Short films are like Hi-Chews — bite-size flavor explosions that should be savored before moving onto the next one, and the one after that. Given the bottomless well of compelling shorts that exist, we decided to carve out a space where we could gush about our favorite discoveries. Shorts That Tore Our Heads Off is an ongoing series of articles exploring underseen short films from all centuries. The only criteria for inclusion is that each one has to . . . well, tear our heads off. Every volume will cover five shorts in chronological order that deserve to be appreciated and re-watched anywhere from three to fourteen times before you die.
Hold onto your head!
The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Massacre Parts 1 + 2 (Jan Doense & Phil Van Tongeren, 1988, Haxan Films VHS, YouTube)
Congrats! You’ve just discovered the most satisfying five-minute duology in the history of motion pictures. In The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Massacre Parts 1 + 2, a Buddy Holly clone wearing a Colonel Sanders suit shreds on a guitar while walking through a museum-like procession of adorable murder scenes. A killer wearing a Mickey Mouse mask guts someone. A dude uses a machete to chop off his own hand, which is then snatched up by a lo-fi Critter. And then Leatherface shows up. Made by some resourceful punks from the Netherlands, this feels like an abstract fusion of Kurt Cobain’s Fecal Matter demo, a local TV horror host show, and a deranged child who’s obsessed with cutting off the heads of Barbie dolls. If Cinema of Transgression filmmakers like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern were addicted to Fangoria instead of narcissism, they might have made movies like this. Fifteen stars.
Doctor Death (Webster Colcord, 1989, Self-Released VHS, Vimeo)
The most explosive post-apocalyptic battledrome of 1989 isn’t Cyborg — it’s Doctor Death. Shot on Super 8 by teenager Webster Colcord and pals in Portland, this 18-minute killdozer miraculously combines the experimental tinkering of Stan Brakhage with the reckless energy of Damon Packard’s Dawn of an Evil Millennium to forge a new barometer of bliss. Mutants wearing Moon Boots and puffy jackets! Stop-motion face-melting! A very dangerous explosion every 10 seconds! And amidst the carnage, a wonderfully surreal scene of Dr. Death (Colcord, looking like a wee version of Mr. Freedom) smashing a wall of television sets on the side of a road in slow motion while roman candle fireworks erupt around him. Doctor Death is a triumph of clever special effects, artful editing, and raw ambition. It’s easily my most cherished teenage Super 8 movie next to Tim Ritter’s Day of the Reaper and Nathan Schiff’s Weasels Rip My Flesh. Don’t give us liberty, GIVE US (DOCTOR) DEATH!!
Chainsaw Maid (Takena Nagao, 2007, YouTube)
I admire the artistry of claymation, but it never holds my attention. This could be because Wallace & Gromit never had a scene of gut-barfing in the style of Lucio Fulci. Chainsaw Maid is my favorite claymation gore-bomb from prolific artist Takena Nagao, in which a maid defends her employer/lover and his daughter from a zombie horde. Utilizing cardboard sets, 8-bit synth bleeps, and silent movie intertitles, this feels like a nightmare that Lisa Frank would have after eating too many edibles while watching Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s Dead Alive. That dichotomy between cute and horrific is what makes Nagao’s work so subversive. And fun. We see a zombie’s face ripped in half by a chainsaw, but it’s delivered by adorable clay figures and a rainbow of neon colors. If there’s an ounce of justice left in the world, it should go to Nagao so that he can make two-hundred more movies just like this one.
She’s Not Alone! (Mike Streeter, 2012, Vimeo)
If you, like me, watched American Horror Story: 1984 and thought that it would have been much more effective as a nine-minute short, you’ve hit paydirt. She’s Not Alone! is an exercise in mood that feels like the cold open of an early 1980s slasher that never was. From The Sleeper to The Editor, most low budget throwback experiments are riddled with ironic hot takes and boneheaded references. But this one is different; it’s like a horror version of The Beastie Boys’s “Sabotage” video that was pitch-shifted to 1983. With a lovely minimal synth score, hazy photography, and production design that nails the era-specific details, this is catnip for anyone who can’t get enough of the sinister ambience of movies like He Knows You’re Alone, The Toolbox Murders, and The House on Sorority Row. Bonus points for the original workout song that sounds like Pat Benatar jamming with The Cure.
Skintight (Ciara Boniface, 2018, Vimeo)
We need more horror films like this one. According to her bio, filmmaker Ciara Boniface “strives to shine a light on social and Southern-based issues . . . while providing representation for Black women in horror.” With Skintight, she succeeds. This 16-minute short follows lost soul Robyn as she navigates a town that’s overrun by a cult of racist white people. Intimate and experimental, Skintight floats through our brains like a quickly fading dream. Boniface focuses on character development over sequential storytelling, which allows us to connect with Robyn as she attempts to make sense of hallucinations, robotic humans, and bloody symbols on the windshield of her car. The brief glimpses of violence are intense, but they don’t deflate the dreamy ambience. I enjoyed this so much that I watched it twice.