Themes of the Uncanny in Independent Short Films and Features

The Sur-REEL & Uncanny Film Fest, London sought to carve its niche as a film festival that promotes work layered with surrealism and themes of the Freudian uncanny. Highlighting the realms of the unconscious.

As regards the uncanny, there has been varied interpretations of Freud’s work. It’s generally agreed that in this respect he focused on aesthetics – the arts rather than real life. But where interpretations diverge is on the concept of the uncanny itself. The contemporary consensus is that the uncanny refers to subtle eerieness rather than full-on horror. That is, a nervy sense that all is not quite right – rather than a slasher charging through the streets with a Halloween mask on!

But a closer examination of Freud’s work shows this is not exactly true. Yes, he did refer to the subtleties – the sense that familiar and homely subjects and situations have unfamiliar, unhomely, uncanny qualities that make them slightly disturbing. But he also said the uncanny encompassed all things that give us a sense of fear and awareness of the supernatural. 

Below A Dark Wood, a short film by New York film director Bill Slovick has all the elements of the contemporary uncanny.

Below A Dark Wood

The director creates an eerie atmosphere where nothing explicit happens but everything implicit is sensed. The main character, who has recently lost a loved one, is out walking his dog in the local woods. The dog’s strange barking behaviour is not outwardly unusual but camera angles and clever handling of film language makes the viewer more than a little unsettled. 

A dog barking at nothing is not a new cinematic device for suspense yet Slovik’s direction gives you an insight into how the uncanny creeps down your spine without the fanfare of clumsy revelation. You’ll notice that the plot points aren’t the most important thing here; the atmosphere is.

Stanley Kubrick once claimed that ‘film should be more like music than fiction.’ He referred to the music that drives our sensory attention and emotions while watching a film. And by music, he speaks not just of film score and sound editing but the cinematography, pacing, colour-grading etc. which creates the overall atmosphere and feeling. The colour red is used here to great effect.

Below A Dark Wood

Similarly, Moth Night by Nicolas Toniollo is a stunning feature-length example of classic uncanny scenarios.

Moth Night

Again, the plot is not the most important thing. Yes, we discover that lead character Lira (Luciana Froes) is joining a mysterious acting circle for reasons unknown (metaphorical actors?). But the prickly sensations you get when watching the movie unfold takes precedence. Specifically, those eerie silences – which often break film grammar –  and the unbroken stares during conversations that break norms of everyday behaviour.

All of this is deliberate. Toniollo becomes a conductor of eerie dispositions in the human psyche rather than merely a storyteller. But make no mistake, Toniollo is a storyteller of remarkable quality, having won the Best Screenplay Award at the Sur-REEL & Uncanny Film Fest. He just chooses to relay narrative information to the audience in an unconventional way.

In the experimental film, The Rose Behind The Mask by Nacio Recio all the identical-looking masked figures are schoolchildren.

These themes of faceless mirroring are all found in Freud’s uncanny thesis. The classroom is, in a sense, the great doppelganger and here all the pupils lose their individuality in scenes of horror film-style uniformity. Recio’s excellent editing gets this sense of factory-like doubling and duplication just right. The regimental soundtrack gives us a marching mode to underscore the eerie uniformity.

And in Swedish director Matilda Friman’s short film The Last Picture Show, again, the pace of the editing sets an eerie atmosphere. But at the opposite tempo.

The lingering pauses before characters respond in conversations are uncommon in contemporary film grammar so our senses immediately perk up. Two unintroduced characters in a cab. It’s very subtle. Just a few seconds out – and very deliberate – but enough to inject the scene with an uneasy, uncanny vibe.

Matilda won a Silver Award for Best Editing and Bronze Award for Best Director at the Sur-REEL & Uncanny Film Fest and this work best shows her festival triumphs. Some wide-shot scenes of grim city life bring to mind animated clay modelling and are juxtaposed next to unconnected scenes of passengers crying on a train. And when bound together, delivered with a keen appreciation of the spirit of the uncanny.

Written by Eddie Saint-Jean

Published by Slipstream Media

Arts Media and Production Company