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So I'm working on a piece for FEARnet about indie horror production company Fatal Pictures and their most recent short film, Familiar.

I see a lot of horror movies, from the bigger budget stuff to gritty underground shockers... and Familiar really stands out from the entire pack.  The short film takes the high-tension groundwork constructed by Fatal Pictures' previous film, the award winning Worm (2010), and builds upon it more dread, more drama, and a big dose of wonderfully disgusting special effects.  Both Worm and Familiar star Robert Nolan, and are directed and written by Richard Powell.

I thoroughly enjoyed Familiar when I first watched it... and it continued to stay lodged in my brain for days after.  Why did the film have such a lingering impact?

First and foremost, Familiar is original.  The script certainly contains some, uh, "familiar" narrative notes.  You'll see wisps of the best serial killer dramas in it, as well as a Cronenberg-esque sucker-punch as the film enters the third act.  However, Familiar nods to tradition without ripping it off.  You won't see what's coming next as this short twists and turns toward its unsettling climax.

Secondly, Familiar is a horror film packed with horror, not camp.  I don't mind a bit of levity here and there, and I can stomach a horror/comedy on very rare occasion.  But in general, I like my horror films straight-faced, full of teeth, and menacing.  On this level, the intriguingly-grim Familiar succeeds.  It has a nice, vicious bite.

Lastly, Familiar exhibits something I greatly admire in horror filmmaking: the building of dread.  Long before the really weird stuff kicks in, Familiar leads the audience out on thin ice with a foreboding character-driven exploration of darkness.

It may seem like an easy thing to do, but establishing this tone (any tone) - and maintaining it - is something only a skilled director can do.  Writing requires great skill too, but once it's on the page, and it works, the puzzle is solved and it's a solid foundation on which to build the movie.  Directing, however, requires painting with subtleties, thinking on your feet, embracing opportunities second by second, and standing guard against the many toxins trying to creep in and ruin that tone.  A hundred decisions made about each scene will influence how it emotionally impacts the audience.  A director must fine tune the approach shot by shot, without a rulebook, and with no established right or wrong way to nudge the nuances.  Success generally comes down to a director's instincts, experience, ability to maintain focus, and good ol' fashioned natural talent... of which Familiar's director Richard Powell seems to have plenty.


Thanks for reading.


- Eric Stanze