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That Little Monster

Elite // Unrated // July 30, 2002
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 19, 2002 | E-mail the Author
That Little Monster began its life as a script for an episode of the horror-lite anthology series Monsters. Before Bunnell could be hired to bring his screenplay to the small screen, his producer...well, died. Undaunted, Bunnell took it upon himself to bring the project to fruition, funding the movie with thirty grand out of his own pocket over the course of more than three years. That Little Monster is not an easy film to ruthlessly chop into a tidy seven-sentence plot summary. It's so heavily driven by its visuals that a synopsis is a waste of bandwidth, but the setup goes something like this: the Willocks need a babysitter, and foreign exchange student Jamie (Melissa Baum) is more than happy to oblige. She's warned that their child is somewhat prone to excessive temper tantrums, though he's hardly a bad or difficult child. Jamie feels that she's more than up to the challenge, but she soon finds out just how much of a little monster young Wolper can be.

That Little Monster is the rare sort of film with which I almost immediately fall madly, hopelessly in love. As much as I loathe the word "quirky" (years of being a rabid They Might Be Giants fan can do that to a person), its application is unavoidable in this case. Imagine the Baby Selwyn scenes in Dead Alive expanded to 56 minutes and sadistically cross-pollinated with Eraserhead, and you'll be somewhere in the general vicinity. This is a movie that, following an instrumental overture, contains Famous Monsters of Filmland's Forrest Ackerman delivering a warning to the audience straight out of 1931's Frankenstein, all the while wearing Bela Legosi's ring from Dracula. Phantasm's Reggie Bannister even pops up as soda-hocking butler Twelvetrees.

Bunnell's direction is undoubtedly the real star of That Little Monster, and that this calling card of a film didn't instantly propel him towards a series of other projects is yet another shining example of how daft the entertainment industry can be. The photography is almost mesmerizing, clearly the work of someone who'd spent the better part of the past fifteen years experimenting with various lighting techniques, odd camera angles, and unusual blocking. Black and white was unquestionably the right way to go, giving the film an Outer Limits-by-way-of-David Lynch feel. I don't have any directing aspirations, but That Little Monster is the type of film I wish I had the talent to create. It makes me want to drive home to Charleston, dig out the ol' Bolex, stock up on 16mm film and Dr Pepper, and go nuts. As goofy as those last couple of statements probably sounds, that's honestly about the most praise I can lavish upon a film.

Works of this length generally receive, if you'll pardon the weak pun, the short end of the stick on DVD. If released at all, they're invariably either an extra on a DVD containing a feature-length work by the director, part of some sort of shorts compilation, or one of a few hundred discs as part of a special pressing unavailable through traditional retail channels. That Little Monster is one of the handful of examples of a widely distributed DVD with a short film as the feature attraction, but that didn't stop Elite Entertainment from giving it the best presentation possible. The disc includes several quality extras, most notably an audio commentary and a second short by Paul Bunnell.

Video: The black-and-white That Little Monster is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspec ratio. (Well, it's as black and white as Them! is, I guess.) Aside from the scarcely noteworthy presence of a handful of flecks, there are no concerns at all with the quality of this presentation. It may be worth noting that the image is somewhat grainy, as is to be expected from a $30,000 16mm production. The film grain, combined with the retro set design and general structure of the story, makes That Little Monster seems as if it's part of anthology television series from decades past. Director Paul Bunnell delves somewhat into the stylized lighting and the resulting change in contrast on the disc's audio commentary, and all of that is reflected beautifully. Blacks are deep and inky, and the image remains respectably crisp and well-defined throughout. Bunnell mentions in a couple of places in the disc's supplemental material that That Little Monster is a film driven by its visuals, and they appear to be reproduced on this disc with only the most exceedingly minor of issues.

Audio: That Little Monster sports a robust Dolby stereo surround soundtrack. Dialogue generally comes through very well, though the looping in the "Interview" sequence is a touch too artificial sounding. Also, louder screams 'n the like are on the harsh side. The rears nicely accentuate Jerry Danielsen's creepy keyboard-driven score (I'd have no trouble believing that he was a member of the Residents) and a number of ambient sound effects. Nicely done.

Supplements: Paul Bunnell was the tender age of 18 when he directed the twenty-minute short film The Vistant in 1981. I have an armful of DVDs where directors have seen fit to pile on amateurish experiments churned out on Super 8 in their teenage years. Unlike most of those, The Visitant (at least according to Bunnell's official site) apparently impressed the suits at one cable network enough to get some airtime on HBO. This tale of a neglectful father's Hell on Earth is not surprisingly rough around the edges, but Bunnell's promise as a filmmaker is evident even at this early age. The fascination with Twilight Zone-style twists is present and accounted for, as is some inventive camera work, including some flight shots that scream "Help! It's the Hair Bear Bunch".

The Best List is an excerpt of an interview with Bunnell and host Robert Armen, presumably from some hopelessly obscure cable access show. It runs just under ten minutes and ends extremely abruptly. An exceptionally caffeinated Bunnell discusses two clips from That Little Monster, one of which he didn't choose and hates, and a second that he selected and adores. Other highlights are a spot-on Barney Fife impression and Bunnell delving into his adoration for Bob Hope, a passion that runs so deep that his 1960 T-bird has personalized Bob Hope license plates.

The most noteworthy supplements is last on the 'Bonus Features' menu. Writer/director Paul Bunnell and producer/editor Carl Mastromarino provide a thoroughly detailed audio commentary They run through the origins of the film (shamelessly regurgitated in the first paragraph of this review), point out many of the homages (including shots inspired by a laundry list of films as varied as Frenzy, The Shining, Eraserhead, and Sunset Boulevard), and provide a number of technical notes. Though Bunnell was hesitant to delve into detail regarding one complicated shot on The Best List, he gives it a meticulous runthrough on the commentary, even mentioning that the Steadicam used in that particular shot was homemade. There is also discussion about which portions were filmed when, including a couple of shots a year apart, one of which has star Melissa Baum in her fifth month of pregnancy.

Conclusion: That Little Monster is certainly not a film with the widespread appeal of...I dunno, pick a title at random and it'll more than likely apply. Still, if this review has inspired even the faintest amount of interest, you'll probably appreciate That Little Monster. Elite has done a great job with the quality of its presentation and the variety of supplemental material, and the resulting DVD is well-worth the asking price of $15 at a number of online retailers. Highly Recommended.
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