31 Days to Scare ~ Hulu’s Bite Size Halloween 2022

The Facts:

Synopsis: Shot in seven different countries, the third season of 20th Digital Studio’s Bite Size Halloween series of spooky shorts on Hulu takes on topical issues such as racism, gender, parenthood, sexuality, and identity.
Stars: Tatiana Maslany, Brendan Hines, Misha Osherovich, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Lin Shaye, David Costabile, Rebekka Johnson, Kate Nash
Director: Nuhash Humayun, Sam Max, Michelle Krusiec, Zoey Martinson, Michael Schwartz, Conscian Morgan, Brandon Espy, Samantha Aldana, Jon K Jones, Nikki Taylor-Roberts, Carlo Ledesma, Robin Takao, Minsun Park, Coral Amiga, Nicole Hartley, Luka Wilson, Natalie Metzger, Rebekka Johnson, Kate Nash
Rated: NR
Running Length: Between 2 and 15 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  I know you know this feeling. You’re flipping through your queue looking for something scary to watch on a weekend night leading up to Halloween and you can’t manage to commit to anything. You’ve either seen everything or can’t bring yourself to watch another film with zombies created by a deadly virus that has decimated most of the planet. Hulu must have heard enough grumblings about this within their employees’ families each holiday season because they started producing a series of short films for their Huluween celebration a few years back.

Dubbed Bite Size Horror, the programming provides opportunities for directors from underrepresented groups (women, racial & ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities) to submit their horror-themed shorts for a run leading up to Halloween. More popular shorts in past years have been considered for feature-length films, and two upcoming Hulu Original Movies, Grimcutty (out 10/10) and Matriarch (out 10/21) began their life in this programming block. Easy to digest with lengths running anywhere from 2 minutes to 15, these 20 spooky shorts for 2022 aren’t all winners but even the least successful of the bunch has a decidedly creative point of view.

Lauren Mei in NIAN

Despite the presence of current She-Hulk star Tatiana Maslany and her husband Brendan Hines, Lin Shaye, and musician Kate Nash, most actors participating in these shorts aren’t familiar faces. This approach gives the Bite Size Halloween shorts room to breathe, living or dying on their moxie and not on how well-received their recognized cast members are. Speaking of Maslany and Hines, Hulu’s featuring their short SNATCHED quite a lot in their advertising, specifically Maslany’s blazing blue eyes. I found this short to be on the lower end of the pile, with its message of acceptance/tolerance only being possible if aliens invaded our planet to be unintentionally regressive.

Things start fun with NIAN, following a Chinese American girl’s show and tell day that takes a deadly turn when the ancient mask of a mythological creature goes on the offense toward her high school tormentor. The acting gets iffy, but the premise is solid. Though bloody with scary make-up effects, as a short TICKS didn’t work for me at all, and neither did BUG, which finds a woman losing her annoying daughter in the woods but getting something nasty back when she returns.

Yvonne Campbell in NZU

Entries that stood out early on were NZU, making great use of its short time frame to turn a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?-ish awkward family first meeting into an exploration of past transgression stretching back generations. Director Conscian Morgan has something unique here, and if Hulu is looking for something to throw money at to develop further, this is a good one to keep an eye on. I’d also like to see INCOMPLETE fill out more. Featuring Marchant Davis as a man terrorized by his breathalyzer machine (it’s more menacing than it sounds), director Zoey Martinson gets a lot of mileage out of a simple premise. Then there’s FOREIGNERS ONLY, a disturbing trip to Bangladesh where we learn just how far a local man will go to usurp the country’s notorious welcoming of tourists while rejecting the needs of their people. This short was frightening, so take my advice and watch this in the daytime.

REMOTE is almost near the bottom of the list, bungling its sci-fi story with lugubrious editing, a barely coherent screenplay, and effects that feel more like a first-run experiment. This feels like true amateur filmmaking compared to other shorts playing alongside it. 

Titles like LIVE BAIT, MR. CROCKET, ANGELS, FRACTURE, GO TO BED RAYMOND, SLEEP STUDY, ALONE WITH HIM, TRESPASSERS, and RIDE OR DIE are serviceable but forgettable entries that were neither here nor there for this viewer. Do yourself a favor and watch THE HERITAGE on an empty stomach. I’m not one to gag when watching obvious special effects, but this one is so disgusting that I watched almost everything with my eyes closed. Maybe that means it was a success in the eyes of the filmmakers, but it’s pretty revolting if I do say so myself.

Lin Shaye in REMOTE

Though it is by far my least favorite of all the shorts by a large margin, I feel BAD RABBIT will be one people will be interested in because singer/songwriter Kate Nash shared the writing and directing duties with her GLOW co-star Rebekka Johnson. Both also star in this, a mean-spirited and super tacky look at a nasty invalid mother and her brow-beaten daughter (Nash). She finally cracks and follows the advice of her bunny (Johnson – in the lamest rabbit outfit ever) to mow her down. Literally.  This short is terrible. You’ve been dutifully warned.

I’ll mention the last two titles (like NZU and INCOMPLETE) that Hulu could lengthen into a feature film. DISPOSAL isn’t a horror movie in the traditional sense. A Brooklyn family gathers for a celebration, giving a young husband pause to consider that his wife might be having an affair. I get the impression writer/director Luka Wilson has more to talk about with this family and what happens in this episodic short is just one piece of a larger puzzle. The acting and filmmaking are top-notch here; I hope this gets its due. 

