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Sunday, 9 June 2013

Incident on Highway 73 (2012)

Director: Brian Thompson
Stars: Elizabeth Schmidt and Ian Alda
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Purely by coincidence, I commented on a forum today about the quality of short films at festivals generally being frequently inconsistent. That was timely because I first saw Incident on Highway 73 after it was submitted to a festival but, while it thoroughly impressed me, it surprisingly didn't make the cut. Now I'm reviewing it ahead of its selection by a different festival, the Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival, at which it screens next Saturday night as part of their Holy Moly Horror Shorts set. I'm really looking forward to seeing this on the big screen, especially as late as it will play. The second half unfolds at night, with deliberately slight lighting, and if the schedule goes according to plan, the tension that riddles this section through should be reaching its height as the hour of midnight strikes. Given that it's screening at Spook Hall in 'the world's largest ghost town', the atmosphere ought to be rather special.

It's one of the few films selected for Jerome that isn't sourced from Arizona, being a California film through and through. That's the stark natural beauty of the California desert that we see as the movie begins; shooting took place in a location called Desert Hot Springs, CA. The impression is clearly that we're in the middle of nowhere, as young couple Jeff and Kelly prepare to turn off the main highway for a side trip. 'That doesn't look like much of a road,' says Jeff, and it doesn't. Its surface is consistently cracked, desert vegetation is blurring the boundary between nature and civilisation and it doesn't even appear to go anywhere. It just aims straight at a set of mountain ranges, nested around unseen passes. Kelly tells him that it's 'a cool, beautiful old highway' and the guidebook backs her up: historic Highway 73 is one of the original Pony Express routes. She wants to use the extra five hours it'll cost them to take photos for her portfolio.

Actors Elizabeth Schmidt and Ian Alda (yes, he's related to who you think) bounce off each other well, aided by director Brian Thompson having them really spend a day together to aid them to feel natural when shooting. They get plenty of opportunity, as this runs 27 minutes, a long time for a short film, but they're the only two actors who we see throughout. They both do good work, especially Schmidt, who neatly highlights her priorities when they watch an electrical storm roll towards them. 'Do you see that?' her fiancé asks. 'Yeah, give me my camera,' she replies. She seems blissfully unconcerned about what to us is clearly a horror movie moment, a harbinger of doom. There are a few such moments early on to remind us that this is a horror movie, mild shock moments and odd nods to convention. Mostly it's a character piece, spending time to establish Kelly and Jeff as people we care about, before doing to them what horror movies tend to do.
If the road and the storm weren't enough to start building a freaky feel, the child's car seat they find in the middle of Highway 73 cements it. Up ahead is an apparently abandoned vehicle with its lights flashing. They pass slowly without seeing anyone, but shortly afterwards stutter to a stop. That's an electrical storm, remember? From here it builds roughly as you might expect, but with superb technique. The tension ratchets up as night falls and then escalates. We know something bad is going to happen, as this is a horror movie, but we're never really quite sure what it will be. Those mild shock moments vanish, lulling us into a false sense of security while never suggesting that it's over and whatever bad things are coming are gone. Perhaps this is cued from the storm, as the gaps between rumbling thunder are exquisitely quiet but we never believe that there isn't another rumble about to burst over the scene. That's a precise mirror of the tone.

Most of director Brian Thompson's credits are music videos, for bands like Killswitch Engage and As I Lay Dying; this is the first short he's credited at IMDb for directing since 2005's Premonition. Yet it's utterly his film, the story conjured up by writer Michael Kirk around a real experience that Thompson and his wife had on a trip to the Grand Canyon. In an interview with Dread Central, he remembers how he felt with words like 'vulnerable', 'spooked' and 'uneasy'; all those are neatly evoked here. I didn't blink much during the last ten minutes; I didn't want to miss anything. Once night falls, the film becomes notably dark but we're never unsure of what's happening. While we don't see much under the shroud of night, Thompson and cinematographer Jason Hafer cleverly ensure that we see what we need to. And when we really need light, flashes of lightning work as well as anything as a highlighter. The best monsters are only hinted at, after all.

Echoing Thompson's surprisingly sparse filmography, Kirk's isn't much busier. I'd have expected a lot more credits for someone who was Sam Raimi's assistant on Spider-Man and went on to three features where he co-produced with Raimi and others. Surely they've been busy on projects that aren't listed at IMDb, as the subtle power wielded on this film has to be sourced from experience. While Alda is excellent and Schmidt is even better, it's what Kirk has them do and what he does to them that nails this. It avoids what most films would have cued up from inception; it demonstrates what can be done in the gaps between those moments. Add to that the subtle but superb effects, suitably creepy sound and, above all, vast open desert crowded in with darkness, location and the use of anamorphic lenses. No wonder it won a Festival Trophy for Best Short Film for its premiere at Screamfest in 2012. That won't be its last win. I'd put money on that.

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