Ever walk into a room and catch ten or fifteen minutes of a horror film that looked really good, but you were in a hurry to get somewhere (a date, a film festival, or mebbe a convention) and had to turn it off and leave? On your way to wherever you were heading, you thought about that few minutes you saw and how much you’d love to see what happened next — maybe you even made a mental note to find out just what the hell it was and catch it in its entirety at some future date. Does this sound at all familiar? Well, whether that particular scenario has happened to you or not, that feeling I’ve described is the power of a good short film — you’re drawn in, intrigued, and then, though it’s completed, you’re often left with more questions than answers, plumbing the story behind the story in your head long after the credits have rolled. Those of you that read this crap that I write have heard all of this before, but it’s worth repeating when you run across a short flick that really checks off all the boxes…
…and with Agatha, the 2015 short from writer/director Timothy Vandenberg, it’s my opinion that I’ve found just such a flick.
A young girl in a time that appears to be near the turn of the twentieth century is being given instructions on how to perform duties for pay. It would seem she’s a housemaid of sorts, as an older woman directs her to deliver food to an attic bedroom in an old manor home, with very specific details that seem quite important: place the food on the table by the bed…do not speak, look about, nor be noisy…do not approach the bed, and do not go further into the room than the table that the food is to be placed upon — do all of this quickly, and leave promptly. For this, she’s paid a few coins at the end of each night. The first time she enters the barely-moonlit room, she sees what appears to be a very sickly woman lying on a tattered bed. On consecutive nights, she notices that the woman moves about (as much as the ominous chain holding her to the wall will allow), and is occasionally not visible at all. Of course, the child needs those few coins, so she continues to perform her task, albeit with some trepidation — trepidation that holds a lot of merit, it seems, as we the audience are privy to the fact that the way the woman appears to stalk the child (coupled with the fact that she obviously eats less and less of her “dinner” each night) looks to be pointing in a sinister direction…
The first thing that struck me was the production value — the setups, lighting, and overall cinematography screamed either big bucks and/or big talent, and since I know this was a low-budget short, I gotta give the talent to Vandenberg’s direction and cinematographer Bo Webb. The shots are atmospheric and somehow oppressive, the illusion of a oil-lit home and the shadowy moonlit grounds from a century past complete and believable. The story is economical (as is the necessity with any short) but somehow very rich in what it pulls from the imagination (which sadly is often not the case) — I found myself easily absorbed in the tale, reminded in spirit of the suspenseful, darkened scenes from old Hammer films. There’s no dialogue except in the first couple of minutes, but that was executed extremely well, the behavior and mannerisms of young Louise Ogle as the little girl Sophie are exceptional. This carries on through her performance for the rest of the film — her expressions and body language combined with the well-organized visual narrative effectively alleviates any need for spoken words. There’s a claustrophobic vibe to the attic scenes where the titular Agatha resides, and the short does a great job of building up suspense and dread as the nights wear on, all in mere minutes. Jessica Farmer, as Agatha, gives the character an otherworldly, cat-like feel, and she pulls out all the stops in her wordless, creepy portrayal. To top it all off, there’s some terrifying practical makeup work done here, advanced enough to be convincing yet simple enough to not be over the top.
As a whole, the film delivers, and in my case, left me wanting more — what’s the story with Agatha? What’s going on with that ending? I wanna know!
Now that’s the mark of good storytelling, especially in the short film format. My hat’s off to Vandenberg and his cast and crew — word is that they’re planning a feature of the storyline, and I certainly hope that’s the case.
My two cents.