Review of Water Horse (Portland Horror Film Festival): A Mother Finds Herself Caught in a Fever Dream of Terror

My favorite style of horror film is that which deals with an eerie, unsettling atmosphere bordering on — or diving headlong into — the surreal, with the filmmakers never fully or easily explaining what is unfolding. Water Horse, a brilliant short film from co-directors Sean Temple and Sarah Wisner, delivers just such an unsettling experience in less than eight minutes.

Max (Charlotte Rea) and her husband Dylan (Darren Bailey) are relaxing on a lakeside beach with their young daughter Lily (Lilith Hurley) near their home when a boat, empty of passengers, floats near them. When Max goes to ask some neighbors about the boat, a mysterious man (Joe Covell) makes his presence known, and danger and terror visit the family.

Mattia C. Maurée’s score sets the musical tone perfectly as a pretty piano opening gives way to discordant, cacophonous strings and percussion. Abijeet Achar’s cinematography is lush, and Temple’s editing is masterful. A montage sequence features some terrific blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots that may contain some pieces to the puzzle of Water Horse, and definitely boasts some discomfiting shots.

Wisner’s fine screenplay is light on dialogue — though what sounds like babbling and random words from Lily hold a great deal of weight — giving the two directors plenty of breathing room for creating a dreamlike atmosphere and building the suspense to a heady climax. The four cast members are all solid, with Rea having most of the screen time and turning in a superb performance.

Water Horse has the elegance of such 1970s horror such as Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Burnt Offerings (1976), and The Changeling (1980), but it uses that era of fright fare as a springboard, rather than attempting mere pastiche. The short is absolutely rooted in the current horror climate, as well, with Hereditary (2018) springing to mind as a comparison.

Water Horse screened at Portland Horror Film Festival, which took place in Portland, Oregon from June 5–8, 2019.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.