Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The pamphlet left at the door

The latest short film to come over my virtual transom may be one of the most commercial I have seen in a while.

And I do not mean that at all in a bad way. It’s just that I can see it as the opening to what could easily be a mainstream genre feature film. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

The film I am talking about is called Messiah, and it was written by Justin J. McCoy and directed by Mark Grabianowski. The director has previously made the short films Coax and Lineup. At nine and a half minutes, it crams a surprising amount of movie into its limited running time.

The film is infused with suspense. An opening quote from Edgar Allan Poe is our first warning. No, actually our very first warning is that the film’s production company is called Marked House Pictures. By the time we are just a few frames in, ordinary actions on a neighborhood sidewalk have us tensing up. This is largely down to the score (by Nicolas Repetto), which uses familiar musical language to alert us to expect, well, the unexpected. The protagonist, Courtney (played by Megan Duffy), is carrying a pumpkin home. So we know it’s Halloween. Uh oh.

Already we can be pretty sure that we are in the thriller genre, maybe specifically horror. At first nothing visually alerts us to beware. Well, a neighbor does seem to vanish rather suddenly. And there’s that strange religious tract on her door. And later on we catch glimpses of… okay, I’ll stop. There is a reason the word “suspense” gets attached to a movie like this. You are supposed to wonder what is going to happen next. And, of course, that makes it a little bit hard to write about. I like to pride myself on not being a total spoilsport.

For the first few minutes of the film, there are enough of the lone-female-in-the-house tropes to wonder if this might not turn out to be put-on. Grabianowski is clearly having enough fun with the conventions of the genre that we wonder if this could turn out to be a very self-aware Scream-like post-modern thing—or maybe even a parody. But, by the time we get to the end, it not only seems clear that the film is indeed taking itself seriously and we find that we have got quite caught up in the story.

As a narrative, the film stands on its own. We do not get all the answers we would like, but that does not mean that the story does not feel complete. On the other hand, the not-quite-ten-minute vignette here also feels as though it could easily be the beginning—or some part anyway—of a full-length feature film. If that is the filmmakers’ intention, then we will just have to wait and see. I will say, though, that I would pay to see that feature film.

Duffy gives a fine, natural performance as Courtney. The running time does not allow for a huge amount of character development, but the way she chats with her neighbor or settles onto the couch with a glass of wine gives a comfortable feeling that we know this young woman. By contrast, Rachel Langdon is appropriately offputting and unsettling as the strange woman who comes to the door. Personally, I would not let her cross my threshold.

Grabianowski says the plan is for Messiah to be making the rounds at film festivals. If you are at such an event and see it listed in the program, be advised that it is definitely worth a look. In the meantime, you can check out a trailer on the film’s web site.

-S.L., 25 May 2015

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