I knew I was going to have fun watching this short when I saw the monster. Most filmmakers, when doing horror, wisely hide their monsters. It’s not that they’re being unimaginative – not always anyway – it’s just that innuendo and suggestion always both seem to work better and be more effective than an out-and-out revelation. Yet The First Step shows us the monster within the first two minutes.
It’s not just a shadowy half-seen view either. You can see the whole thing. True, it’s far away and only for a second, but it’s right there in front of us. In theory, this is all wrong. In practice, it works pretty well. I like ballsy people. I like it when they play around with their craft and try out ideas to see if they’ll work. The whole point of short films is that you don’t have to curl up into a ball under your desk at the terror of screwing up because the budget is low and the cost of making a mistake isn’t fatal.
The First Step is about a teenage girl’s first night in a new house with her mother. The place is a little old, a little spooky, a little foreboding. It’s the kind of place where a teenage girl might find herself reliving old childhood fears. No surprise then that the plot is basically a filmed version of one of those jump stories we used to tell each other during sleepovers as kids while hiding under blankets and holding a flashlight under our faces.
So far, so good. With the early monster reveal, and this rather fun little setup, this film had me in the palm of its hand. It really did. The acting is pretty good, the cinematography is moody and dark, and the sound design works well and creates a nice aural companion to the visuals. The whole thing is done with a sense of flair and style. It’s actually quite a lot of fun to watch.
Yet… Yet… Yet…
The buildup and ending just didn’t seem to work for me. It should have. There was frightened girl cowering in her bedroom as some unimaginable evil slowly crawled out of a dark basement up a long staircase bathed in even longer shadows towards her. Everything about this should be perfect, yet it all goes kind of wrong. So what happened? Well, the film could stand to have an extra few minutes to build up its dread. It’s too short and stripped. Beyond bug eyed monsters crawling after scared teenagers, there isn’t anything else going on. Well… the mom makes Borscht at the beginning. So, um… we got that. Also, to be brutally honest, the whole thing looks like an outtake from the Goosebumps TV series. So the scares feel a bit G-rated.
At the same time, I can’t help but think the problem is with me and not the short. I’ve seen too many horror movies. I’ve been scared so often by blue Japanese ladies making croaking sounds that the old tricks just don’t work anymore. So, as I’m often prone to do, I sat back and started overthinking the whole thing: Namely the concept of fear.
From what I can gather, the reason those jump stories work so well is because they’re intimate. Fear is contagious. That’s why sitting around a campfire with your equally scared friend, telling stories about maniacs with a hook for a hand, is so conductive to being terrified. It’s all about ambiance and setting.
To test out my theory, I performed an experiment. I went alone down in my basement at 3am and watched this on my phone while huddled in a blanket. Sitting on the floor in pajama pants and a Doctor Who T-shirt it occurred to me that I was forty-one years old, long past my days of sleepovers, but I did it anyway, for science.
Sitting there, the film’s rather good sound design echoing all around me, I couldn’t help but notice how dark it was. My only source of light was coming from the movie, and it’s not like seeing gibbering monsters and terrified children was soothing to the nerves.
It was definitely a creepy experience. No matter how much you remind yourself that you’re a grown a*s man, the darkness reminds you that you were once a child too. It all but whispers it in your ear. Scenes from the film that had seemed somewhat silly, when watched in the comfort of my well lit living room, did not seem so unimpressive here. When the film’s end came my heart was racing. I didn’t jump. I still think that very last “booga booga” scare doesn’t quite work, even when watched in the dark, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t glad it was over. If only because it meant I could get back upstairs to safety.
#1 Ambiance is everything.
#2 The First Step is plenty scary if you’re in the right frame of mind.
#3 No sane person would go through all the trouble I did to be scared by this film, so while it was scary to me under some very specific circumstances, it wouldn’t be scary to most people in most circumstances.
So, as much as it pains me to say, the film will fall flat to most of you.
Still, I like to think the filmmakers were trying a new way to scare the audience that didn’t work. No sin in that. It still gets the mood right, even if it does sort of fumble the rest a bit. Also, despite all of what I’ve said, I had fun watching The First Step. It certainly was an adventure to review. I’d actually recommend it if you’re programming a festival because I think it’d work really well in front of another scary short as a sort of intro. It’s definitely worth a look. It doesn’t quite achieve what it sets out to do, but what sort of reason is that not to praise it a little anyway?
This film was submitted for review through our Submission for Review system. If you have a film you’d like us to see, and we aren’t already looking into it on our own, you too can utilize this service.