THE WHEEL is a short film directed by Nikhil Bhagat starring Molly Beucher and Chris Crandall.
Megan receives a package and finds out that it is an antique piece from an estate sale that her boyfriend, who is on the way home for a weekend with Megan and his mom at their home sent to her. There’s an undercurrent of things not going particularly well financially for the two, parental disapproval, and a hint of something off in the relationship. An inability to follow through on tasks and keep things up in the home might translate into something deeper, like resentment, going on between them. She opens the package and is somewhat less than impressed. He assures her that he will return later that night. Megan winds the toy and watches it as it turns. As she watches it, becoming more charmed by the toy, she notices that one of the baskets is empty and is just a black square. After darkness falls, the toy reveals its true purpose.
This is a very well done yet simple horror short. Simple is not code for bad. Some of the best stories are good because they are so simple. It’s effective, it’s done with brevity, and is genuinely creepy. There’s no need for a complex backstory or multiple characters, the story gets right to it after establishing the basic points. The look of the film is excellent. The old house with wallpaper peeling off the walls is pretty creepy to start with, but after dark, the scenes are lit with a dark greenish-blue, shot with brief lit patches of ordinary warm lighting that tease you with an illusory feeling of safety. The director of photography is James Kniest (“The Haunting of Bly Manor“, Hush, Annabelle), and he’s made terrific use of sunlight, shadow, limited light (a flashlight), and almost complete darkness to heighten the scares and put the viewer in the house with Megan. I have registered some complaints on the Internet about darkness in film of late. Well, in this short, much of the running time is in an unlit house at night. Naturally, it’s dark, so this is both realistic and a good stylistic choice.
There’s an effective use of sound and soundtrack as well. At first, the theme music floats lightly and doesn’t overdo it with a heavy-handed attempt to scare the viewer. As the stakes are raised, the music responds and adds percussion. The toy’s theme music is used effectively as well. At first, it seems old-timey and a little hokey. As the short progresses, the theme becomes more insistent and finally becomes the harbinger of the evil force. The sound design with the creaking of floors and doorknobs in the old house are everything that’s ever made you really scared about being in an old dark house alone with only your overactive imagination to keep you company. Nathan Whitehead (The Purge, Beyond Skyline, Keanu) composed the music, Robert Sharman (Sound mixer), Trevor Gates (Supervising Sound Editor), Paul Knox (Sound Effects Editor), and Mark Coffey (First Sound Effects Assistant) are the sound crew with Mike H. Miller as the Foley Artist. Wayne Anderson does the special effects make-up for the monster and they are also very effective. It seems centered on the eyes and it is actually scary. I say this as someone who really isn’t scared by make-up, in general.
The script was written by Nikhil Bhagat and Andrew Wong and it’s constructed with that economy that I mentioned earlier and those undercurrents of a passive-aggressive romantic relationship, that’s possibly in its last throes, that underpins the building of suspense. This is a short that tells a full story with brevity and without anything that is unnecessary. A fully told story in about fourteen minutes. The characters are shown rather than explained. The success of the short depends on the performances of the leads and trusts that the story and characters are enough to hold it together. The filmmakers are right in their confidence in both. For example, the character of The Ticket Taker is shown only briefly, but is worth the wait and is the scare that the story needs. If you watch carefully, you will see him more than once. The story uses foreshadowing well. It has style and uses what it has most effectively. I am very impressed that the filmmakers were able to license the pop song used in the opening. A haunted toy is not a particularly original concept, but it succeeds because the filmmakers put their own stamp on the proceedings and have fun with it. There’s one particular moment that’s a new favorite of mine among visual puns in horror films.
The performances of the two leads work perfectly for the film. Megan is a real and believable woman. Possibly depressed and likely unsatisfied with her relationship, but trying hard – possibly harder than her significant other, to make things work. In horror films or in all films really, the characters – especially the leads, need to have a life outside of being the target of a crazed killer or unknown force. While we need not completely sympathize with them, we need to feel a kinship with a fellow human for what happens to matter to us as an audience. We need to believe that they exist as a person which is the job of the actor, the director, and the screenwriters. As for the supernatural creature, if in human form and in make-up, there needs to be a true feeling of otherworldly menace about them. You can have the best make-up in the world and still have an audience that isn’t scared because the actor underneath the face paint or make-up appliances doesn’t have that feeling of danger or cruelty. Chris Crandall as The Ticket Taker has that feeling. It’s what the actor brings to the role and what’s behind the make-up that matters. Being able to put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist is what makes it work. They are, after all, the stand-in for the audience in the film. In THE WHEEL, it works.
THE WHEEL is a well-done and genuinely creepy short film that makes the most of its short running time. The filmmakers know what they are trying to accomplish and they do follow through. I would like to see what Nikhil Bhagat and Andrew Wong could come up with in a feature film. That’s probably the best praise I could give to the makers of a short film. I would like to see more.