Shortcut opens with a shot of a young boy running through the woods in a yellow raincoat. He bears more than a passing resemblance to Georgie, the doomed little brother who acts as a catalyst for the events of Stephen King’s celebrated childhood horror story IT. Not many tales, or indeed films, come close to capturing what makes the maestro’s work so effective. He understands kids, and the way in which we all carry our childhoods with us into adulthood, in a way nobody else does. When placing youngsters in peril, he has no fear of going for the jugular.
Shortcut, an English-Italian coproduction with an Italian writer and director but all-English cast of bright-eyed newcomers, has a body count that only really applies to the adults in the room (King would not be impressed). No matter, because when the tykes are this cute, we tend to root for their survival anyway. The central group is travelling through some scenic woodland while a radio report drones on about the upcoming lunar eclipse. They’re a ragtag bunch, not exactly friends but thrown together through circumstance and sagely led by the weathered driver, Joseph, whom they lovingly refer to as “Joe” and “Josie.” As played by a twinkly-eyed Terence Anderson, you just know he’s not long for this world.
Indeed, after taking a, yes, shortcut the gang runs afoul of a gun-toting madman who commandeers their bus and insists on being driven to his destination all while doing a bad impression of Mackenzie Crook (mixed with a splash of Denis O’Hare for good measure). Before they can get there, however, another threat presents itself in the form of some kind of tunnel-dwelling demon, which looks a bit like a werewolf lady mixed with early era Marilyn Manson. It’s spoiling nothing to say the children are almost immediately left to fend for themselves, while also trying to figure out a maze-like system of tunnels in the disused army base in which they’ve found themselves stranded and, naturally, where the creature also likes to hunt.
It’s a cool location that does most of the work of establishing tension here, considering we can’t see where the creature is lurking for the most part. The woods, meanwhile, loom ominously outside, a veil of mist hanging over them as if to suggest some kind of untold mystery lurking just beneath the trees. Flashbacks are sparingly employed to flesh out the story, but thankfully they don’t sap any of the intrigue from the central predicament. When the kids are trapped on the bus, Shortcut veers dangerously close to Jeepers Creepers 2 territory (though, it has to be noted, this film wasn’t directed by a pedophile, which makes that setup slightly less queasy). Once they head underground, however, things really start to heat up as the situation escalates rapidly.
The flick is just 80 minutes long, so there’s no time to waste and, although we don’t spend too long getting to know each kid individually, their personalities are finely-etched and the performances, all impressively naturalistic rather than slick with that annoying drama school sheen, fill in the blanks nicely. The young actors all do a terrific job, with just one, bad boy Reg, played by Zak Sutcliffe, overdoing it ever so slightly by posing like he’s in Black Veil Brides every time he has to stand still (Sutcliffe settles into the role as the story evolves, however, so if you’re his mother reading this, I do apologize), and they’re all likeable, which is hugely important in a film of this nature. Director Alessio Liguori asks quite a lot of this fresh-faced gang, and they rise to the occasion with aplomb. One kid even ends up in the monster’s clutches, while another gamely gets covered in fake blood and resists the urge to wipe it off.
Shortcut’s mysterious creature looks unbelievably good, and is clearly someone in a physical suit, lending the necessary tactility to make it an actual threat. There are plenty of brilliant money shots of the thing gurning and baying for blood. Practical FX will always sell a threat better than cheap CGI, so the painstaking creation of this monster was clearly money and time well spent. Every second it’s onscreen, the camera lovingly takes in all the gooey, spiky goodness, which chimes well with a movie that’s shot beautifully overall, Luca Santagostino’s rich cinematography capturing the surrounding area just as richly as the creature’s labyrinthine lair. Although much of the action takes place in darkness, the layout is clear, escape seemingly always just a few steps away.
The film Shortcut most resembles is arguably Paul Hyett’s underrated werewolf movie Howl, whose action took place predominantly on a stranded train with forests on either side. There are plenty of references to Alien, too, of course, given the claustrophobia and barbed creature, while notes of The Descent emerge also, particularly towards the end. Daniele Cosci’s efficient script never lets the kids down by leaving them to sit and discuss personality traits or buried trauma, nor does it require them to behave irrationally or like superheroes once things turn bad. One boy gets a big payoff to a clearly embellished story he’s told earlier, but it’s a moment that feels authentic to limitless childhood courage, rather than one designed to appeal to the Marvel set. This isn’t a kids movie where the characters behave like adults, nor is it a cynical story of adolescence told by someone who can’t remember what it was like to run through the woods with friends; it’s a smart rendering of regular kids thrown into an irregular scenario who find they have more strength within themselves than they realized.
See Also: Howl [FrightFest Review]
Shortcut does lose its way towards the end, wrapping up with a strange, Breakfast Club-esque manifesto, as though the filmmakers weren’t sure quite how to end it, but it’s a rare misstep in an otherwise solid adventure horror movie with a terrific cast of new faces, a great location for the mayhem to go down in, and a gnarly, expertly-crafted creature at its dark heart.
Catch Shortcut from September 25, 2020 in theaters and drive-ins across the U.S.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Alessio Liguori
Writer(s): Daniele Cosci
Stars: Jack Kane, Zak Sutcliffe, Andrei Claude, Sophie Jane Oliver, Terence Anderson
Release date: September 25, 2020
Studio/Production Company: Mad Rocket Entertainment
Run Time: 80 minutes