Saturday 25 January 2014

The Wishing Skull (2013)

Director: Ben Juhl
Stars: Dylan Wickstrom, Marissa del Prado, Kasey Kempton, Ben Juhl and Terri Juhl

I was very happy when writer/director Ben Juhl allowed me to screen his short film, The Wishing Skull, at the mini-film festival I programmed at DarkCon 2014. DarkCon is a small local convention with a vague focus on the punked genres, so The Wishing Skull qualified on more than one front, carrying steampunk and dieselpunk elements, all in a contemporary setting. I've seen a few of Juhl's short films and he aims for his own aesthetic, adding in whatever feels right at the time rather than slavishly adhering to the rules of one subgenre or another. For instance, the title character in Mr Gun is clearly a steampunk creation, played with gusto by Tommy Mack, but the film itself isn't, with Jose Rosete emphasising the brooding tone. This isn't pure either, but punks of a few different persuasions ought to get a kick out of the visual styles on offer: dieselpunks will adore the hot rod at the outset, which deserves its own short film, and steampunks are likely to drool at the title gadget, which has this one.

The former brings the latter to antiques dealer Kemp Steadman as the story begins. It's a magnificent device known as the Trollop Skull, an amalgam of clockwork and human bone that's important enough to be referenced on Wikipedia. Steadman has a buyer who's willing to drop thirty grand on it, but he's thorough enough to do his research first, so we discover some of its enticing history too. It was created by Chester Trollop, a 19th century roboticist who worked with hydron energy, then went mad when his daughter Mary, a dabbler in the occult, was mysteriously murdered. Steadman discovers with a turn of a key that the skull is also a magic lantern, its twin eyes able to project a sepia image of Mary, one that, rather astoundingly, converses with him. Anyone who isn't sold on this film from that setup alone is a man without a soul; Steadman is completely sold, to the degree that he allows Mary to promise him a wish, if only he can answer a single question: who killed her.
This one is a strong improvement over Mr Gun and A Dead Man's Money, both interesting films that had problems. This could perhaps have been tightened a little at points and Steadman could certainly have been a more sophisticated character, but everything falls into place. The story hooks us from the outset and the titular device makes it irresistible. The acting is capable, if not seamless, with Marissa del Prado an enticing young lady for Steadman to fall for, literally. The neatly ethnic soundtrack by Kevin Macleod works subtly too and there's a great deal of worthy attention to detail. Steadman's research looks solid with a believable Wikipedia page and I love the pear logo on the back of his laptop. The effects work is particularly strong too, not only with the Trollop Skull but also with the magic lantern's magic, Juhl and DP Jared Moschcau conjuring up a little bit of antique wonderland. The next short from Dirt Capsule Films will be Heart Pumping Oil, whose stills look awesome. After this success, it's eagerly anticipated.

The Wishing Skull can be viewed for free on YouTube.

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