There are two things that remain reliably unsettling throughout film history: children and dolls, or, to be more specific, haunted children and dolls. The Erl King centres on Julia and Alfie, a mother and son torn apart by the death of their husband and father. Trouble arises when Alfie starts to see his father again and Julia struggles to keep both herself and her son safe and sane.
Although horror films may look easy - just chuck in a few creepy kids, some Victorian dolls and a jump scare or two - they are actually notoriously difficult to get right. While writer Marisol Suarez and director Callum Windsor’s attempt surely has some merits, this short could have been improved by some more carefully calculated twists and thrills.
Julia, played by Louise Elliker, is the unlikely star of this film. She initially seems like the uninterested, unfeeling mother too consumed by her own depression to worry about her son’s disturbing visions. However, as the plotline develops, she gains depth, becoming more sympathetic and perhaps a little more realistic. The character’s triumph is aided by Elliker’s chilling performance that well conveys Julia’s turbulent joys and frustrations.
Unfortunately, this performance is not supported by a strong enough storyline. While the film portrays the tension of a grief-stricken home well, the scares come on far too fast to have any real affect. For example, after leaving the fête for a nearby wood (always a bad idea), Alfie is immediately confronted by what is supposed to be a terrifying spectre. Except it isn’t really that scary. What is most frightening is often what is unseen and unknown, so giving everything away at once looses that vital tension. Moreover, when the demons are revealed they are far too overblown to truly be taken seriously. Although the shifty looking doll’s midnight screams would certainly be terrifying to experience, the short’s portrayal of it is not.
These disturbing moments would also be more effective if they were a little better connected. It is not clear, for instance, why the ghost of Alfie’s father chooses the woods as his preferred place of torment, or what the significance of his position as the Erl King really is. In a similar way, the doll’s role in this is not sufficiently explained. Even though dolls do work as a recognised trope of horror, it doesn’t really work if they are not sufficiently woven into the story. Finally, while the ending is certainly horrifying (a scene like this could never be otherwise), it again happens too quickly and is too disconnected from the plot.
Given the strong characters and the competent depiction of grief, both Windsor and Suarez clearly have potential as a director and writer respectively. If, in their next film, they concentrated their skills on some more convincing scares, they will no doubt have us shaking in our socially distanced seats.
'The Erl King' was a film in consideration for Short Focus Film Festival 2020.