So if you’re anywhere around my age range (late 20s), you probably grew up in the ‘90s with cable television. Good times. The only thing “reality” on MTV was Real World and Road Rules, Cartoon Network wouldn’t be caught dead playing live action movies, the Sci-Fi Channel could spell its own name right and ESPN would rerun the same episode of SportsCenter for 24 hours (but you were just watching for the bottom line).
But there was something else going on back then that as a kid I remember fondly. To fill in time between programs, cable networks didn’t always resort to commercials. Sometimes they’d air weird shorts from indie filmmakers (probably because they could get them really, really cheap). A LOT of networks did this, particularly to kill time at 1 in the morning, and for an 8 year-old who was already buzzed out of his mind on caffeine and sugar just to stay up that late, it could be pretty surreal.
Most of these short films are lost forever (or until someone finds them on a half-disintegrated Beta cassette), but what I’ve found on YouTube I will share with you. With luck, maybe they’ll untangle some vaguely recollected nostalgic knots in the backs of your brains. For the record, these are just the short films I remember from ‘90s cable TV and not just any short film. There are a million good, spooky, surreal shorts on YouTube that are older than some of your parents (I’m partial to “Malice in Wonderland”, myself).
5. “The Baby from Outer Space” (1991, Sci-Fi Channel)
Alas, this is one of those short films which appears to be gone for good (unless YOU’VE got a copy?). All that I’ve been able to find is this fragment (skip to 56 seconds in):
I remember this one fondly from my weekend Sci-Fi Channel binges as a kid. They showed the best horror movies late, LATE at night and always punctuated them with shorts. Probably because it was a cartoon, “The Baby from Outer Space” was my favorite.
The story involves a babysitter who is besieged by a pair of weird alien teenagers out to mess with him. A shame only the last half of the short is online, as I recall the first half boasting a memorably hypnotic message: “Put… the baby… in… the microwave.”
“The Baby from Outer Space” is a bizarre bit of animation blending different styles (traditional animation, cut-outs, computer-generated models), so even if the story (what you can glean from that fragment) doesn’t do it for you, you might get a kick out of the weird visuals.
Unfortunately, things didn’t end so well for the animator, Gordon Thomas. He went through some hard times and took his own life in 2003.
4. “The Dummy” (1980, HBO)
Like I said, they played the best horror movies at ungodly hours of the night (bordering on morning) and as an elementary schooler, it was tough staying up that late. Unlike the Sci-Fi Channel and the USA Network, though, HBO would play their horror movies uncut. Since we had all 3 channels of HBO, I was a pretty fortunate kid.
Then, between movies in one particular October marathon, they ran “The Dummy”. It’s a simple film about a ventriloquist’s dummy that comes to life, grabs a knife and tries to kill a woman in her apartment. It’s very basic and bare bones, but man is it effective. I only saw it once as a kid (according to the description, by the ‘90s it was nearing the end of its rerun lifespan on HBO), but I never forgot it.
Directed by Louis La Volpe, the short starts out with this strange sense of humor, as the titular dummy makes cartoon sound effects as it stalks around the apartment. As soon as it grabs the knife and starts stabbing, though, all pretenses of comedy are discarded and s--t gets real.
3. “The Killing of an Egg” (1977, Nickelodeon)
Nickelodeon had a lot of dead air to fill in the early ‘90s, if my memories are correct. It seemed like they were always showing the same short films about Inside Out Boy or Pete and Pete or this mother fucker right here about the sleeping dog that YouTube assures me was only two and a half minutes long but as a 6 year-old felt like it went on for an hour!
But while their selection of short films to kill time between programs weren’t always level in terms of quality, they were all certainly WEIRD; some very trippy stuff for the early afternoon preschooler audience. It’s kind of disturbing to know I grew up in a time where Paul Driessen’s “The Killing of an Egg” shared space in a timeslot with Eureka’s Castle and The Noozles.
“The Killing of an Egg” is pretty straight forward. A dude is eating a soft boiled egg, but every time he taps on the shell, he hears someone inside screaming in pain. Eventually, he smashes the egg. Then he hears a tapping outside his home and the walls start to cave in and be begins screaming in pain.
Yep, pretty straight forward.
2. “Carnivore” (1986, Sci-Fi Channel)
This one just resurfaced online late last year and was what inspired me to go hunting for all the short films I recall watching as a kid. It was one of those shorts like “The Baby from Outer Space” that the Sci-Fi Channel would toss up in their late night blocks. I only remember a couple others, but none of them as vividly as this one.
Jim Greco’s “Carnivore” isn’t exactly well-acted (the exposition and commentary from the lead can be pretty grating), but it has one heck of a twist ending. It freaked me out enough as a kid to ask my mom if my name was listed in the phone book. Turns out it wasn’t! My mom’s and brother’s names were, but I was in the clear.
It was actually quite comforting for a 7 year-old.
1. “The Sandman” (1991, IFC and MTV)
Paul Berry’s “The Sandman” is one of the best and there’s a good chance you’ve seen it already. It makes the rounds quite often and is considered a classic (it was nominated for an Oscar, after all). The story follows a small boy who goes to sleep and is menaced by the Sandman (who acts more like a Bogeyman).
I first saw this one on the Independent Film Channel (IFC) probably later into the ‘90s than any of the other shorts on this list. IFC used to have a show called “Independent Animation” where they’d showcase weird short cartoons and in October, to tie-in with Halloween, they’d do horror-themed specials. “The Sandman” was included in one of those specials (along with Primus’s music video for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”) and it was the kind of thing you had to wait a year to ever see again, what with it being a seasonal special and all.
I think, THINK, it was also showcased on one of MTV’s independent animation shows, if not Liquid Television then possibly Cartoon Sushi. My memories of that are too vague to be reliable, though.
Paul Berry was one of the great stop-motion animators, having worked on classics like The Nightmare Before Christmas and not-classics-but-the-animation-was-good like James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone. He died from a brain tumor in 2001.
Special Bonus Commercial
Hey, did you grow up in the Virginia/DC/Maryland area in the early ‘90s like I did? Then maybe you remember this commercial:
Spooked the s--t out of me and it was just an ad for a lawfirm. I think they’re called “Saiontz, Kirk and Miles”, now, and their TV ads are no longer so creepy.