Short Sharp Shocks is a valuable collection of short films, charting various decades of British horror and thriller filmmaking from the heyday of supporting features and allowing people to see moments in film history that may otherwise have either been lost to time or not reached the same level of audience that they now will.
This is especially true of the older films in the collection, with a particular highlight being the version of The Tell-Tale Heart from 1953, featuring a performance of the famous Edgar Allan Poe short story by Stanley Baker. This is a film that was considered lost until it turned up by chance in 2018, and it exudes charm as Baker dramatically moves across a cramped set delivering the story with extravagant gusto, feeling all the while like a gem of British horror history that has been saved for posterity, and rightfully so. It’s the gem of the whole collection and the one that should be sought out most of them all.
The other horror story readings in this collection both involve famous horror writer Algernon Blackwood telling two of his own tales (Lock Your Door and The Reformation of St. Jules) to camera in much the same way as Baker, a style of short film which has regrettably been lost to the era. These films were released in 1949, only a couple of years before Blackwood’s death, and represent rare recordings of him performing his own work, so they are valuable in that sense and very important to retain, but Blackwood as a dramatic reader is not as engaging as Baker by any means, and the story gets lost a little in the way he tells it. Nevertheless, there is something to be enjoyed about the aesthetic of the film, which is very quintessentially of that era. It features Blackwood looking very smart in a suit, standing by a fireplace as he regales the audience with his stories. Nevertheless, there is more appreciation than enjoyment to be found in them in the end.
The same can be said of some of the other short films in the collection, which span supporting features from 1958 through to 1980 and also vary drastically in quality. On the lower end is the very over-dramatic and overripe Portrait of a Matador (1958), which is really more laughable than it is engaging, but other films such as The Lake (1978) are genuinely interesting pieces of work that feel more than just valuable from a historical perspective. Directed by Lindsey C. Vickers, The Lake is a pretty conventional ghost story about a couple going for a picnic by a lake, near a house where horrible murders were committed. It uses its 33-minute runtime well to craft a slow-burn of increasing tension that is intelligent and builds suspense well. It is what you want from a supporting feature, something to glue the viewer to the screen, and it also works well on its own as a showcase for how to craft a worthwhile horror story with a small budget and limited timeframe.
The other major highlight is Death Was a Passenger (1958) by Theodore Zichy, who also made Portrait of a Matador. This one, however, is far better, achieving something altogether more effective with this sub-twenty minute tale of an escape from Nazi officers in occupied France. Zichy manages to put together something simple and suspenseful, using a straightforward and effective narrative to do so and using the time constraint as a good way to bookend the film at both beginning and end.
The three other films (Twenty-Nine, The Sex Victims, and The Errand) are all mixed bags, but each provides its own interesting insight into the eras they were made. The Errand especially has some engaging and meaningful ideas and there is some joy to be had in its story structure, but these films in general feel a little more nebulous than some of their companions which are altogether more engaging.
Nevertheless, Short Sharp Shocks is an eclectic and interesting collection of films that is diverse enough to be interesting as a whole and its valuable insight into the various eras of supporting features shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s a solid addition to BFI’s Flipside series and allows for more of Britain’s film-making history to remain in the public eye.
Lock Your Door (Dir. Anthony Gilkison,1949)
The Reformation of St. Jules (Dir. Anthony Gilkison, 1949)
The Tell-Tale Heart (Dir. J.B. Williams, 1953)
Death Was A Passenger (Dir. Theodore Zichy, 1958)
Portrait of a Matador (Dir. Theodore Zichy, 1958)
Twenty-Nine (Dir. Brian Cummins, 1969)
The Sex Victims (Dir. Derek Robbins, 1973)
The Errand (Dir. Nigel Finch, 1980)
Short Sharp Shocks contains the following short films and is available now on Blu-Ray