Kitchen Sink Horror:
The Short Films of Ben Steiner
Ellis Reed examines Ben Steiner’s short horror films, available now via YouTube, and speaks to the British filmmaker about his work...
Horror, perhaps more than any genre, has a thriving scene for short-form cinema – which probably isn’t surprising, given parallel trends in fiction. Even for feature-length productions, the anthology is a format that never quite dies, because horror is a genre that really shines in short stories. They can be told around a campfire, read aloud in a Victorian study, or shown before a longer film as a Pixar-style amuse-bouche, and there’ll always be a place for them in horror.
For fans of the format, Ben Steiner is a filmmaker with an excellent pedigree. Outside the genre, he’s worked in advertising – he wrote a Go Compare campaign that was directed by none other than Ben Wheatley(1) – and his talent for brevity translates very well to darker material. Many of his films are available to watch online, so we took the opportunity to dive in, watch them, and ask some questions about his work.
First and foremost, his latest outing is a recut version of a micro-short called ‘Urn’, which was commissioned by Hulu for an online event in 2018. Weighing in at under three minutes, the new edit is even shorter and features a haunting new score by Jano SaGN. ‘Jano actually chose me as a collaborator,’ Steiner told us. ‘He got in touch out of the blue asking if he could re-score URN, which is how the re-edit came about… I just thought, if I’m going to do a micro-short, let’s see how micro I can go.’
In terms of production quality, it’s definitely at the top end of the spectrum. It features Alex Reid of The Descent (UK, Neil Marshall, 2005), the aforementioned new score, and lush cinematography by Alex Metcalfe. Watching it, we open on a stunning shot of a lake at dawn, with mist rolling off the water and swans in silhouette. Reid is there to scatter the ashes of her mother, but things don’t go to plan.
The sequence is played completely straight, evoking the climax of a BBC Ghost Story for Christmas, and Steiner manages to convey a huge amount of back story in under three minutes. To do so, he makes judicious use of Reid’s performance and a small number of ultra-brief flashbacks (the latter especially being one of his strengths). The sound design by Chris Domaille is also superb, really selling the terror and tension of the piece. Given how little it asks of the viewer, ‘Urn’ is a complete no-brainer for fans of British horror, and a great starting point for a tour of Steiner’s work.
Another highlight is ‘The Flea’ (2008), described by Dread Central’s Johnny Butane as ‘a better vampire story in 9 minutes than most films can squeeze into 90.’(2) It opens with a scene where a masked vagrant drives a wooden stake through the heart of a baby, but thankfully, at the critical moment, we cut to a very expressive close up of an egg yolk bursting. The crux of the story involves the vampire hunter’s relationship with his former partner, but I’ll dodge potential spoilers and simply encourage you to watch it. The short takes familiar urban settings and makes them intensely terrifying, aided in no small part by Virgil Howe’s throbbing score and a superb central performance by Mark Fleischmann. It’s an incredibly grim, gritty film that will have you on the edge of your seat throughout. It prompted Ben Wheatley to ask why Steiner wasn’t making a feature(3) and comes highly recommended by us.
The third and final film we need to mention is ‘The Stomach’ (2014) which was Steiner’s breakout film on the festival circuit. ‘THE STOMACH changed everything for me,’ he told us. ‘After years of toiling in total obscurity (as opposed to the relative obscurity I’m toiling in now) I was being showered with praise.’ It’s something of a genre mashup, insofar as it features a spirit medium in the seedy world of organised crime. The only other film I can think of with this theme is a feature called Polterheist (UK, David Gilbank, 2018), but ‘The Stomach’ came first and is even more original because the medium’s method is so unique. He summons the spirits of the dead into his stomach (which involves some brilliantly queasy practical effects) and lets clients speak to them through a tube in his mouth. It might sound like a comedy, but it really isn’t, because it puts far more focus on pathos, and the terrible toll (both mental and physical) that the process takes on the bedridden medium. It picked up twenty-five awards, with glowing testimonials from genre grandees Reece Sheersmith (‘Fantastic… queasy, horrible’) and Stephen Volk (‘Terrific… it haunts me’)(4). In short, it’s a must-see for fans of twisted, gritty horror – and while it’s sat there on Youtube, you’d be crazy to miss it.
As well as watching Ben Steiner’s films, we took the opportunity to ask him some questions about his work.
Ellis: Before you made Urn, you wrote and directed some superb horror shorts with longer runtimes – especially The Flea and The Stomach. After making those, how did you approach the challenge of telling a micro-short story? What are the pros and cons of having just two and a half minutes to work with, and are there any parallels with working in advertising?
Ben: Thank you, I’m very proud of those two older films, especially THE STOMACH. For me, the biggest pro of making a micro-short like URN is that the audience is more likely to stick it out to the end. When you look at online view stats, drop-off rates are shocking, especially when you see how many viewers bail on a ten-minute film two minutes from the end.
Hopefully, most people will get to the end of URN. Making it was a real departure for me; my natural tendency is to weave in sub-plots and tonnes of back story because I love to create an expansive and immersive world for the characters and the audience. Obviously, there’s not time to do that to the same extent in two and half minutes but I was pleased to be able to drop one key bit of backstory into URN which has a transformative effect on the story.
There is a similarity to advertising in that you have to try to establish mood, setting and characters as quickly as possible. Most ads are thirty seconds long and so there’s very little sense of something unfolding or revealing itself; they’re just set-up and punchline and then out.
E: The sound design of Urn is fantastic – not just the score by Jano SaGN but horror details like the suffocating sounds we hear in the car. The cinematography is also gorgeous, especially Alex Metcalfe’s establishing shots of the lake. As a director, how do you work with the other creatives? How did you bring them on board?
