Warning: this review of Don’t Open The Box contains an interpretative spoiler – but it will take you fewer than four minutes to watch the film itself (below) before reading…
Horror, like the fairytale, is often a transgressive genre, telling cautionary stories in which rules are ignored and taboos are broken at a cost to the transgressor that is graphically illustrated. Writer/director Seán Breathnach’s short film Don’t Open the Box falls into a long tradition of horror films whose very titles – Don’t Look Now (1973), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark(1973/2010), Don’t Go In The House (1979), Don’t Go In the Woods (1981), Don’t Knock Twice (2016), Don’t Breathe (2016), Don’t Click (2020) and Don’t Look Back (2020) – encode both a prohibition, and its implictly inevitable breach. It is a titular convention that was hilariously parodied in Edgar Wright’s faux grindhouse trailer Don’t (2007).
What is more mysterious here is the precise nature of the prohibition and its surreal aftermath. Mike (John Ryan Howard) is home working on his computer at night while his daughter Sophie (Saoirse and Zoe Breathnach) plays in another room, when the door bell rings, and Mike finds a wooden box placed at the threshold. Of course he opens it, introducing to his home a demonic figure in a plague mask which will rapidly prove father and daughter’s undoing.
This is a very short film – under four minutes – whose economy ensures that details are important. We may know from the very start that Mike shouldn’t open the box – after all the film’s title tells us so, in bold orange capitals superimposed across the screen over Mike at his computer as he is interrupted by the doorbell. Yet Mike himself does not know this. For he cannot read the title of a film in which he is merely a player, and the note that accompanies the box, held down on its wooden lid by the small clay bust of an angel, merely displays Mike’s forename in crude handwriting. Far from being a warning, this is a personal invitation – the box literally has his name on it. Who wouldn’t open it? And where exactly does the transgression lie?
The key to this is not in the supernatural cat-and-mouse and entrapment – all of which is a metaphorical expression of Pandoran consequence and punishment, as well as child-snatching predation – but rather in the opening scene over which the title appears. For the box here is whatever unseen link this ‘best dad ever’ was furtively opening on his computer while all by himself in the kitchen. Click on that forbidden box, open that proscribed online image or video, and you might just end up damning both yourself and your family. Accordingly, Breathnach brings an ancient mode of folktale narrative right into the digital age, making from it a parable of online temptation and viral repercussion.
strap: In Seán Breathnach’s short domestic horror film, a father browsing online brings the devil into his own home.
© Anton Bitel