Welcome back to Dirty Shorts, our ongoing series of reviews of short horror films. Sometimes, we’ll have a theme, sometimes a stream of thought. What I’m presenting to you is part fun house ride, part classroom, and part getting wasted with your buddies on weekend. This is a horror series, but we’re here to show you the gems. It’ll be scary sometimes, funny, perhaps even thought provoking, but it won’t be boring.
Directed by Ben Franklin, Anthony Melton. (For those of you wondering, I did check: this particular Ben Franklin is not a time traveling founding father here to save our country by making horror films)*
THE STORY: In the fine tradition of responding to freaky-aggressive bullies with the disproportionate use of occult magic, I present thee with The Birch, the story of a teenager responding to a freaky-aggressive bully with the disproportionate use of occult magic.
THE RUNDOWN: Thirty seconds into The Birch, the skill involved in this production has already shown its weight. The cinematography and production design are top notch for a short film and frankly outclasses many feature length offerings. Shaun (Aaron Thomas Ward) already cuts a wounded figure with his body language suggesting a talent in control of his craft. Then we meet Kris (Charlie Venables), a bully so bully that the bully bullied a bully until the bully couldn’t bully anymore. Kris is crafted in the Stephen King tradition of teenage antagonists who are exclusively mean spirited, life threateningly aggressive, and possibly a closeted, violent homosexual (that most un-woke of tropes).*
That being said, upon repeated viewings for this article, I never doubted the commitment to these parts these two young men displayed. There were no actors. Just Shaun and Kris. Kris beats seven shades of shit out of Shaun and Shaun takes off running. Another possibility: Charlie Venables is a method actor and actually wanted to beat the piss out of Aaron Thomas Ward. Actors, man…
So we’re off to a good start: it looks good, the sound is good, the actors are slightly hyperbolic but it adds to the whole. I feel okay watching this. Then the warning signs begin. Shaun takes possession of the nicest and best preserved grimoire in the history of demon summoning. I feel like I’m nitpicking but then I feel totally justified in this complaint: would it have hurt someone to drop this prop in the dirt or maybe pour a Pepsi on it? Make it look old unless the in-universe explanation is that this dying little old lady lives down the street from an occult bookstore (or she got it through Amazon) and felt like giving her grandson a fresh copy. Not a big deal. I’m still with it. What it reminded me of actually was the grimoire used in the technically suspect but relentlessly ambitious Canadian production (and legendary MST3K episode) The Final Sacrifice.
Now…you’re young. You’re bullied. You have a book that will summon some sort of demon, you don’t know what, but you’re going to use this thing to get revenge. You read some words out loud, stuff happens. Keep in mind this is in the middle of sunlit day. You would have trouble looking at your iPhone lock screen on low intensity in the middle of what can only be described as “average weather in England”. Then the Birch monster shows up in the background…and you can see it pretty clearly. Then some more stuff happens. Then we see Shaun and Kris looking up to see the monster. Then we see it close up.
Then it lost me. Le f**king sigh.
In retrospect, the greatest disservice done to The Birch is the thumbnail that has been used for every version on the film online uses the Birch monster’s face. I’ve already had time to look at it. It’s sort of like using a shot of Kevin Spacey as John Doe covered in blood for the cover art of Se7en. Beyond that, the other disservice is the time held on the Birch monster.
The Birch monster’s design is good to be sure, maybe too good. It’s a safe bet that a massive chunk of time and the money raised for this film was spent on the design and the construction of the monster. The problem is the edit seems to linger on the monster. Even Kris sort of hung around with the audience for a second to examine the creature’s features before being killed offscreen (booooooooo).
So, Shaun, holding a knife and covered in blood, stands over the murdered bully and is embraced by the maternal hand of the Birch monster. End of story.*** This short has everything going for it. It just feels like a piece where the sum of its parts is not as great as the individual people involved with it. It just as maybe a little too in love with its monster. What’s the alternative? Moving on to the next project. There’s so much promise in The Birch. It just couldn’t stick the landing.
WHAT MOVIE SHOULD I WATCH AFTER THIS? The Craft, The Blair Witch Project (1999), Phenomena aka Creepers (1985), Black Mirror S3EP3 “Shut Up and Dance”.
*Mental Note: More research is needed but how is the idea of a time traveling Ben Franklin not gained any traction in our society?
**The character of Patrick Hockstetter, specifically his incarnation in the novel IT, is the epitome of this trope.
***Ask Kenny from the “Shut Up and Dance” episode of Black Mirror if it’s the end.
Images courtesy of YouTube
Writer. Wrestling mark. Dog parent. Halloween enthusiast. Always wondering about the me on Earth 616 and what he/she/it’s up to. Currently residing in Los Angeles.