The final short to look out for is THE KAPRE from writer/director Carlo Ledesma. On a stormy night in a Philippine forest, an American couple camping at the base of a tree supposedly protected by a mythical creature finds out that some legends are real…and gigantic. There’s a nice dose of comedy here that doesn’t go over the top and effects, which suggest Ledesma would be able to provide the goods if given more time and budget. 

Marchant Davis in INCOMPLETE

None of these are so much of a commitment you must skip entirely. If you need to pass over some, I can tell you my preferences. I wouldn’t want to revisit REMOTE or BAD RABBIT, and you can also keep TICKS and BUGS off my list. Do seek out NZU, INCOMPLETE, THE KAPRE, and DISPOSAL. If you are feeling brave, I think FOREIGNERS ONLY is twisted fun. Especially nice if you want something akin to an adult bedtime story, throw one of these on your phone or the TV before hitting the hay, and then try to fall asleep with a few of these freaky images floating through your mind. 

Movie Review ~ Devil’s Workshop

The Facts:

Synopsis: A struggling actor spends a weekend with a female demonologist to prepare for an audition.
Stars: Radha Mitchell, Timothy Granaderos, Emile Hirsch
Director: Chris von Hoffmann
Rated: R
Running Length: 86 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  With the onslaught of content thrown at us 24/7, the more a movie can stand out from the crowd, the better.  It’s not so terrible to be bad, but it’s truly the worst to be forgettable.  That’s why how a studio plans to market a film is critical to its success.  You’ve heard me gripe enough about trailers that give too much away, so now let me get on my sturdy soapbox to bend your ear about boring posters.  What your advertising looks like visually is as essential to me as the movie itself, so don’t give me a cheap-o photoshop cover or key art that is crudely cobbled together.

Had I not been enticed by a preview that drew me in, I might have declined to review Devil’s Workshop solely on the poor quality of its poster.  Let it be known (spoiler or not) that the image you see above doesn’t factor into the completed film…and that turns out to be a good thing.  If you were to glance at this marketing, you might think Devil’s Workshop involves some half-naked ginger possessed by something rotten.  Instead, writer/director Chris von Hoffman has delivered a film aiming higher and often hitting its target, boosted by energized performances and a script that doesn’t show its hand right off the bat.

Struggling actor Clayton (Timothy Granaderos, We Are Your Friends) has been trying to make it as an actor in Los Angeles for the past 15 years.  Still waiting for his big break, he endures calls from home congratulating him on his cut roles in the latest episode of NCIS and watching while his peers go on to the kind of career he wants.  He’s wildly jealous of Donald (Emile Hirsch, Midnight in the Switchgrass), a d-bag who lucked out early and has followed that initial success to consistent work.  Similar in type, the two are always competing for the same roles and Donald, being the more recognizable face, often gets the job and a nice paycheck.

When both are up for the same role in an upcoming paranormal thriller, Clayton decides to look outside his acting class (and I would too, after witnessing eye-rolling scenes of pretentious never-beens theater-gaming themselves silly) for help in preparing for the role.  He places an ad on the web for instruction on demonology and gets a hit from Eliza soon after.  Driving to her isolated home far outside the city, Clayton isn’t sure how this will benefit him, but he knows he needs to do something to change his current path.

Until this point, von Hoffman’s film has been a traditional look at the same story facing many actors arriving in Hollywood with stars in their eyes.  The business is tricky, jobs are scarce, and if you are friends with people in the industry, they will likely make it, and you won’t.  We must leave the city behind for von Hoffman to shift Devil’s Workshop into a different gear.  Coincidentally, that’s when Radha Mitchell (Olympus Has Fallen) shows up as Eliza. 

Playing a free spirit that’s perhaps a little too welcoming, Mitchell is an absolute revelation as this mysterious character.  She gives Clayton a reason to keep his guard up with the single woman living alone in a large California country house.  Eliza promises the next few days will help Clayton prepare for the role, offering her experience as a demonologist to help inform his acting choices.  First, they’ll need to get to know one another and prepare him for the ritual she’ll be taking him through.  Thus begins a weekend of strange experiences for Clayton where Eliza’ll challenge him on more than just an acting level.  Secrets from his past will affect the present, and Eliza’s history will also factor in. 

Had this been the through line of Devil’s Workshop, I may have added another point to my total.  Unfortunately, we still have to keep Donald on our mind, and von Hoffman intercuts Eliza and Clayton’s time together with Donald’s druggie/chill night with two female friends.  As is often true, Hirsch is fun to watch; yet these scenes drag the picture into territory that feels more self-indulgent the longer they stretch on.  I just wanted to go back to the A storyline and ditch the B plot once and for all. 

I’m not entirely sure Devil’s Workshop finds a satisfactory way to end the film; I thought it would surely tack on another scene after the finale that better ties things off.  From a filmmaking standpoint, it’s edited quite nicely, with impressive make-up and gore effects throughout.  For a film involving demonic possession and ritual sacrifice, the final 1/3 of the film isn’t as wild or unrelenting as it could have been and for that steady hand, I was grateful.  It’s another sign that von Hoffman had a clear vision of what he wanted.