Directed & Written by Dayan D. Oualid.
Starring Dayan D. Oualid, Ben Aboulker, Marc Allal, Sophie Arama, Dan Azoulay, Olivier Gouez, Pascal Potet, & Michael Charny.
★★★★1/2Dayan D. Oualid does triple duty writing, directing, and acting in the short film Dibbuk. This is Oualid’s first short as director which is a bit shocking because he has all the markings of a great talent right off the bat. He knows how to take a small story to epic levels, making this quick moving 33-minute short feel like it holds a feature-length story.
Dibbuk is the tale of Dan (Oualid), a pious Jew whose days revolve around scripture. He’s called on by a woman named Sarah (Sophie Arama): her husband Eli (Michael Charny) has changed into someone, or something, unrecognisable. Dan realises Eli is possessed by a troublesome entity. So he gathers a minyan to perform an exorcism.
Will the ritual work? Can they rid Eli of the dibbuk clinging to his soul?
In a couple earlier Fantasia articles this year, specifically on Bryan Bertino’s latest film The Dark and the Wicked, I mentioned how the majority of demonic possession horror is populated with depictions of Christian possession and other Christian-based mythology. It’s good to see Judaism for a change being used in a familiar horror scenario to freshen up the horror genre, as well as the subgenre of demonic possession. Horror that’s not religious at its core still uses aspects of Christianity and Christian demonology for scary plot fodder, too. To see the Jewish faith on display is a real treat for Jews and gentiles alike.We often, rightfully, hear of representation in film when it comes to gender, race, and sexuality/sexual orientation, yet there’s not often a call for better religious representation. Jews are commonly depicted in stories about the Holocaust and World War II, films which have their proper place but only depict a fraction of the Jewish experience, usually showing little to no actual Judaism. Mainstream Hollywood movies depicting Judaism feel like it’s enough to show a few yarmulkes or have characters speak a few random lines of Yiddish. Dibbuk goes much further by centring the plot around Jewish mythology and showing some of it at length onscreen.
A good deal of time is spent watching Dan and the rest of the minyan preparing themselves to face their spiritual enemy. (Certain details of the ritual we see in the film that’s used to expel a dibbuk can be found here.) They’re like a group of Jewish Ghostbusters suiting up with their Kabbalist gear; that’s not meant in disrespect, that’s how bad ass the sequence feels. The details in the Jewish ritual meant to expel the dybbuk are exceptional, pulling those who know nothing about Judaism or its mythology into this world. We see the men don their tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl. The ritual calls for them to wrap their head and arms in parchment— known as tefillin— inscribed with Torah verses. And they all wear a kind of uniform: white, as a corpse would be dressed.
The crowned jewel of the film is the end: a glimpse of all the dibbuk boxes Dan keeps in his office. This scene flashes a brief idea of how busy he is at work exorcising demons, another Ghostbusters-like moment where their techy ghost traps are replaced by dibbuk boxes with Dan standing triumphant yet exhausted in their midst. It’d be great to see a full-length version of this story, so we could watch Dan’s struggle with the dibbuks and see more of his personal, seemingly tragic backstory. Then again, if 33 minutes is all we ever get it remains 33 creepy, interesting minutes.
Laura Hasn’t Slept. 2020.
Directed & Written by Parker Finn.
Starring Caitlin Stasey & Lew Temple.
★★★★Mental illness and psychiatry in horror can be depicted in so many different ways. Many times the mentally ill are turned into the villain, demonised by the inevitable violence they apparently commit, according to the film/entertainment industry. The mentally ill make up a large amount of the slashers, generally depicted as a Person Gone Mad™ without any real diagnosis— because us mentally ill people are just generically crazy! Parker Finn’s short film Laura Hasn’t Slept looks at mental health and psychiatry in a way that doesn’t in the slightest stigmatise people who struggle with mental illness. Rather it depicts the surreal horror mental health issues can bring down upon those afflicted with them.
