Firstly, I just want to say a big thanks to John Iwasz and Small Basket Studios, along with director Tom Smith, for allowing me to view an online screener of the 19 minute short film “Slay Bells”. Slay Bells is a Christmas themed slasher film that centers on Ray (played by Gabriele Bellotti), who spends Christmas Eve fooling around with Lisa (Abigail Foster), a girl he met at the local bar. He arrives home to Jen, his miserable alcoholic wife (played by Brandy Bryant), and their two kids Sally and Emily (Crystal and Sarah Smith). The two have a heated argument over where Ray has been, which is overheard by James (Curtis K Case), a black man dressed as Santa. What the family doesn’t know, is that James was recently dumped by his girlfriend and is out to make sure the naughty are punished before Christmas!
This cool and ambitious slasher short was filmed in Pennsylvania for an estimated $1,000. The story is a similar one to that of the classic “Silent Night Deadly Night” 80’s slasher flick, which I’m almost sure inspired this. I was genuinely surprised at how loud and clear the dialogue audio was. My only criticism is that in certain rooms of the house there are inconsistencies in the volume. During the arguing, the levels started to peak out and the screaming is rather sharp. The way the first 5 or 6 minutes unfolded as Ray hooked up with Lisa, made for an interesting ending that I didn’t expect nor did I think would come back around as the final revelation. Speaking of Lisa, she looks lovely, sporting the naughty Santa outfit great stuff (haha). The acting is above average. Given the miniscule budget and experience levels of those involved, it all comes together pretty nicely. Brandy really sells Jen with that ugly personality and bullish demeanor. After all, she has reason to be paranoid when it comes to Ray’s agenda. Some of the lines between the two during their argument were delivered a little to jovial, but other than that most of it was well written.
Moreover, the inclusion of James as a black Santa was funny, and a really different take on the Christmas traditions. Fair enough, why can’t Santa be black (haha). The two best things about the film were the cool retro, John Hughes, three note, piano score straight out of Home Alone and the cool practical blood and gore effects. A lot of people don’t like it when filmmakers reference other films directly. They quickly want to stamp it as unoriginal or even suggest plagiarism was involved. Let’s face it, we are all inspired by things we grew up watching and really enjoying. It’s not hurting anybody to tip your hat to those that came before you, especially when it’s helping keep the classics alive. The action sequences/deaths in the film were all in good nature and felt like they were straight out of the 80’s. Slasher films weren’t as heavy on the blood and gore in years gone by, so I understand the decision to keep it simple. I’m a huge fan of practical blood and gore and I’m of the mindset, the more the better. Although, with a very small budget like this, there’s only so much you can do.
A couple of technical aspects, in regards to some of the camera work and the lighting fell a bit flat. Some of that again is down to the budget but also the lack of experience. I believe this is Tom’s first time behind the camera. He spent a lot of time with special effects and makeup, learning the craft from one of the genres best in Tom Savini. Here, he chooses some really smart shots with slick panning that look great, but then let’s himself down with a lot of handheld or still shots that lose their focus. The faces are framed decently but the background of entire rooms is out of focus and it becomes quite distracting. Some scenes could have been edited a little bit smoother as well. They opted to use a lot of natural light which was rather harsh looking and the second half, which takes place at night becomes a lot darker. I understand those are not easy things to perfect when your under the pump.
The story is entertaining enough, but it was difficult to buy that Ray and Jen were a couple, let alone had two kids. For one, the kids look to be about 10 and 12 and both Gabriel and Brandy only look to be really young themselves. It wasn’t crucial to the story that they even had kids, and I didn’t think at any point they would have had a functional or believable relationship, simply because they hated each other. Some of the humor is a little forced and awkward too. A few of the cheesy one liners worked, but the stuff between Lisa and Ray was just uncomfortable (haha). I mentioned the cool practical effects work, but I would have loved it if the crew had a bit more money to go all out with the blood and gore. Think, limbs being chopped off. Which we who have seen the film, would all agree Jen needed to experience. The final scenes in the bedroom could have benefited from more of the red stuff, maybe some blood spray up the wall or on the teddy bear, just small additions like that.
Slay Bells is a really ambitious and passion filled project, It’s evident in the entertainment value of the short. It’s got a great Hughes influenced score, with a hint of eerieness about it and plenty of unlikable people, who you get to see killed off in a fun way by a black Santa, of all people. Some of the writing and technical aspects could have been improved and if the special effects budget was a little higher, the gore could have been more memorable. Overall though, Slay Bells is a fun 19 minute short film, that shows the obvious potential Tom ‘Smitty’ Smith possesses, and I for one can’t wait to see what he does next!
Cheers Tom and Co!
My rating for “Slay Bells” is 6/10