‘What They Say’ is a short horror film (2011) directed by Justine Romine, based on a story by, and starring Chicago’s own, the incomparably talented actress Heather Dorff. It’s a trippy film that warps time and perception as we follow the lead character/narrator who is unnamed (Dorff) through a downward spiral into madness and bloodshed.
It’s clear from the beginning that the main character is isolated and at odds with herself and everyone around her (family and friends alike). The opening credits features disturbing imagery implying she’s surrounded by monsters disguised as people. As she finishes a cigarette break under a tree, we follow “unnamed” as she walks across the campus of her school and encounters her classmates.
Their reactions range from mockery to outright disdain and it’s clear she spends most of her time alone, bitter, angry and suffering as she deals with her classmates. At one point she makes eye contact with one young man and it’s immediately clear he’s got some amount of regret or guilt in his expression (we’ll soon learn why). As they make eye contact, it’s clear pain (in all its forms) is a constant in “unnamed’s” life.
We then see pieces of her home life and it’s just like her school world: a mess. In between, we see flashbacks to her youth, in particular things she saw her father doing while she was a little girl. History repeats itself as the father’s pain and self-destructive nature have clearly imprinted on “unnamed” and we watch as her mental fabric slowly, painfully and bloodily unravels thread-by-thread. Before I delve deeper into this film and any spoilers I’ll stop you here to say you should definitely see this film!
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Throughout the film we witness the self-destructive therapy “unnamed” is engaged in: cutting. We see several instances of the main character cutting herself, remembering seeing her father cut himself when she was a child, and as her encounters with family and former friends continue to be hurtful and damaging, we follow the lead as she retreats repeatedly to her bathroom and attempts to relieve her pain with a razor.
Overall the writing, acting, music and f/x are top notch. The warped faces seen during the opening credits and makeup f/x on Heather during the final scenes are creepy as hell (especially the latter sequence). The camera is essentially always following Heather and she has an intense energy and stare that reminded me of some of the better enraged/possessed characters in horror films. She owns every scene she’s in, but when she’s looking into the camera full of possessed rage…shivers will run down your spine. You would NOT want to be on the receiving end of that stare!
About the only quibble, and it’s a common quibble among indie films regardless of genre, was the ambient sound in a few scenes. In particular a scene where her mom and a friend’s mom join “nameless” and her sisters for tea. As the camera moves from character to character, and angle to angle, there is no ambient sound effect(s) or music for parts of the scene. It’s probably my surround sound set up, but the ambient background sound varied significantly as the camera shifted and it was a little distracting. Again this is a minor issue which probably could have been covered by some creepy background sound(s) or music.
However, I should point out that the end of the scene erases any memory of this. As the inane conversation escalates amongst those around her, Heather erupts in rage and the sounds and music replace the empty background noise. In other words, unlike many indie films where sound can be inconsistent and an ongoing issue, this was really the only real instance of this problem in the movie. In brutal detail, we see her lashing out at those present who’ve been talking incessantly about her as if she wasn’t there. One by one she attacks in her mind before coming back to reality or at least that semblance of it that each of us does our best to cope with each day. In the end, the bathtub cutting rituals get more elaborate as “unnamed” fully embraces the one thing that relieves her pain and empowers her.
The ending leaves things open to interpretation which is just fine with me. Too much of art is spoon-fed to the viewer. Leave some ambiguity. Is “unnamed” crazy? Are we seeing what’s really happening, are things in her head, or some combination of the two? What I know is that Heather Dorff is a great writer, an amazing actress and the horror genre is all the better for having her.
I highly recommend you find and see this short film and check out Heather’s other works such as the upcoming full-length film “Truth or Dare” the first film directed by fellow horror actress, the equally amazing Jessica Cameron. Horror is a very exciting genre at the moment. And a large part of that is the new generation of artists like Heather and Jessica taking the reins.