I spend a lot of time staying up till the wee hours of the night browsing film sites and Facebook looking for new and interesting movies to watch, a sleep-wrecking habit that began when I started reviewing films. The honest truth is that most of what I stumble upon is not very good. From student art films that look like they were shot on cell phone cameras to short films clearly designed to give the director’s bimbo girlfriend a shot at acting, I’ve seen it all and sometimes it’s enough to make me want to forget film criticism and go see Will Ferrell films for the rest of my life.
But every once in a great while, I stumble upon a film that has promise. Such was the case when I found myself on the Facebook fan page for “The Rat King,” a short film directed by Benjamin Parslow. Even though it was shot independently, the film has a professional gleam that says otherwise. It’s a sci-fi film set in a dystopian Earth where humans have been forced underground by nuclear war, echoing another great sci-fi short, “La Jetee.” One unfortunate soul is sent above ground to retrieve a satellite that has crashed on the surface. There he discovers that life exists above ground; but it may not be friendly.
I spoke with Parslow via e-mail a few days ago to get a better sense of who he is as a director. His love affair with film started at an early age. “My dad always had a VHS camcorder lying around the house and my brothers and I would make elaborate comedies and parodies of our favorite films.” They tried their hand at every genre possible, and as Parslow grew up he took every film class he could.
In 2009, Parslow wrote and directed two separate short films: “Bôzu,” a think-piece set in feudal Japan; and “Dark Sun,” a psychological horror film. “Bôzu” was well received and was even selected as an honourable mention at the Da Vinci Film Festival in Corvallis, Ore. But for Parslow, “The Rat King” was an altogether new challenge at double the length of both his previous short films. As a student with almost zero budget, he’s learned to accept the generosity of others and cut corners when necessary.
“We utilized all the free labor we could get and hired talented newcomers because they had the necessary passion and needed to build up their resumes,” he told me about his actors. “After that, we took to friends letting us use their basements, to the boiler rooms at their work.”
There was also personal sacrifice for Parslow.
“I was funding the film myself, so we had to take many breaks in between filming as I would run out of money,” he reminisced. “[So] the film was shot slowly, over the course of several months.”
Luckily, Parslow was able to make use of his eager family members, including his brother, Alex Parslow, who stars as James, the unlucky candidate sent to the surface. Alex Parslow, who co-wrote the script and acted as a producer on the film, was happy to fill in when, due to unforeseen circumstances, the lead actor dropped out.
“The Rat King” impressively never hints at its humble beginnings. It’s an atmospheric film that makes chilling use of its industrial landscape, including, in one heebie-jeebie inducing scene, watching the shadows follow the main character as he tries to forge his way along the landscape. This turned out to be a happy accident for Parslow, as he had originally intended to shoot in a desert.
“[It was] really simple and more about the imagery,” he stated. But after discovering an abandoned cement factory, Parslow and his brother found themselves re-writing the script to take them to a new place. “We wanted to show a bigger world, which eventually led us underground.”
The most unsettling characters in the “The Rat King” are what Parslow calls the droids; creepy, omnipresent guards tasked with ensuring the humans underground don’t get too out of hand. They are always smiling (as if the Joker has gotten to them), a choice Parslow made to ramp up their sinister appearance. But Parslow had originally intended them to be even more horrific.
“I feel we did a pretty good job with those, even though it was just me coming up with the costumes and detailing them the best way I could with the budget I had,” he said. “My original design for them is slightly different and I hope to come back to this film later down the road and turn it into a full-length movie.”
“The Rat King” will have to wait while Parslow embarks on his first full-length feature film, “Faceless.” Co-directing with his brother, “Faceless” is a psychological thriller. Parslow has been able to leverage “The Rat King” into more investments for his first feature, a testament to how important short films are for young and independent filmmakers. I look forward to seeing what Parslow can create when freed from the constraints of limited finances given the scary, otherworldly film he was able to create with next-to-nothing.
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Follow H.G. Watson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HGWatson7.