Shortcut (2020)

“Nolan Parker? Sounds like something out of a comic book.”

The speaker of these words, Pedro Minghella (David Keyes), is an armed-and-dangerous thief on the run who, according to rumour, has a taste for human tongues – and the school bus that he has hijacked has strayed into a military zone and is about to break down in a long, dark tunnel. Which is to say that everything in Alessio Liguori’s Shortcut comes with a comicbook feel, from the fairytale voice-over narration by adolescent Nolan (Jack Kane), to the hyper-stylisation of the colour-corrected imagery, to the oddness of a near-empty school bus (with only five teenagers on board, each a caricature) travelling miles through an isolated autumnal forest. When their normal route through the woods is blocked by fallen trees, fatherly bus driver Joseph (Terence Anderson) decides to take an alternative route into the preternatural mist and growing darkness, and soon Nolan, artistic Bess (Sophie Jane Oliver), brainy Queenie (Molly Dew), boastful Karl (Zander Emlano) and rebellious Reggie (Zak Sutcliffe) find themselves at the point of Pedro’s gun, with something even more monstrous circling outside – a photophobic parasite that feeds on any intruders to its undergound domain.

  So Shortcut comes across as an artificial construct. Full of broad stereotypes and locations that make little sense, it keeps revealing the contradictions of its own production history (as an English-language Italian film), with characters whose accents suggest that they are from an English comprehensive, while several signs and found texts – and a song sung by the otherwise Cockney Pedro – are in Italian. All this artifice risks making the film at times feel deeply incoherent, but it also adds to the sense that what we are watching is not to be taken literally, but is rather a surreal metaphor – indeed an allegorical rite of passage – in which adolescents learn to work together and to face their fears on the labyrinthine road to independence and adulthood. 

“We’re trapped in a tunnel, and we’re all going to die one by one!” screams Karl, in a line that seems designed for the trailer. Shortcut is certainly drawing from the horror genre, and in particular from the Wrong Turn franchise and Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005), with added bits from, ahem, Victor Salva’s Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003) – but in keeping with the age of its main characters, this is horror lite for a younger audience, with few deaths (and they are strictly off screen) and far more bared, snarling tooth than actual bite. For as our Famous Five engage in explorations, adventures, missions and character-building exercises, all in the absence of adults, they are feeling their way out of adolescence’s darkness so that they can see the world, and themselves, in a new light. “Just like a team of superheroes”, as Karl puts it of this newly courageous crew – which is to say, just like something out of a comic book.

Strap: Alessio Liguori’s Shortcut is horror about and for teens, allegorising coming of age as a monstrous confrontation in a dark tunnel.

© Anton Bitel