What seems at first to be a faulty smoke alarm ends up meaning much more in director Matt Cunningham's creature feature Esther. This is the first in an anticipated slate of "short form horror" films planned by the startup digital production company Red Tower.
Esther is the story of Katy, who has moved back to her childhood home, abandoning her former life for an undisclosed reason. Her nightly sleep is disrupted by a faulty smoke alarm. She takes out the batteries, and it still goes off. Changes the thing, still goes off. She soon realizes that the faulty alarm is not faulty at all, but a ploy by her childhood imaginary friend Esther to re-enter her psyche.
Esther stars Haley Heslip (Void, Case 137), an appealing actress who resembles a young Martha Plympton (that's meant as a compliment). She has a doe-like quality that relays both vulnerability and resilience, difficult to establish in a 10-minute runtime. At that length, and with Ms. Heslip's performance, Esther is a small explosion, and leaves one wanting more.
Which works for and against expectations. There's only so much you can accomplish in ten minutes. Esther, like most contemporary horror, is phone-centric. The thing is virtually Katy's costar. The film opens with Katy FaceTiming her shrink, and goes on to have Katy calling her brother, then videoing the path to her horror. The mise en scéne is simple but the scare ambitions lofty. The score propels the narrative and hits the right knee jerk notes. This reviewer jumped twice, well-timed gooses that rely as much on what one hears as what one sees. I almost dropped my phone.
Director Matt Cunningham has impressive horror roots. While writing for Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, he met Wes Craven of Last House on the Left and Nightmare on Elm Street fame, who became his friend and mentor. Craven advised him to pursue his dream of becoming a horror film writer/director. Subsequently, Cunningham formed Night Prowler Video in 2015 with his wife and Executive Producer, Tara Cunningham, to produce genre film and television with flair and style inspired by his highly influential friend.
Red Tower hopes to attract and foster "world class filmmakers," but one wonders if the short form is suited to that. Just as you get rolling, you're done. No time to stretch out and modulate the chills, no time to brood on ghastly details, or even to admire the design of a creature like Esther. You end up, inevitably, with hot-button reflexes to reliable cliches. It's difficult for a Craven or an Aster or even a Raimi to make a serious impression. Forget Kubrick: in the time it takes for Danny Torrance to Hot Wheel it across the floors of the Overlook Hotel, the film is over. The challenge is one that will probably be taken up more by new filmmakers, adept in brevity, and possibly developing a new visual language.
One wishes Red Tower continued success. They are developing a full docket of films, and it can't come a moment too soon. Digital platforms have little patience for long production times. The way to be memorable is to keep it new and keep it coming. They're doing it, and kudos to them for trying.
Find a profile of Red Tower here.
Esther, 9:42 minutes, color, produced by Red Tower. Written and directed by Matt Cunningham, Director of Photography Keith Golinski. Executive Producers Keith Golinski and Tara Cunningham. Available on popular digital platforms, including Instagram, YouTube, and Tik Tok.