South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival – A Tale Best Forgotten is another new short horror piece brought to our attention through the Midnight Shorts Competition at SXSW Online 2021. Directed by Tomas Stark, this brisk five-minute affair is a dramatic interpretation of a poem by Helen Adam, a Scottish poet from around the time of the Beat Movement with a love of mysticism, gothic imagery, and all things dark. The film is plotted very closely to the poem, hauntingly sung by Adam throughout, which is about a man, his daughter, and the dog-headed man that lives among them. All told, this short felt more like a creepy Helen Adam music video, as her creepy sing-song narration is the best part of the whole affair.
There’s not too much to dig into here, the short is composed of slowly swooping shots that pan across the reflective surface of a river in disorienting fashion, and then up to the scene we’re seeing reflected, back again to set a new scene, and back to the river. If that sounds confusing that’s because it’s meant to be, especially as the second verse of the poem is shot upside down as though we’re pendulously and slowly swinging over the river from a weirdly fixed view across time. The crafty camera work for A Tale Best Forgotten is a definite high point, especially if you’re into impossible space.
However, there’s something crucial holding A Tale Best Forgotten back, and that’s the fact that the dog-headed man’s design does not adequately convey what he’s meant to be without the context of a line that has been cut from the poem. The dog-headed man is meant to be the Egyptian god Anubis, as the first line of the original poem is literally “Hail! Most Holy ANUBIS!” Without that framework I had a hard time drawing the connection with the figure that represents him– yes, there is a dog-like mask, but it’s only seen in the wavering reflection of the water and the figure is otherwise garbed in a featureless black cloak akin to a traditional depiction of the grim reaper. Maybe the director was trying to blend the two concepts of death, but there wasn’t enough Anubis in the final design to get that across without help. I can imagine the dog mask looked more like a canopic jar than the normal representation of the Egyptian god, but in the wobbly river reflections that’s a hard look to place on the fly.
This could have been remedied simply by adding the excised line as text at the end of the short just before the credits fade in, and while something like that might have felt hamfisted or contrived in another production, this one felt esoteric and haunting enough to have pulled it off. As an additional minor quirk, the very brief element of gore and the dog-headed costume both look a bit cheap (especially the red glowing eyes, which reminded me unfavorably of Jody from Amityville), and that does matter when the production isn’t meant to be campy but looming and unsettling.
A Tale Best Forgotten reviewed as part of our South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival coverage.
6 out of 10 Canopic Jars