Finn’s succinct screenplay has to do with the eponymous Laura (Caitlin Stasey) and a recurring nightmare she’s having about a creepy smiling man, to the point she refuses to sleep. She’s been up for days. So she turns to her therapist— quiet, friendly Dr. Parsons (Lew Temple). The doc tries helping his desperate patient figure out why she’s been having such a horrible nightmare, over and over. The longer the session drags on, the more Laura begins to feel like she’s fallen asleep… or, maybe her nightmare’s reality.
The eerie man from Laura’s dream can be interpreted in different ways, whether you see him just as a terrifying supernatural entity or if you read deeper into the psychological themes at play. Laura’s worry about the man and his mask-like face touches on how the real world feels clouded by mental health issues— reality and other peoples’ true selves feel hidden beneath a mask, swept under the carpet, like they’re caught in a place we can never seem to reach. For me, the film can operate as a metaphor for living in your head and how difficult it can be when reality finally comes crashing down, which we see happen to Laura in horrifying fashion.
The idea that Laura sees the man from her dreams, revealing himself to be hiding underneath a mask of Dr. Parsons, can also been seen as allegory for how our mental world can eventually bleed through completely into our every day world, into the fabric of our reality. Laura Hasn’t Slept is similar in theme to A Nightmare on Elm Street: Laura feels that if she falls asleep the man, like Freddy Krueger, is going to get her somehow, that she’ll die. She asks Dr. Parsons: “Do you think a nightmare could kill you?” We tell children who have bad dreams that they’re only dreams, they can’t hurt us. We tell adults who have bad dreams to go to therapy because we know, deep down, that dreams can be more than nebulous thoughts, and can be dangerous, regardless if the creepy smiling man is a real entity or symbolic of the depressing darkness in the mind.
Smiley Death Face. 2019.
Directed by Andrew Patrick Torrez. Screenplay by Chris Lewis Carter.
Starring Jordan Ovitt, Joanna Fang, & Anne Noble.
Horror / Thriller
★★★★For someone like myself who’s doing a PhD in English literature I often— foolishly, or probably just pretentiously— feel like using LOL or sending emojis rather than words in reply to a text is somehow a betrayal of my education. Then I remember there are so many ways to communicate that don’t involve words, and I kick myself in the snobby ass. Smiley Death Face is a short horror-thriller that at once feels like it’s making fun of text message culture and simultaneously satirising those who genuinely think emojis are going to bring about the destruction of the English language.
The story finds Rachel (Jordan Ovitt) texting constantly, communicating solely through emojis. She has no trouble communicating, either. It’s then she ends up in a random text message conversation with a stranger who also only uses emojis. Funny enough, Rachel understands exactly what the stranger’s intentions are, emojis or not, and winds up in a cat-and-mouse situation once the stranger turns up banging on her apartment door.
The double-edged satire is sharp and funny. First, the silly phone conversations Rachel has are a great laugh. She’s the epitome of what many see as the typical millennial/Gen Z’er, on her smartphone constantly and not using a single word to communicate. Secondly, the mysterious stranger using emojis feels like ironic punishment for a perceived mistreatment or misuse of the English language— while all this is going on we hear news reports on TV about emojis and how many feel they’re destroying human communication. We could potentially interpret the killer as an embodiment of the Baby Boomer view on people who communicate with emojis as if it’s destroying the language, even when many who speak English as their first language are already destroying it with their vocabularies online, some too busy accusing immigrants of not speaking proper English to actually, y’know, learn it correctly themselves.
At the end there’s another well-placed part of a news report on TV about emojis and how they may actually help evolve language. I don’t know if that’s verifiable truth, yet also feel like it could be, too, at least eventually some time down the road. We can continue looking at the unseen stranger as a living, breathing metaphor for the resistance of an older generation to the ways of a new one. All the same, evolution— in language as in human biology— cannot be stopped. Boomers can’t kill enough of us to stop that.