik (1987), from German auteur Jorg Buttgereit. The combination of these influences results in an artistically satisfying and courageous endeavor. Such is especially true when considering that these sights are set within the haunting, gorgeously gritty cinematography conducted by Babcock. This is also an undeniably potent display of the behind the lens capabilities Arruda and Babcock encompass. Their tough, taut and meticulously paced script, co-authored by Dave Orten, compliments these attributes splendidly. Arruda and Babcock utilize a uniquely fashioned, boldly constructed narrative. It is one that wisely leaves as much to the captivated psyche to ponder as it paints explicitly blood red. The team craft sparsely delivered, but authentic, dialogue. Such casts a painstaking eye for believability in all details of the effort. The plot, which contains just a touch of pulp, is gripping. Such makes the undertaking seamless; a deft exhibition of raw, uncompromising aptitude.

Arruda and Babcock chronicle an unexpected conflict that erupts with the introverted transvestite Harry Meyland. He is a psychotic maniac. More specifically, one who abducts and slaughters the women of the local Magdalene Escort Service. This act is made more dangerous by the fact that it is where he is employed. All the while, the near demonic sounding voice of his mother (exceptionally issued by Arruda) guides him along. Yet, he encounters a grave challenge. This is as Billy, who delights in the same fatal indulgences, takes Harry’s work into his own hands. What starts as a competition between Harry and Billy soon evolves into a strange affinity; one that is as strangely absorbing and twisted as the fiction itself.

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The composition also benefits from other various components that are just as attention-garnering. Crystal Correa is phenomenal as Trisha. Geneve Lanouette is just as astounding in her turn as The Captive Woman. Carlo Barbieri III, Arruda and Kristen McNulty play Masked Figure 1-3 respectively. Their presence is unforgettable. They are seen fleetingly in an assembly of surprising instances which are heavily reminiscent of Bryan Bertino’s criminally underrated The Strangers (2008). Such apparently random illustrations hypnotically reinforce the brute, jarring strength of the visuals herein. A death sequence that transpires in the beginning minutes, worthy of Hitchcock in conception and delivery, only reaffirm this trait. Such is greatly enhanced by the slickly constructed editing Arruda and Babcock invoke.

Shot over the course of two years, this Zeta Wave Productions release is guaranteed to be a new favorite of fellow genre addicts. More importantly, it signifies the arrival of a tremendous pair of filmmakers. Both of whom have an obvious admiration for and wide-reaching knowledge of the history of moving picture terror. Best of all, they are equally versed in how to evoke fear and confidently, expertly project it on-screen. “Strawberry Lane” confirms this at every turn. The outcome of this is an astonishing tour de force; a brief affair that is far more satisfying, evocative and in-depth than most full-length exertions. That only offers further proof of their photographic command. Because of this, I greatly anticipate what gruesome marvels Arruda and Babcock bring to life in upcoming collaborations.

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