Happy Summer, horror freaks! Festival season is ramping up and one of the most fun showcases that you can check out is the Etheria Film Festival. From the comfort of your own couch, you can check out a slate of amazing horror and sci-fi shorts from emerging women directors.
This fest always features a great collection of stories from exciting voices, and this year is no different. From the serious to the ridiculous and everything in between. The 2021 Etheria program offers a little something for everyone. I was able to check out all of the offerings and was really blown away by the talent on display here.
The Fourth Wall: Kelsey Bollig’s examination of life on the edge of the spotlight is one rife with frustration and rage. And it’s fabulous. Chloe is backstage preparing for her performance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She’s ready to make her mark—too bad her costars are getting on her last nerve. Between the girl dying to upstage her, the guy who will sleep with anything that will stand still, and the American actress who can barely cough out her lines in French, Chloe is about to lose it. Bollig captures this sensation of frustration on the cusp of rage perfectly, and lets it permeate her film through a fantastic use of lighting and camera movement. We perfectly get to experience the buildup and the inevitable explosion as Chloe finally lashes out, to the surprise (and dare I say, delight) of everyone in the audience.
Narrow: What if there is another reality residing just inches from where you are standing? It’s horrifying and dangerous, and it’s right there. So easy to breach. In Anna Chazelle’s Narrow, this reality lays in wait for a young woman named Sloan. She’s alone and walking through a deserted area, taking care to only step on the small sand path laid before her, just a few inches wide. As long as she remains on that path, she is safe. But sticking to the safety of the path is not so easy, as Sloan begins encountering mysterious and potentially dangerous phantoms along the way. Chazelle builds a dangerous world from the opening seconds of her film. It’s fascinating in that we immediately know that something is wrong and that Sloan is in some sort of danger, but the gradual reveal of the true nature of it all is well handled and distinctly memorable.
Eye Exam: Aislinn Clark’s Eye Exam is an entertaining, almost cheeky little tale. A woman answers an advertisement for a free eye exam and discovers that the invitation was a ploy for something much more sinister. You might think from the title that Clark is going to go the eyeball horror route and freak out the audience with the various tools and torture devices that lurk inside the optometrist’s office. But she plays it a little lighter and a little more fun, focusing instead on the perspective of the patient, and seeing (or not fully seeing) the events through her eyes. As she goes through the standard exam (look at the picture, tell me if it’s blurry), she notices that there is something else lurking in the room, just out of her field of vision. Production designer Alice Walker gives the film a fantastic 1960s aesthetic that really plays well into the vibe of the story.
You Will Never be Back: Ana and David bid each other goodbye one morning, just like any other morning. But it will be the last time that they do so. In Monica Mateo’s science fiction short, that goodbye is the only moment that Ana spends in the reality that she knows. As she begins walking down the hall of their apartment building, she sees a glowing blue light hovering at eye level. She examines it, both frightened and curious. That light begins to grow, proving to be a doorway to a space of shifting truths and realities. Though not entirely new, Mateo brings a fresh approach to this sci-fi trope and really conveys the fear and the frustration that Ana feels as she begins to understand her predicament and the new boundaries of the world in which she finds herself. It is both nightmarish and grounded, which makes the idea of it all that much more horrifying.
Bootstrapped: Katy Erin’s Bootstrapped is an adorably fun time travel movie. It centers on Ally and Naomi, a pair of grad students in a very happy relationship—until one day when a second version of Ally appears to Naomi and explains that she’s from the future. She has traveled back in time to explain all of the ways that their future breakup will disrupt and ruin the world that we know it, which is why the pair has to stay together at all costs. Really funny and charming, it’s the kind of film that is firmly rooted in the here and now, and uses genre tropes as a springboard for giving life to its more commonplace themes. Cute as hell and lots of fun.
The Gray: The Gray is Myra Aquino’s look at life in the afterlife. The film takes place in a drab civil service office where Francis Perez works, processing newly deceased souls into either heaven or hell, depending on their life choices. Purgatory, we find, is just as crappy for those working in it as those passing through. One day, Perez comes face to face with his 20-year-old son and is forced to make a difficult decision. The film is very funny, particularly when these two characters meet. Death and Perez’s absence have done nothing to quell the rocky nature of the pair’s relationship, and his son is just as rebellious in the afterlife as he was on Earth. It’s a sweet, light-hearted look at redemption.
Misfits: Ciani Rey Walker’s Misfits is a powerful and poignant film. Set on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, it centers on two activist sisters who lead a chapter of the Black Panther Party. As the night devolves into chaos, one of their friends is brutally beaten and the cop believed to be responsible is brought to the chapter house. The pair must bridge their differing ideologies in order to come to terms with both their past and present. The film is incredibly affecting. When the news of King’s death comes in over the radio, the house, which had been boisterous and full of joy just seconds earlier, is overcome with a heavy, weighted silence. So much is communicated in those quiet moments, and Walker expertly makes the most of every second. It’s a beautiful film that captures both America’s past and present and finds hope in the comfort of love and community.
Polvotron 5000: Silvia Conesa brings a funny and heart-touching film about human connection with Polvotron 5000. The year is 2065 and life is pretty crappy. We get an establishing shot of a big, futuristic city, but zero in on a drab and dilapidated section of it, as we watch a lone man enter a building. He goes into an old sex booth, intending to sleep, but accidentally activates the sexy hologram, who won’t leave him alone. Initial questions of “What is your name?” and “What do you like?” slowly start to turn into something else as the pair get to know one another in unexpected ways. The premise of the film is light-hearted, given the funny circumstances surrounding the hologram’s appearance, but Conesa really manages to capture the nature of loneliness in this film.
Who Goes There?: Creepy western is a great subgenre for horror, and director Astrid Thorvaldsen really brings the goods with Who Goes There? Set in 1880 on the plains of Minnesota, we follow three adult sisters living alone in a small house after their parents have died. One of them has been sick for over a month, growing weaker and weaker. The others do their best to care for her, but have striking differences in their approaches, neither of which seem to be working. One day, a dying man turns up at their door. They give him water and care and in return, he offers his expertise as a traveling doctor. The man, they soon learn, is not alone, and the thing they have invited in is dark and dangerous. It’s a fantastic story of possession and the unseen that walk among us. Thorvaldsen really makes great use of the setting and atmosphere, finding beauty and isolation in wide shots and the isolated locale.
Horror short films offer a lot of space for creativity and unique vision. They’re one of my favorite parts of just about any festival, and to have a whole program devoted to them is pretty fantastic. Etheria’s full slate is available on Shudder through the end of July, so if you’re a subscriber, you should definitely plan to check it out. And if you’re not yet subscribed to Shudder, isn’t it time you fixed that?