Familiar – short form suburban horror


A little while back I received an e-mail from a producer, Zach Green, who’d made a short Canadian horror film with writer/director Richard Powell called Familiar — and he sent me a link to where it could be viewed (for reviewer’s eyes only) and he wondered if I might review it.

I sort of put it off for a bit. Partly — other things were occupying my time. Partly — my computer is wery, wery slow. And partly because the reviews I post at my website — The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies (& TV) — are for the most part feature films and TV series. I don’t really review a lot of short films — there are so many out there, that could end up being all I had time for! And short films aren’t really that widely distributed or accessible, kind of negating the notion of my site which is a populist website devoted to Canadian productios.

Still, I had already been thinking of writing a post about the topic of short films (and still might). And, indeed, saying how short films could be a good chance to see Canadian filmmakers, and Canadian actors, because often Canadian feature films are too focused on the international market place, often reserving the key roles for imported actors. As well, short films can often be a chance to really let the talent strut there stuff. An actor in a 20 minute short film might get a meatier part, and more subtle nuances to play, than if they were the lead in a 90 minute feature!

At the same time — I can run hot or cold on horror and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to sit through some gory, cheesy, horror flick, only to give it a bad review (which the producer would hate) and for a film which most people would never see.

So I was kind of putting it off, not really sure I’d like the film, not sure how to write a politely negative review (nice score, dude) and whether I really had any place to post it anyway.

Then one day I decided to bite the bullet and at least watch a few minutes of it, just to say I had.

A few minutes into it I figured, y’know, maybe I could find a place to write about it. A few more minutes, I thought, y’know, I really should make the space to comment. And by the end? Okay, yeah, it’s worth writing about.

Familiar is actually pretty darn good.

It’s a short film (about 24 min), with one assumes a modest budget, but it’s slickly put together. It’s a minimalist film (only three characters in limited locations) but the narrative is shaped so that that’s all it needs to be.

It starts out a seeming disturbing psychological creeper about a mild mannered man who goes through his daily life, with a wife and teen-age daughter, seeming normal and polite…while underneath he’s seething mass of psychotic resentment and hate. He hates his life, he hates his family, he can’t wait to be free of them all.

Not symptomatic of a happy ending!

But then the movie starts to skew a little left as we begin to question whether it is all just a  psychological thriller…or whether there’s something stranger, more preternatural at work.

Or is it all in his mind?

Given it’s a Canadian short horror film, it’s perhaps appropriate to label it as shamelessly Cronenberg-esque in its mix of low-key, psychological undercurrents…and some outrageous biological horror! It gives the film a certain sense of provenance — like watching a British horror flick that is obviously inspired by the Hammer Film productions.

It is a short film, so it’s not like it’s a particularly complex story — or that it necessarily takes you some place radically different from where you thought it was headed. But with that said, neither is it just spinning its wheels for 20 some minutes. There is development, some twists, some unexpected turns. It’s well put together, from the production side (lighting, visuals, etc.) to the acting, writing, and direction.

I didn’t recognize the actors, though according to the IMDB lead actor Robert Nolan seems to do a lot of work in short films. It’s a powerful, well shaped performance — mixing a lot of pantomime (just conveying nuances with his face and eyes) and voice over. As I said, sometimes a short film is actually a better showcase for an actor than a feature film, where all the nuances and little twitches and ticks get shouldered aside in favour of the bigger plot. The performance here, as well as the writing and direction, convincingly capture the character’s duality — the sense of the gradually unravelling psychotic, yet whose amiable veneer rarely slips when with his family. A lot of productions would over play that, to the point where you couldn’t believe the other characters were ignorant of what was going on…or conversely, so underplay it, you don’t really believe in the danger bubbling beneath.

Likewise, Astrida Auza and Cathryn Hostick as his wife and daughter, though with less to do, are effective. Particularly Auza as the wife.

The writer also directed (or the director wrote the script, however you wish to perceive it) and Powell wears both hats well. The script walks the right line of subtlety; as I say, where we can believe the others aren’t aware of what’s going on, while hitting the appropriate beats, knowing when a sequence has gone as far as it can and we need the next plot complication, the next shoe to be dropped, to keep us intrigued. And with just a touch of wry humour — a hint, here and there. Likewise, the direction is well done — reflected in the performances, but also in the composition and scenes. At one point the characters are supposed to be returning from a hospital and, whether for budget reasons, or time, or just mood, we don’t see the hospital. Instead, we just see an almost subliminal shot of a character’s wrist with a plastic hospital band on it. It’s not even that you see the band and consciously say: “oh, I guess they’re returning from the hospital”. You just know they are, but it might take you a moment to realize how you know that (the context helps, of course).

As mentioned, there’s definitely an early David Cronenberg vibe at work — but funnily, maybe better than Cronenberg’s early stuff. It goes for a similar sterile, aloofness…but without entirely losing the human warmth. You believe in the humanity of the characters, including the wife, rather than feeling that they are stiff props to illustrate a thesis on suburban conformity or something…even though that’s a sub-text.

Granted, whether that’s because Powell is better than Cronenberg was at that stage in his career, or whether the industry has sufficiently evolved that he’s just working at a higher level of professionalism (money, crew, cast) than Cronenberg had access to in his day, I don’t know.

Short films are often seen as calling cards by those who put them together — a way to introduce themselves and get doors to open on the road to making features. And viewed that way: Familiar is a good, fancily embossed card for all concerned to have in their back pocket.

Post script: I realize I should also give a nod to the special effects people. As I say: I’m not sure what the budget was, but the ooky stuff was effectively done, too.

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