A horror short lives or dies by a handful of simple, clear criteria. They operate similarly to one-act plays or comedy routines. Go in with an immediately accessible game or leave with a memorable sharp stinger. A game means rules and horror audiences love the cruel puzzle of bending, breaking, and submitting to the rules of a good scary story. Play by the rules and you get Crypt TV’s Look-See series and David Sandberg’s Lights Out. The latest in this proud tradition is the subtle and strange short, Ryan Graff’s Black Moon.
Graff’s short takes its inspiration from an unusual phenomenon: two new moons in one month. This summer played host to one of the rare occurrences in long-ago July. These “black moons,” according to Graff’s short, create ideal circumstances for supernatural events.
These black moons become holes to fall into, portals to go through, and places never to return from. Graff takes this connection literally and sets his short in a literal tunnel, where the sound of a crying girl lures an unsuspecting woman (Fabienne Tournet) inside. At the beginning and at the end are deep voids with nothing but a tunnel of horrors connecting them. It’s no coincidence that Graff’s short also begins and ends with black screens.
When we enter the tunnel with her, we immediately know, as she does, that things aren’t what they seem. Soon our leading lady is trapped in the tunnel, bookended by two black moons and far from anything resembling safety. There’s more than a crying girl in there with her; there’s something snarling, dangerous, and hungry.
What really lifts “Black Moon” above other shorts is the expert composition. Wrapping your short around a never-ending tunnel gimmick presents all kinds of risk. It’s a few false steps away from being corny or too difficult to portray, but Ryan Graff’s camera and direction make the tunnel feel endless in a believable, unsettling way. The sound design bounces the protagonists clopping shoes around the frame, acting as a kind of cinematic heartbeat. As tension mounts, the character runs, and the clips and clops intensify until we fear the worst. Graff takes nine minutes and turns them into a lifetime, then cuts it short with a cinematic heart attack.
The ending, without spoilers, is a cruel little joke that we laugh at with the filmmakers. Having been through the harrowing nine minutes of brutal, futile, atmosphere, we know better than the film and congratulate ourselves. Black Moon is a well-crafted exhibition of a single scare, the definitive approach to scary short filmmaking.