B: Again, thank you. I think Alex and Jano, Colette Hodges the editor and the sound designer Chris Domaille all did a fantastic job. I particularly love the crunkly plastic bag sounds Chris dropped into the flashback shots towards the end. Because of COVID we were both working remotely so there was a lot of back and forth particularly on the very final sequence to get the timings just right, a process that would have taken about two minutes had we been together.
I should say that Jano actually chose me as a collaborator – he got in touch out of the blue asking if he could re-score URN, which is how the re-edit came about.
Aside from obviously talent and skill, I look for collaborators who come with interesting ideas of their own but who are ultimately happy to defer to me. Film’s an intrinsically collaborative medium, so even though the overall vision might be mine as writer/director, the final film is not ‘by’ me alone. I think if you want to own a work of art in that way, you either have to be Robert Rodriguez and do everything yourself, or you have to work in a different artform like writing or painting, where it really is just you working alone. I think anyone who subscribes to Auteur Theory either doesn’t understand the process of filmmaking, or wants the adulation afforded to writers and painters but hasn’t got the necessary skills to express themself in those media.
E: The 2021 version of Urn is a re-edit of the original, which was commissioned by Hulu for an online event in 2018 (‘Huluween’). How did the collaboration with Hulu come about? What made you want to revisit this short, and what did you change?
B: URN was one of several micro-shorts that were made for Huluween, all of which were executive produced by 20th Digital Studio, which is part of Disney. I think it was 20th DS who hired a guy called Todd Luoto to approach filmmakers to pitch micro-shorts, and I knew Todd from when THE STOMACH was doing festivals.
Jano, the composer, approached me out of the blue in 2020 to ask if he could rescore URN which prompted me to revisit the film. In terms of the edit, I stripped it right down to the essentials, removing a couple of extraneous sequences, shortening the very end and re-jigging the opening first section slightly. I just thought, if I’m going to do a micro-short, let’s see how micro I can go. I was then lucky enough to get the support of Films@59, a post-production house in Bristol, who made the whole thing possible.
E: Horror fans will know Alex Reid from The Descent (UK, Neil Marshall, 2005). Here, she conveys a huge amount of trauma, fear and unspoken backstory in a tiny amount of screen time. How did she get attached to the project, and what was it like working with her?
B: I actually can’t remember how Alex got involved except that it was through the producer, Dan Dixon. But she was utterly delightful and we’re working on some other stuff together. She’s just a brilliant actress. No fuss just got on with it, didn’t need much from me. And she totally carries the film.
It comes back to film as a collaboration. Without great actors you’re screwed before you start. I was very lucky on THE STOMACH as well, especially with Simon Meacock who played Frank. Simon’s a close friend and we’d worked before on INSECTICIDE and THE FLEA but I thought he was just extraordinary in THE STOMACH. Hopefully he’ll reprise the role in the feature version
E: You’ve explored a range of styles in your shorts. The Flea and The Stomach are based on ideas that could almost be funny if they weren’t so grim. Insecticide (2007) could have been done in the same way, but it focuses more on the surrealism and dark humour of the premise. Urn features haunting images, intense emotional acting and a terrible reckoning, making it feel like a more ‘traditional’ horror. What do you consider your signature style, and what are your main influences?
B: I’m not sure I have influences that span my whole output; I think each film draws on specific inspirations, a lot of which aren’t films. URN draws on the BBC Christmas ghost stories, especially Mark Gatiss’ TRACTATE MIDDOTH with its spooky spectral fingers. THE STOMACH draws on PERFORMANCE, SÉANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON and the FACTORY NOVELS by Derek Raymond, and also by the Chris Morris TV show JAM in which there’s a sketch with Mark Heap trying to rob a corner shop by claiming he has a gun in his stomach pointing at the shopkeeper.
There’s another JAM sketch in which a woman invites a plumber round to ‘fix’ her dead baby which was a massive influence on INSECTICIDE. (JAM’s amazing – the sketch with Julia Davis as the lonely sociopath who goes to increasingly deranged lengths to make friends is utterly terrifying!) The short I’m working on now has a big Francis Bacon (the painter) influence, and one of my feature scripts is inspired by an early 00s art installation in Whitechapel by Austrian artist Gregor Schneider. I used to refer to my style as ‘kitchen sink horror’ and I think I’ll always be rooted in that sort of grimy realism, but I want to expand my palette. My next short is focused more on visuals and atmosphere than narrative and I’m hoping to try out some bolder lighting and camera moves.
E: As a writer and director of shorts, you’ve got a huge number of awards and glowing reviews under your belt. What’s been your personal high point so far? And have there been any lows or disappointments that you had to get through?
B: THE STOMACH changed everything for me; after years of toiling in total obscurity (as opposed to the relative obscurity I’m toiling in now) I was being showered with praise. I had a lot of fun during its festival run, and as well as awards picked up some good friends along the way, among them filmmakers Andy Stewart and Fred Hana whose work is definitely worth checking out. My failure to make a feature is an ongoing source of disappointment but I have faith… and a very supportive wife!
E: Finally, I know you’ve had at least four feature-length films in development: a new version of The Stomach, a haunted house film called Dead Windows, an occult thriller called Mr Sundown, and a film about the Highgate Vampire. Where are you up to with features, and what else do you have in the pipeline for horror fans?
B: All of the features you mention are out in the world, seeking finance. I’m also developing a comedy feature with a couple of friends including on/off collaborator Eli Silverman who co-wrote and starred in my comedy short film CLANKER MAN. And I’m hoping to shoot the new short I mentioned in July. Lots going on!
Many thanks to Ben Steiner for sharing his films and answering our questions! You can watch all the films mentioned here on his new Youtube playlist, plus a short comedy called ‘Clanker Man’ (2017).