“You know this is the place dontcha? Where it comes from… so they say.”
A man and a boy are standing by a well, and the man tells the boy a story. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that this doesn’t sound like a scary premise, but the slow creep out that follows will take you back to when you were five and there was a monster under your bed.
The Cat With Hands should be mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to write a horror movie. Not because of what Robert Morgan does, but because of what he doesn’t do.
#1 He doesn’t joke around. Horror and Comedy are the two hardest genres to pull off since they are so dependant on manipulating your audience without them realizing they’ve been had. And to mix the two makes the task doubly hard. The success rate of “funny” horror is near zero, with most of the films who tried ending up as a mild comedy with jump scares. One of the handful to make this work is Return of The Living Dead and you’ll notice that almost all of the latter’s jokes are stress based overreactions to some very real horror. So your best bet at success is to either be Dan O’Bannon or pick one genre or the other. Don’t try to tap-dance between the two; you’ll just wind up with a wishy-washy version of both.
#2 He doesn’t explain the damn cat. Horror is simple. Horror is metaphysical. Horror is in the mind. Horror is an unlocked door banging open and then the creak of someone’s foot on your stairs while you lay in bed paralyzed. Horror may or may not have an explanation. Horror has the ambiguous rules and logic of a nightmare. The fact that the cat is such an anomaly is what makes it a monster.
#3 The atmosphere is slightly surreal, but never unfamiliar. What scares people the most isn’t the fact that “This could happen…” but that “This could happen to me!” Even a movie like Alien is set in identifiable surroundings. Sure, it takes place in a huge starship called the Nostromo, but squint your eyes just right and it could be your basement… late at night… after the lights go out.
#4 He doesn’t show you half as much as you think you see. CGI monsters aren’t scary, but monsters enhanced by CGI can be VERY scary. Some of Cat With Hands is shot with stop motion animation (AKA: Poor People CGI) and even though Morgan could show you every detail, he doesn’t. What he does show you though will stay in your mind a long time. It’s dark and disturbing.
#5 He doesn’t try to spook you every five friggin’ seconds. Even if this is a four-minute short, Morgan takes whatever time is needed to set up his scares. It’s almost like playing music. You have the introduction, the buildup, and the release. Most movies go for a quick release without proper buildup and usually with little introduction. The audience might scream in surprise the first few times you pull this, but after a while they get numb to the trick.
What I really dug while watching this is that Morgan seems to understand the value of a disturbing image. Flash it around too fast, too much or too little and you might as well not have bothered. Morgan seems to have an internal chronometer that’s perfectly timed and gets it just right.
Another great thing is that Cat With Hands has some has a first-rate visuals. Despite being very short, much care was put into this and it shows. Every little detail is just breathing with life.