Short films are particularly difficult to finesse into satisfying wholes. Often fashioned as simple calling cards, an attempt to show off technical specs or a gimmick, too many build to nothing but a punchline (this frequently happens in the V/H/S franchise, for instance). Like the difference between a short story and a novel, the short film is its own distinct form with its own specific strengths. Director/editor/composer Chris Osborn‘s new film Gussy expertly utilizes its brief, 18-minute runtime to craft a genuinely chilling exploration of childhood remembrance coupled with a good old-fashioned monster movie. It’s an impressive achievement, not just because of how much is packed into it, but how Osborn deftly implies a bounty of emotions through inference and suggestion: In lieu of a traditional narrative is copious amounts of mood.
Beginning with old, fuzzy VHS footage, two boys introduce themselves to the camera; they are Miles (Tyler Knowles) and Rocky (Christopher Riley), and they are searching the forest for a creature they call Gussy. The boys are laughing and having a blast until they spot a pair of glowing eyes deep in the treeline. They both scream, and we cut to two men, a grown-up Miles (now played as an adult by Cole Doman, familiar from Stephen Cone’s great Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party) and Rocky (Michael Patrick Nicholson). It’s the dead of night, and they are on a mission. Even though the men do not speak, their body language tells the story — reluctantly, for some unidentified reason, they are once again searching for Gussy. The men split up, slowly traversing the woods in near-total darkness. Cinematographer Ava Benjamin Shorr does remarkable work here, illuminating bits and pieces of bodies through a single primary light source while allowing everything else to sink into a kind of digital chiaroscuro. Rocky falls down a ravine, while Miles comes across a doorway in a clearing. It’s an ominous bit of surrealism, and he immediately flees as the door slowly opens and those familiar glowing eyes peer back from the darkness. The men have apparently accomplished their goal, but there is no peace to be found.
They part ways in a parking lot, a gentle caress and a lingering, soft kiss suddenly indicating an entire history between them, before the camera begins a strange odyssey through the interiors of a huge shopping mall. It’s an oblique sequence, the camera tracking and dollying down hallways peering into empty stores. It’s all liminal spaces, devoid of human presence, eerie like a haunted house. Is this a place the boys frequented as they were growing up? Does it hold secrets, fond memories of long-ago trysts? The somber mood and creeping, snaking camera would suggest something more sinister. Rocky retires to his home, slugging back a beer as something approaches from outside. There’s a cut back to the mysterious door in the middle of the forest, now wide open, as superimposed images play out over shots of a distressed Rocky. Piercing blue eyes emerge from the darkness. Gussy is here. What happens next is left entirely to our imagination as the film cuts to black. It’s a kind of crushing brevity, but Osborn seems to have mastered the art of leaving an audience wanting more. It’s a remarkable little film, small in the very best sense.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2022 — Dispatch 5.