After beginning life as a 13-minute short film, Thunder Road arrives in UK cinemas this week. The original depiction of a police officer awkwardly yet poignantly mourning his recently deceased mother through Springsteen was feted on the festival circuit, winning ten awards including the Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize.
The new 92-minute feature moves beyond this opening wake scene to explore the aftermath of impulsive grief and familial miscommunications. The festival reception has been positive, including the SXSW Grand Jury Prize. It seems this story has had room to breathe, grow, and reach a wider audience through this development without sacrificing the rawness of its origins.
Thunder Road is far from the first feature to be successfully developed out of a short film. While such works span across genres, horror seems to flourish in this incubator – if a good, gory idea can shake you in a few short minutes, it seems a strong candidate to develop into feature-length scares (though if Selfie from Hell is ever developed beyond its terrifying 105 seconds, the nightmares will be never-ending).
Perhaps the short format encourages risk-taking and experimentation with unconventional ideas and themes without as much pressure to make money, allowing some truly unique and striking films to blossom. Indeed this route has launched the careers of many household names, including Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sam Raimi, and James Wan.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Armed with a meagre $1600 and willing friends Bruce Campbell and Ellen Sandweiss, Sam Raimi went to a Michigan farmhouse and shot a half-hour short following a romantic rendezvous that is quickly derailed by demonic possession. Despite the budgetary constraints keeping special effects limited to Halloween store supplies and duct tape, Within the Woods piqued interest when it played alongside The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
After further test audience success, Raimi begged, borrowed, and crowdfunded the funds necessary to put together a two-hour film with the same central cast and premise but significantly improved gory special effects. However, Raimi did not abandon Ash Williams and company after this first feature, scraping together some more cash to reboot the Deadite misadventures in Evil Dead II. This 84-minute version may be its finest iteration, trading out the more disturbing bits of the original feature and short for some truly insane, gross, horrifying fun.
When director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell finished film school, they wanted to collaborate on their own low-budget thriller in the vein of The Blair Witch Project, keeping the film contained in terms of location and viewpoint. However, as their idea for a horror mystery began to expand – including the introduction of Jigsaw – they realised that they needed further financial backing.
Wan shot a seven-minute short around the script’s jaw trap scene in just over two days, transferring the 16mm footage to DVD to mail to production companies alongside the script. Happily, their determination paid off – Evolution Entertainment were impressed and trusted them with $1.2 million, allowing them the freedom to create the film they envisioned. Saw was then picked up by Lionsgate for a festival and theatrical release. The lucrative franchise that follows speaks for itself, even if quality in later entries has been rough and the films have moved from thriller towards torture porn despite Wan’s and Whannell’s initial intentions.
The Babadook (2014)
The nightmare fuel began in Jennifer Kent’s 2005 short Monster. While this long-clawed creeper lacks the name and top hat now equally attached to horror cinema and memes, it manages some complex, bone-shaking scares in a mere 10 minutes. Also, the Monster in question is a doll rather than a storybook character; giving the physical form weight before it begins sending cockroaches across the kitchen makes the supernatural threat immediately tangible and sidesteps the psychological guessing game in The Babadook‘s first half. Both frights work.
Kent stated that making the film taught her to be ‘stubborn in the best possible way’, keeping her voice authentic as she focused in on fraught motherhood and the ever-present fear of monsters under the bed. With The Nightingale coming out later this year, it is a good time to check out the ‘baby Babadook’ below.
What We Do In the Shadows (2014)
This largely improvised vampire mockumentary began life as a half-hour short film called What We Do In The Shadows: Interviews With Some Vampires. Many of the feature’s jokes – the ghost cup, the were-creatures, and the complications of corpse disposal – first appear here, delivered by writers/directors/stars Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement with the unbreakable deadpan that sells every visual gag and ridiculous scenario. The feature is very much an extended and expanded vision of a vampiric Wellington, but the short is more (unintentionally) horrifying when the vampire cohort hit the Wellington streets in their full Victorian garb, garnering some homophobic slurs from passers-by. Yikes.
After the cult success of the full-length feature, the vampires of Staten Island have arrived on the small screen in the FX/BBC spin-off show, which takes the film’s monstrous universe and expands it with relish. It seems there is a lot of life left in these undead.
The Oscar-winning psychological thriller that somehow managed to make drumming fascinating started as a 15-minute short – created by director Damien Chazelle to convince financial bakers that drumming could indeed be fascinating. While Chazelle already had a feature-length script finished and talent attached, he needed the money, so like Wan and Whannell he focused on a single scene to be integrated into a larger whole. He brought the now-iconic “rushing or dragging” scene as a fully-realised short to Sundance in 2013, securing feature funding four months later.
While Johnny Simmons was replaced by Miles Teller in the feature, J.K. Simmons presents the same vitriolic menace in both versions. Chazelle’s focus on his sometimes reptilian, sometimes explosive energy sells the thriller – the music school setting becomes incidental.
The short is not available by itself, but this side-by side comparison of both scenes is an insight into Chazelle’s laser-focused vision – there are slight tweaks in location, but it is evident that he and his team knew exactly the film they wanted to make.
Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)
When Ryan McHenry (of Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal fame) first watched High School Musical, he thought it would be immensely improved if Zac Efron were eaten by zombies. After recruiting some friends, this mash-up was realised in Zombie Musical – 17 minutes of brain-bashing set to the Disney pop musical’s hits. The team then decided to flesh out this absurdity into a full-length horror comedy musical with its own original soundtrack – sadly without McHenry, who had died of bone cancer while his brainchild was still in pre-production. Anna and the Apocalypse wears its influences on its sleeve – High School Musical and Ryan Gosling both get loving shout-outs – but its full commitment to its many genres as well as the complete sincerity of its high stakes goes beyond conceptual parody to become an inventive, entertaining musical.
If these shorts have given you a taste for tiny films then why not check out our selection of Shorts of the Week and Month from the last few years?