For anyone who has ever stared blankly at their iPhone or lost their temper trying to set the clock on their microwave, Natural Selection, a collection of short films featured on day three of the Dead by Dawn festival, will do little to assuage their feeling that the technology designed to improve their quality of life is out to get them.
Natural Selection’s six films covers a raft of different dystopian circumstances, including a mute robot wife pushed too far, a man whose “original idea” literally causes anyone who hears it to have their brains explode from their head, a DJ competition that turns its participants into torturers, a call centre that measures its success in body count, and a pair of terrible scientists who struggle to contain their own invention.
While all the shorts are worth seeing in themselves, the undeniable highlight of Natural Selection is Service. This bizarre and creepy little film centres around an unsuspecting businessman who finds himself under the control of a sinister self-service checkout and its gang of cultish shop assistants in an inconspicuous British service station. It’s part The League of Gentlemen, part The Wicker Man, with more than a bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in for good measure. While each of the other shorts discusses the theme of technology turned violent in its own way, it is the mundane setting, clever use of familiar imagery, and gentle introduction of a sense of macabre and growing threat that makes Service the stand out in this strong collection.
In her introduction to Natural Selection, Dead by Dawn festival director Adele Hartley discusses her method of curating short film collections. While some schedulers may begin with their theme and fit the films around it, Hartley prefers to pull together a collection of her favourites and then see how they “hang together”.
This method is evident throughout Natural Selection as the collection is given a full range of settings (an American bar, an Australian call centre in the style of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and a innocent-seeming Canadian mall among them) and stylistic choices, which results in giving the collection an organic feel and allows each short to tackle the theme of evil tech in its own way.
Combining an intriguing premise and some genuinely scary moments leavened by just the right amount of black comedy, Natural Selection shows a wealth of creative talent, both in terms of curation and individual filmmaking, that makes it a pleasure for casual and hardcore horror fans alike.