I have a few fantastic AirBnB stories, I wish I could tell. In fact, some of the craziest moments of my life have occurred while staying at a stranger’s home and all just to save a few bucks. One such story comes from Alec Ybarra’s short film When I Held The Key.
We open at a quaint, little home alone in the woods (check!). The owner Mary (Tami Nichols Reilly) is sitting on her porch awaiting the arrival of her guests. Out from the house comes handyman Bill (T.O.N.E-z), who heads out into town, I suppose. But there’s something about Mary…
Soon arrives Roman (Adam J. Cahn) and Reyna (Batya Cruz), who are staying at the BnB, while they attend Roman’s high school reunion. At first, Mary appears to be friendly and shows the couple to their rooms. Yes…Rooms. Apparently, the rooms are too small for two people, and the couple must be separated.
Roman and Reyna decide to go on a nature hike, but discover the doors have been boarded up and padlocked. Trapped, as Mary explains, for their safety because she is a vulnerable woman alone in the woods.
“Roman and Reyna decide to go on a nature hike, but discover the doors have been boarded up and padlocked…”
Next is dinner and Mary is preparing spaghetti. If the padlocks were not strange enough, Mary’s cooking is. Unbeknownst to the couple, Mary quickly stashes away a pair of black gloves, she then bites off the corners of an oversized chocolate bar and drops the chunks into the couple’s drink, and what’s with the “no whining” signs in the background.
When I Held The Key is more Twilight Zone than terror. Strange occurrences happen to heighten the tension until it rises to its boiling point in the third act. We have a good set up with a couple trapped in the woods and a host and handyman who decide to exert parental power over our heroes. Writer/director Alec Ybarra makes the most of his limited camera, lighting, sound and production values in this low-budget short. He powers through his limitations and presents a true indie film for the B-movie fans.
Where Ybarra falls short is the film languish at a level five in terms of terror and suspense when it should be at a nine. Also, Mary’s story is left somewhat unresolved. Let’s start with levels. Just presenting the fact that Mary is creepy isn’t enough. What is needed is escalating the creepiness factor to over-the-top heights. Maybe play with intriguing camera angles and lighting.
As far as Mary’s parental issues, we get subtle clues of her odd ticks, but the film just needs to lean into that a lot more and thematically giving us the reasons she’s acting so strange. Provide a deeper back-story secretly for Reilly to have to inform her performance. It may also make that group chat scene with Reyna make sense and inform her “turn.”
Short films are an excellent opportunity to push the boundaries of storytelling. When I Held The Key has a good story and a filmmaker with an evident passion for making films. Now seize future opportunities to really creep out your audience.
When I Held The Key (2019) Written and directed by Alec Ybarra. Starring Tami Nichols Reilly, T.O.N.E-z, Adam J. Cahn, Batya Cruz.
6 out of 10 stars
"…"...then bites off the corners of an oversized chocolate bar and drops the chunks into the couple’s drink...""