Directed by: Elise Martin. Starring: Betty Denville, Sean Kilty, William Paul. Runtime: 13 min. Released: May 8, 2020 (on Vimeo).
The zombie horror-comedy musical Anna and the Apocalypse was one of my favourite films of 2018, so when I heard about the short film Dearly Departed, a 13-minute haunted house musical that blends comedy and romance, I knew that was right up my alley.
The film follows Vera (Betty Denville), an ordinary girl who happens to be living in a house full of spirits, and must learn to balance her relationships with her alive boyfriend, Fred (Ashton Spear), and the home’s ghosts, Billy (Sean Kilty), Kirk (William Paul) and Cara (Olivia Warren). Since it’s only 13 minutes long, I’ll avoid specific spoilers, but I enjoyed trying to guess what direction the film would go in, like if the ghosts would try to break up Vera and Fred or not. How they feel about the relationship is explored, but writers Jess Bartlett (also credited as producer and hairstylist) and Elise Martin (who also directs) take this in a fun direction.
It’s interesting watching Fred throw a wrench into this unique household dynamic by immediately suggesting Vera find a new home. He questions why she needs all this space, gesturing to empty chairs that we know are occupied by the abode’s ghosts. There’s not enough time to explain exactly why Fred, a realtor, is so insistent on getting her out of this home, but it drives the main conflict as he tries to get her out of the old and into the new.
Obviously, Vera doesn’t want to leave her friends, and the ghosts don’t want her to leave, either. “This house ain’t a home if we’re trapped here on our own,” the ghosts sing at one point. The home as a setting is perfect for the film’s vibe. Its vintage style is kind-of spooky because it could plausibly be haunted, perfect for a haunted house comedy that doesn’t flirt with horror but has a dark side.
The concept for this film is strong and it’s a delightful musical, and I haven’t even talked about the music. There are three original songs nestled into the 13-minute runtime that drive the story. The first song, “My Heart,” is a peppy and hopeful song of new love, reminiscent of fairy tales like Cinderella, complemented by lighting and birds tweeting outside. The other songs give it a run for its money, too, and while everything complements each other, from the cast to the direction, the music is the glue.
It brings it all together because a musical is only as strong as its music, and that’s what makes Dearly Departed a winner. Kudos to Robbie Cavanagh and Demi Marriner for creating these catchy tunes. I loved the riffs and the lyrics worked well, letting the story flow and there’s a nice sense of the characters from the songs. I benefitted from multiple viewings to really listen to the music when it relates specifically to the story.
Impressively, this was made as a graduate project for University (with the help of a Kickstarter campaign), but it feels like it’s made by a professional team. Elise Martin’s solid direction helps with that, as does Elliott Howarth’s cinematography. There are some great shots here and I like the aesthetic, and the VFX work (by Nicholas Bendle and Harry Clarke) is strong, too. Martin directs the musical moments well, and the dialogue here still flows well when the characters aren’t singing.
I said earlier that Anna and the Apocalypse was one of my favourite films from last year, and I go back to the “Turning My Life Around” scene quite often whenever I need a smile. I can see myself going back to this film for a similar reason. Truthfully, my third watch of this was because I just needed a smile and I’m happy to report it worked.
The film is available now to watch on Vimeo here.