Creepy-pastas, Reddit No sleeps, or internet horror stories have been a fun corner of the internet to explore. Horror is one of the genres that lends itself well to the short film format. There’s less of a stress on character development and they can succeed more on concept or atmosphere.
Horror often lends itself to your imagination, so adaptation of such stories can be rather difficult. A good story sets the mood, but often the details are left vague so that the scenario can become whatever nightmarish situation you’d be afraid of.
One of my favorite horror short stories is The Smiling Man by blue_tidal. The Smiling Man is simple yet mysterious. It paints vivid imagery with a skin-crawling sense of uncanny. This story has been adapted at least twice so why don’t we compare and discuss how to go about adapting such a story.
Cry Reads: The Smiling Man
(Please read footnote before reading this section)
I have actually occasionally went out for nightly walks to clear my head, I find it very calming. This story has a certain relatability, I think we can all imagine being alone in the dark streets with a stranger and that being slightly unnerving. Most of the following, don’t do voice over narration and while that usually is frowned upon in short film, I think it might be a huge disadvantage for them.
The narration adds this sense of personal account, you are limited to what the narrator can replicate through the details of the story. It is being told to you and you have to create what that looks like in your head. Cry is also a great narrator, not only just for the demeanor of voice but is very well pacing the story. I feel the shift at (5:51), enunciated with a pause in both narration and music is a very important story beat that I don’t think has the same dramatic impact when reproduced in these adaptations.
2AM: The Smiling Man – Michael Evans
In the very beginning you can tell the guy holding the reflector is struggling, and it’s something that you can watch under the actor’s chin the entire time. Night shooting isn’t fun but I do applaud them, the actor is well lit and you can see his expressions but I almost would rather have more shadows to compliment the atmosphere (especially because personally I don’t think we get a lot from his facial expressions).
The main actor does portray this real sense of the average everyday man but he doesn’t do much for me besides that. On the other hand, their Smiling Man nails it, you can tell this is a theater kid and they feel really comfortable with the eccentricity demands of the role. His wardrobe feels like it captures the “Old-timey” fashion of the character but is realistic that I do get a “just a guy” feeling.
The interesting part for me at least is the sound of the short and it is…. hit or miss. I think they captured a lot of great natural sounds, the scrapping of shoes on the sidewalk just teleports me there, then some of the music incorporated is pretty ominous. Then the music is just overbearing at times. That is maybe the most difficult part about making low/no budget short films is using copyright/royalty free music sometimes just doesn’t work out the best. I see that it works in that it definitely heightens the action so it’s not terrible but I would challenge that that isn’t the best track for the atmosphere or mood of the piece.
Bright lights and snow. Very conservative, minimal film-making but it seems like some dudes had fun filming this so I’m not going to be too harsh on them. Made in only three days, so this might be a short film contest or again just a fun film bro weekend.
I would be curious to see this one color corrected so the yellow lights are blue creating a more mysterious tone but the abundance of yellow is a little anxiety raising.
I do like the quirky mannerisms of the smiling man. The one thing that is just something to consider is running towards the camera looks bad and you should try avoid doing that. It’s just a stagnant action, and when it’s unaccompanied by any music and the object isn’t too far off in the distance it just kind of looks flat and uninteresting. Same with the ending, glad you stayed faithful but its a little abrupt and lacks a punch to make it a memorable or rewarding experience. Overall shows potential and if they had fun making it I’m glad that’s the case.
The Smiling Man Animated
I consider Llama arts to primarily just be providing a fun little visual representation of a Mr. Nightmare narration but this is honestly not too shabby of an interpretation. Despite the limited animation, this is maybe the most expressive protagonist in any of these videos.
I really want to point out the effectiveness of dark lighting and silhouettes, I understand when actually producing film you’re worried about grainy and unclear images looking like shit but sometimes we don’t have to see a mysterious figure front and center with key lighting on him.
There’s also this impressive thing in this version called “camera movement”. I understand because it’s animation that you’re just key framing and don’t have to set up a track or anything but you got to admit that with all the simulated dolly movements there’s a greater kinetic energy to watching the piece instead of static shots over and over.
