More than almost any other genre, horror seems to function just as well with a minimalist approach as with a huge budget, large cast, and elaborate set pieces. Good directors can do a lot with very little, employing the audience’s fear and imagination as collaborators in the creative process. The new horror short SUSPENSE is a prime example of this canny brand of filmmaking, using confident and creative camera angles, eerie sound design, and clever lighting choices to tell a terrifying and exhilarating story in less than seven minutes.

Written and directed by brothers Ben and Jacob Burghart, SUSPENSE stars Jelani Talib as an unnamed paratrooper who crash-lands in a dense forest and gets his parachute tangled in some tree branches. Tight close-ups of Talib’s startled face and tilting camera angles that show you just how precarious his position is immediately disorienting the viewer, placing us fully in Talib’s headspace as he tries to find a way out of his predicament. Repeated close-ups of his dangling feet underscore his vulnerability, priming the viewer to ask themselves what’s lurking on the forest floor just below Talib’s boots. He calls out for his friend Dave (Robert Coppage III), who landed safely nearby, but Dave’s response is cut off when he gets attacked by an unseen creature.

Then the real terror begins: Talib hears something crawling up the trunk of the tree that he’s stuck in, something large and definitely not human that’s slowly clawing its way up toward his parachute. The camera pans up the trunk without ever showing the creature, opting instead to let Talib and the audience wonder what kind of monster is lurking on the other side. The timing is diabolical in its perfection, as the camera pauses for a few breathless moments just when the still-unseen creature reaches Talib’s eye level. Then the creature continues on and emits a hideous laugh that is part human, part hyena, and all nightmare. The sound design throughout the film is incredible. Every snapping twig sets the viewer on edge, and the creature sound effects create an aural uncanny valley of disconcertingly unnatural yet familiar noises.

The entire film is sharp and economical in its storytelling: the use of the limited location is brilliant, turning every leaf and shadow into a source of menace, and the lighting is fantastic, using the eerily flickering reds from Talib’s flares to cast an extra layer of fear over his already frightening situation. The acting is pitch-perfect, drawing in the audience immediately and never letting go. From the striking opening titles all the way through to the grindhouse-style closing theme music, SUSPENSE is magnificent. It’s a thrilling and ingenious short film that demonstrates the best of what horror can accomplish with simply a group of talented people and a patch of forest.

SUSPENSE had its International Premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival on August 28th and will have an encore showing on September 1, 2020.

Jessica Scott
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