Shortcut, a creature feature in the ‘rubber monster chases hapless victims in the dark’ sense, opens on a recognisable scene. A group of five oddball British teens are on a school trip, onboard a handsome vintage bus (betraying the film’s Anglo-Italian production by being more stylish than anything ever used to cart British schoolkids around in) winding through a dark forest.
The characters are all hastily sketched, but fall broadly into the molds of John Hughes high school archetypes: the rebel, the goofball, the nerd etc. It isn’t long before the van is hijacked by a scenery-chewing psychopath with a gun (David Keyes, who appears to be having a great deal of fun with the role). However, lurking in the dark is a creature even more terrifying than their kidnapper: a kind of mothman-vampire hybrid called the “Nocturne Wanderer”. Taking shelter in a subterranean military installation, the blood-soaked Breakfast Club rejects must band together to survive. With a once-in-lifetime lunar eclipse on the cards, it’s going to be a long night.
Like a lot of international co-productions, Shortcut can create feelings of dislocation. The vintage school bus with five mismatched teens in it, although a good set-up for an adolescent horror flick, is never really explained. Is this a school trip for only five children? Is the driver also a teacher?
Despite some initial confusion, this vagueness of setting ends up working in the film’s favour. Rather than being a literal representation of events, the story takes on more of a mythical aspect. When you combine this with some truly sumptuous cinematography, you end up enhancing this fairytale effect. Unfortunately, when the action moves from lush forest to underground tunnels, cinematographer Luca Santagostino suddenly has a massively restricted palette to work with. There’s some impressive low-light photography, but the film is never as visually appealing as in its opening scenes, which is a real shame.
We can’t help but feel like the international production may have contributed to some of the clunkier scenes of dialogue, too. There are some witty back-and-forths between the characters, but the editing isn’t snappy enough to make them really pop, and lines are occasionally left to hang awkwardly in the air.
The highlight of the movie is the monster itself, created by the FX team Makinarium. It has a weird bulbous head, a mouth frothing with gore and spittle, and the suggestion of ragged bat-like wings. It’s barely on camera, but the flashes we get of it are suggestive and can be creepy.
Although the set-up most closely resembles Jeepers Creepers 2, Shortcut reminded us first and foremost of the more recent film Blood Vessel, in which a crew of ragtag WW2 types face off against a Nazi vampire. Like Blood Vessel, the villain of Shortcut is a hulking latex creation, skillfully sculpted by expert hands. Unfortunately, also like Blood Vessel, the practical considerations of shooting with such a beast collide with the film’s budgetary restrictions. This means that the monster is only seen sparingly, and is only capable of extremely restricted movement, meaning that it does a lot of advancing on people threateningly, but little else.
This is what creates the chief problem with Shortcut; a general lack of peril. It is clear from the opening scenes that Shortcut is pitched at a young audience, so expecting gore galore would be foolish. That said, a bit more of a sense of danger would not go amiss, especially in scenes where the cast are moving through tunnels by torchlight. These suffer from a general lack of urgency, not helped by some digressions into flashback to explain the monster’s presence.
Zander Emlano’s Karl is by far the best performance, although all the young actors do sterling work here. His goofy charm is charismatic and entertaining, but it would be great if it was a counterpoint to some more intense scares. For a generation of tweens raised on shows like Sabrina, it’s unlikely that Shortcut will raise many pulses.
That being said, the young cast all acquit themselves well and there are flashes of excellence from a technical standpoint. Aiming a horror film at a preteen demographic is a much trickier exercise than many imagine, and while Shortcut may not have the most terrifying presence, it’s sure to win over a few budding genre fans.