They also show that with animation, you can get a little surreal with your imagery. The smiling man is unrealistic to something you’d find in real life but he’s uncanny and frightening just the same. I love how he has a real presence when the punctuate the ending with the sheer idea of his insanity ridden visage.
El Hombre Sonriente
To describe this one in simple terms, “tactical brilliance”. I imagine the Smiling Man as an other-worldly presence and this one captures that element the best. They found an actor who can tap dance, that’s really neat and it does add a lot to the character that he’s noticeable.
The music fade out at (3:20) is a little crude and I almost aspected it to become more comical but overall the composition is hyper-stylized and I love it. There’s almost a sepia color to it and it just feels grimy. They use quick cuts and shaky cam and close-ups to really amplify the action. The main actor is very committed, he emotes a lot and that goes a long way for the terror.
I did enjoy their twist, again the story reaches a natural wrap for a written story, but doesn’t translate to film. I like that I felt I was trapped in Silent Hill, I much enjoyed this adaption.
Smile – The Brothers Grymm
So I wanted to be scared and now I’m crying. A very touching tribute message at the beginning, if you like version please show it some love. Honestly, this is maybe my favorite version we are watching today. It has a nice balance of voice over and visual storytelling, it has a female protagonist (there’s a mention of pepper spray so the original might allude to the narrator being female) and the ending is a satisfying conclusion.
The opening narration is a little phony but the little laugh and other moments of delivery paints a personality to the protagonist that is a nice touch. There’s a lot of production choices that seems like they read my post three years before I even made this. I appreciate the smiling man obscured by shadows, there’s use of shallow focus that add some neat product shots, and the smiling man is uncanny yet human with great mannerism to portray that (even if he does look like Mat Pat or Brandon Urie). The music is constant and at least seems to be more cohesive then the other stories. My two critical nitpicks is that phone drop looks way too unnatural, you can get away with just the close-up and when she’s running away that street is way too lit up but I understand permits are bothersome and you gotta work with what you got (I do like this scene because the lights do make me feel safe and the character pauses only for the offscreen footsteps to remind us that she’s not safe and sound yet).
From the comments I found the director seems a little resentful that this has become his most popular work… and I can relate (gosh darn Before I Wake). In the description he talks about this as a learning experience and that he has more original projects so yeah I think this is great and I’m going to go check out some of his other films. How much spooks do I still have space for at the time of writing this….. zero?
I am going to check out some BrothersGrymm shorts and maybe I’ll talk about them some other time if I really like them. Go support, all these aspiring creators. While at different levels of experience and artistic styles they all made fantastic works and deserve to be commended for their film-making efforts. That was a lot longer than I expected but the more I included the more we got to really contrast and show the diversity of executing an adaptation which was the entire point.
Thanks for joining me, until next time. Stay Spooky!
7/2/2020 I just learned about this today, and I feel that I have a responsibility to disclose this to any potential reader. It has recently been surfaced that YouTuber/Twitch Streamer Cryaotic has confessed to have been grooming underage girls. Safe to say I no longer endorse the following video.
I hope it’s not controversial that I am going to leave this note instead of just deleting the section entirely. I think it’s an important section in my overall post. I believe in the difficulty of separating art from artist. I think in a different scenario of it being a let’s play or one more personally attached to the creator then I probably would delete it. This is a story reading and we did judge the craft and impact it had on the story more than anything. If people want to enjoy the story with his narration it is not my place to stop you but I would like people to be aware of circumstances so they can be aware and make their own decision to not view/support the video.
Secondly I just don’t like the idea of revisionist history or deleting history. I could imagine that a lot of victims feel gas lighted by the popularity fallacy; if everyone thinks so and so is a good guy then maybe I’m wrong in thinking they’re not. We should still have evidence of their old image to show even someone like me, who I like to think has pretty good judgement online and offline (I hope so) can be blindsided by someone hiding skeletons in their closet. Let’s not pretend that spotting someone who does immoral things is blatantly obvious by burying the past and only presenting a hindsight perspective.