Monday, 16 November 2015


I've said it before and I'll say it again — horror shorts rock.
What's more, there are plenty of extremely talented filmmakers plying their trade in short films right now, so film festivals are showing plenty of shorts of an incredible calibre.
One such film that has been extremely well received on the festival circuit recently is AJ Briones' The Smiling Man.
Luckily the very talented Briones was kind enough to grant me access to the film.
Would I be grinning after watching it? Or is this one nothing to smile about?
Read on...


Dir: AJ Briones
Starring: Abbi Chally, Strange Dave, Melissa Chally

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here as this is a short, but continue at your own risk.

A cute little girl (Abbi Chally), home alone watching classic cartoons, comes to realise that she may not be by herself after all.
Innocently following a trail of floating balloons throughout her house, the little girl draws ever closer to the nightmarish Smiling Man (Strange Dave) — and the dark source of his insane amusement...

WHY IT WORKS: Simplicity is often key when it comes to making an effective short. Without the additional runtime that a full-length feature affords, a short film needs to be leaner and punchier — it should be able to get in there, grab you fast and hit you hard before the end credits roll.
Director Briones understands this and boy does he deliver!
Arguably the film's biggest strength is its gripping and imaginative visuals. Briones may have built a career in visual effects (his work includes serious heavy-hitters such as Avatar; Iron Man 2; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Tomorrowland) but he also shows a fantastic talent for framing and composing a shot. Cinematographer David Holechek ensures that that each and every scene looks beautiful — this may be a short but it looks every bit as a polished as a big studio feature. There is a wonderful use of colour throughout — the innocent bright hues of the trail of balloons make a striking contrast to the darkness of the story and the shadowy hallways of the house. Through subtle but effective camera trickery and some nice set dressing and props (not to mention the decidedly spooky black and white cartoons on the girl's TV) Briones is able to transform what should be a lovely family home into a maze-like warren that descends deep into the bowels of Hell. 
Briones takes a pretty simple premise — it could quite easily be an extended scene from a longer film — but through skilful camerawork and assured direction he is able to wring the scenario for every single drop of suspense.
Of course it doesn't hurt that the adorable Abbi Chally is such a sweet little child — you can't help but care about her. She shows some great acting chops for such tender years and even though she isn't given much in the way of lines to deliver, her reaction work and physical acting is top notch. She's a small girl and the use of some clever camera angles just heightens the sense of her diminutive stature. 
These camera angles are also used to great effect in keeping the titular Smiling Man just out of frame for as long as possible (the scene in which young Chally's body is used to block the Smiling Man on the stairs, instead revealing just his creepy, skeletal hand is especially effective), building the anticipation and dread as it does so. An overhead view shot late on is another standout, giving us the briefest of glimpses of Strange Dave's monstrous villain.
And it is the extremely strange indeed Dave that plays a huge part in the success of the film. Part ghoul, part psychotic clown, The Smiling Man is a truly nightmarish creation. Dave's performance is spectacularly creepy — quiet and childlike yet bristling with malevolence. He combines fluid, graceful movements and gestures with a hunched, twitching bestial posture, to maximum unnerving effect. From his darting eyes to the extravagant manner in which he applies his 'make-up', every single gesture and tic is used to imbue this hideous creation with just a little more demented character. It's a show-stopping turn and, combined with some brilliantly effective prosthetics make the Smiling Man instantly iconic.
Ultimately, the only problem I had with The Smiling Man was that it left me wanting even more. Here's hoping that Briones and Dave can join forces once again to give us more of this magnificent movie monster in the future. But for now, this is a superbly executed and lean exercise in carefully cultivated fear. With a great cast, some superb effects work and an assured confident director who knows how to shoot horror, The Smiling Man is an absolute must-see.

SO WHERE'S IT AT: The Smiling Man is still knocking audiences dead on the festival circuit. Check out the list of upcoming screenings at the film's official web site here for more information on how you can catch it.
Alternatively check out the short's official Facebook page for news. Give it a Like while you're there too, show some love!

10 WORD WRAP-UP: A simple, lean and fantastically executed exercise in gripping terror

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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

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