Walk through the racks of your local Best Buy and you'll see stacks of low-budget horror movies you've never heard of. If I had to guess, I'd say it's because fake blood is the cheapest of all props; anyone with ten bucks and a video camera can whip up a miniature splatter epic (for better, or, more likely, worse). A better reason, though, might be that of all the genres, it's easiest to see what horror is doing wrong. Every time I go and see a horror movie, I can't help but wonder why the director caved and put loud stings on the soundtrack during every jump scare and why our "heroes" lack the most basic character development. Even a few directors who claimed in interviews to hate these very things seem oblivious to the fact that their own films commit similar crimes.
The Shortcut, however, already has an advantage: an interesting pedigree. Glance at the billing block and you'll see that this is a Scary Madison film. Yes, while he goes uncredited, Adam Sandler is responsible for this film, likely because his brother Scott is the co-writer. Sandler also hired his Grandma's Boy cohort Nicholaus Goossen to direct, and beyond that (unrelated to Sandler, but relevant to film and comedy) James Franco's younger brother Dave is one of the movie's co-stars. It's this weird mix that inspired me to give the movie a spin, and for once, I wasn't let down.
Genuine character writing is the rare in mainstream horror, and while The Shortcut is definitely not a rich, nuanced study of youth in America, it does manage teenage dialogue that isn't a) painfully strained, b) blatant, clunky exposition or c) terribly performed. Maybe it's because I recently sat through The Final Destination, a film practically defined by its disinterest in plot or characters, but I really appreciated the light, genuine glow The Shortcut's cast elicits. As far as any short little horror flick should indulge itself, these people are allowed to do things like chat about things irrelevant to the plot to fill in their personalities, and the actors do a good job of not faking awkwardness and letting conversations feel realistic.
There's also the less-obvious but still important side of the scripting; the film gives us a jock (Josh Emerson) that isn't a brute idiot and doesn't blindly hate nerds, a central male (Andrew Seeley) and female character (Shannon Woodward) who have no outward romantic interest in one another, and a broken-home family dynamic that isn't grossly dysfunctional (a missing father is a sore spot but not an immediate source of rebellion or fighting). Some audience members probably won't even notice all the host of cliches that aren't happening, but it was a great relief to me. For the most part, the characters also don't make grossly unintelligent decisions when faced with danger. Aside from a scene where it could have been clearer that a car wouldn't start anymore, I never had to throw my hands up in frustration or felt like yelling at the screen, which, sadly, I have been compelled to do (in the comfort of my own home, that is).
As far as music stings, Goossen is more interested in setting a tone than trying to get the audience to jump. He's got faith that the plot, about a mysterious old man living in the woods (Raymond J. Barry), will be enough to creep viewers out, and to an extent, it works (with Barry doing little but still eliciting a mild creepiness). I also thought I sensed a visual homage to Stand By Me, but that may have been my imagination. By the time the third act rolls around, The Shortcut could use a little more inspiration; I saw one of the twists coming from a mile away and sensed another one being set up, even if I didn't specifically know what was going to happen. There are also a series of flashbacks that aren't as effective as the present-day material. Even so, the atmosphere of The Shortcut is modestly effective when taken as a whole, and far more resonant than a few jangly piano keys. In the direction arena, there's also another interesting tidbit: the opening credits were directed by Toby Wilkins, director of Splinter and The Grudge 3.
It's become hard to avoid turning my quiet praise into a backhanded compliment, but I promise: The Shortcut is a fun little success. It concentrates on doing the things that other horror movies don't, and it does them effectively enough to sustain itself to the finish line. In a way, it's similar to Drag Me to Hell: that film delivered Vintage Raimi without trying to change the formula, and it delivered it with enthusiasm and verve. The Shortcut doesn't quite have verve, but it relies on its strong points in a positive way. Recently, a friend of mine told me she didn't like Drag Me to Hell, because critics had hyped it up too much. I said the praise was a reflection of the genre's repeated failure as much as it was Raimi's success. The Shortcut may get a lighter recommendation, but if one day the racks at Best Buy were filled with films as enjoyable as The Shortcut, horror fans would have little to complain about.
The DVD, Video and Audio
I was sent a DVD in a paper sleeve, but I've seen the uninspiring cover art. Just because the film doesn't have any stars doesn't mean the poster/DVD art has to be generic and lazy. Also, again, DVD cover artists -- please figure out how the actors are going to be billed and put the heads under the right names!
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation looks alright, with solid colors, although the image is soft and fine detail is lost. Most of the film takes place at night, and black levels aren't as strong as I'd like them to be. A few of the shots are clearly digital, with interlacing and/or motion blur, but the film was shot digitally, so that's no surprise. Overall, the picture looks pretty good, but since this isn't a final copy, I'll wait and see if they send me one before I give a final grade. If the retail disc has better contrast, it would make a big difference.
Dolby Digital 5.1 will be provided on the final product, along with English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Director Nicholaus Goossen contributes an audio commentary that's heavy on production detail. If you're a fan of technical information about the shoot (including numerous low-budget struggles and details on scenes that have been pasted together with editing), this is a solid track without too much dead space, and Goossen (obviously, as the director of Grandma's Boy) has a good sense of humor. He also chats about the changes required to get the movie a PG-13 (I didn't realize it was PG-13 and wouldn't necessarily have guessed), which is interesting, and mentions the amount of input and collaboration from Adam (quite a bit). I wouldn't have begrudged him another participant (like co-writer Scott Sandler), but I didn't have any trouble getting through it.
The only other extra is the screechy original theatrical trailer (which -- pet peeve of mine -- uses the wrong form of "it's" in one of its captions). Additional trailers for Nature of the Beast (which rips off a joke from Dead-Alive), It's a Boy Girl Thing and Nanny Insanity play when you put in the DVD.
Once again: I enjoyed The Shortcut. I don't want to give the impression that I had any real complaints about it, just that its goals are fairly restrained and it doesn't get sidetracked. That said, the disc isn't packed, and the film's replay value is probably subjective. Give it a rent before a purchase, but if you're looking for a good little thriller, The Shortcut is worth considering.
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