Studio: Rabbit Bandini Productions
Director: Kaushik Sampath, Quyen Nguyen Le, Tarek Tohme, Katrelle Kindred, Victoria Rose, Camila Ohara Tanabe, John Berardo, Jessica Kaye
Writer: Rosanne Flynn, Taylor Martin, Jordan Trippeer, Kristen Davila, Robert Funke, Matt C. Sanchez, Anna Musky-Goldwyn
Producer: Nicolaas Bertelstein, Gil Marsden, Sev Ohanian
The symbol of a labyrinth links eight tales of the unknown and the impossible.
No one could guess that the eight shorts comprising anthology feature “The Labyrinth” are student films just by looking at them. While technically accurate, it is mildly misleading to even speak of “The Labyrinth” as a student film in the first place. For one thing, only the writers and directors are students, and third-year graduates at that. The rest of the crew consists of properly paid USC alums currently working professionally. For another, “student film” is sometimes synonymous with amateur effort, and that is not the case here at all. The eight films in “The Labyrinth” are so polished and fully formed that they are among the most technically accomplished and entirely engaging shorts a genre fan will ever see.
“The Labyrinth” is a collaborative project born from a course taught at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts by John Watson and James Franco. In addition to funding the film as an Executive Producer, Franco lends his voice as the narrator. If Franco’s disembodied presence is your primary lure to “The Labyrinth,” don’t bother. His single sentence interludes probably add up to 60 seconds of content and are so meaningless that it is impossible to remember one word once the movie is over. While Franco’s influence is essential to the project’s existence, his tacked-on voice-overs are not.
The other main element linking the eight tales is a labyrinth symbol that can occasionally be spotted on various props such as a keychain or button. Aside from that, and a few reused behind-the-scenes crewmembers, occasional thematic parallels are all that the shorts share in common.
“Vincent” opens with a junkie accusing an old man of stealing her purse on a bus. Another man calls the junkie a bitch. Other passengers visually groan and demand to be let off. In short, the only thing missing is someone blaring garbled music from an iPhone and it would be a mirror image of every ride I’ve ever had on the L.A. Metro. “Vincent” is a somewhat typical tale involving the sci-fi staple of a mysterious man who was never really there, but this condensed incarnation of a Rod Serling parable is a fitting stage setter for where “The Labyrinth” continues taking its ideas.
The placement of “Cliffside Bend” as the second story strikes an initially worrisome chord. Too predictable to warrant enthusiasm, “Cliffside Bend” is a nonlinear dream piece with a purgatory-trapped protagonist having trouble piecing together his fragmented memory faster than the audience. The hiccup with “Cliffside Bend” is that it is the kind of experimental narrative one might expect of a fledgling filmmaker, which isn’t indicative of how subsequent shorts in the anthology are approached.
Flavor Flav features as an unlikely incarnation of Mr. Scratch in “The Sweet Taste of Redemption.” His tempting devil in human form is a typical presence in tales such as this, but Flav plays the persona with a surprising amount of reserve. That an offscreen personality known for outrageousness can be tamed with onscreen acting subtlety is one of the first indicators of directorial depth in the talent behind “The Labyrinth.” From here, the impression really begins to crystallize regarding how much control these young directors have over their visions.
By the time the film approaches its midpoint, “The Labyrinth” distinctively separates itself from other genre anthologies concerned primarily with commercial entertainment. That value also exists in “The Labyrinth,” but the majority of its shorts are based around poignant reflection and fascinating fables instead of shock twists or visual stomach-punches.
Audiences remember crucial scenes from classic “Twilight Zone” episodes such as Burgess Meredith breaking his glasses or discovering the true identity of “The Howling Man.” Yet what really affects about those episodes and the reason they resonate lies in the meaning behind those moments. It is not the reveals themselves that are important, it is what they signify for the cautionary wisdom being imparted. “The Labyrinth” has that quality.
With enough content for a feature packed into a handful of minutes, “Alchemy” is a bittersweet love story about appreciating what you have instead of focusing on what you don’t. “Oak” offers a similar message told in a very different way. The movie’s metaphors about marriage, self-worth, and chasing imaginary ideals are insightful without being preachy, delivered almost in disguise as fantastic fantasy entertainment.
“Mandroid” opens on annoyance. Looking like a disco dancer doing “The Robot,” Josh Peck’s overplayed performance as a mechanical man is overpowered only by whirring servo sound effects excessively accompanying every single stilted movement. Throwback production design is also so retro-stylized as to be eye-rollingly on-the-nose.
Just when it seems as though “Mandroid” is taking “The Labyrinth” from enjoyable to tolerable, a nearly imperceptible tonal shift is executed with such precision that the entire piece 180s into an unexpected highlight. The short’s message about a desire for companionship knowing no prejudicial bounds suddenly pounds through the performances. The reason this stands out as remarkable is because very often, up and coming filmmakers are overly focused on turning shorts into highlight reels to demonstrate creativity with cameras, effects, or complicated staging. Here, director Victoria Rose has the confidence to detach her narrative from any unnecessarily indulgent artistry and allows her leads to tell their story through nuance. This is a rarity usually reserved for more experienced directors, and the way Rose humbles the viewer with emotion by first funneling him/her through a deceptively comical presentation is refreshingly mature.
Penultimate piece “Strings” has the heart beating closest to horror. The segment is entertaining, with a terrific throat-grabber in its opening minute, although its slightly sensationalized content leans closer to “Tales from the Crypt/Darkside” when the remainder of the movie is more “Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits.” Reportedly up for expansion as a feature, “Strings” also wades in shallower thematic waters by comparison to its companions.
Instead of a whopper, “The Labyrinth” ends on a whimper. Confusingly selected as the film’s closer, “Shortage” warrants little mention aside from acknowledgment, or forewarning, that it is an interpretive art piece about a man with an Oedipal complex.
“The Labyrinth” bounces one arrow off the target (“Cliffside Bend”) while another is a complete miss (“Shortage”), but six near-bullseyes is a terrific ratio for an eight-film anthology. Disregard presumptions regarding that irrelevant “s” word referenced earlier and rest assured that the limited experience level of the film’s creators is a non-factor. “The Labyrinth” is a classy collection of sci-fi, fantasy, and suspense shorts worthy of any film fan’s attention.
Review Score: 80