Short Film: A Secluded Holiday Becomes Rife With Familial Paranoia in Psychological Thriller ‘Water Horse’

Summer vacation comes to an end and a young family encounter a dark presence lurking lakeside. When the father goes to investigate, he attracts a little more than he bargained for. Sean Temple and Sarah Wisner’s Water Horse is a dark and psychological thriller that deals with the depths of parental paranoia. It’s a film which utilises elusive editing techniques and a sombre score to disorientate the audience into the spiralling descent experienced by it’s protagonist. Twelve Cabins caught up with Temple and Wisner as Water Horse appear online, talk through their creative piece of cerebral cinema.

Where did the idea for Water Horse come from?

The catalyst for Water Horse was a nightmare Sarah had. We realised the visceral and surreal nature of the dream could be impactful as a short film. Our biggest goal with the film was recreating the anxiety of that experience. We made a very conscious decision to maintain the nightmare logic in the narrative. 

Once we decided to turn the nightmare into a film we started to dive into what it could mean. We realised our fears and anxieties about the political climate permeated Sarah’s subconscious, particularly with regard to immigration. The dream came to represent the outside forces that can come into a family’s life unpredictably and irreversibly. 

When Sarah had her nightmare she instinctively knew the film should be called Water Horse. Water horses, also known as kelpies, are shape-shifting creatures of Scottish folklore that trick and abduct people to drown and eat them. Sarah’s subconscious filtered this folklore through her nightmare. The connections and references to kelpies aren’t super explicit in the film, but we hope it adds another layer for audiences to explore. 

Were there any specific horror films that you drew influence from?

Two of our biggest cinematic influences were Don’t Look Now and Martha Marcy May Marlene. Both films use subjective editing techniques to place audiences in a mental state somewhere between memory, dream, and reality. We were also heavily influenced by the work of Lynne Ramsay. We Need To Talk About Kevin and You Were Never Really Here create emotion, empathy, and meaning by honing in on poetic details. Multiple sequences in Water Horse contrast the image and sound to create emotion rather than specific story points. 

If anyone really enjoys Water Horse we highly recommend Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. When we made the film we hadn’t seen it yet, but if we had, it would easily be the biggest influence on the film. It’s a tremendous example of a 1970s psychological thriller that really burrows inside the mind of its protagonist. 

Water Horse has a such a distinct visual style which opens us up to the protagonists’ inner psyche, could you walk us through your inspiration in developing it with your cinematographer? 

Like any film, our collaboration with our Cinematographer Abijeet Achar was a combination of creativity and practicality. From the very beginning, we knew we wanted to use slow zooms to represent the nightmare’s antagonist closing in our protagonist. We felt this optical effect would help disconnect the world of the film from everyday life. 

Practically, most of the film involves Lilith Hurley, a two-year-old child, so we knew we’d need to create an environment that didn’t feel like a film set. This required filming from a distance with longer lenses. On set, we quickly realised Lily could only do a few takes of any moment before she needed a break. It turned out to be easier to shoot most scenes in long takes than with traditional coverage. A lot of our work with Abijeet was blocking these moments with our incredible adult actors, Charlotte Rea and Darren Bailey, and finding the right angle to watch the scene play out. 

Our 4:3 aspect ratio is a perfect example of combining creativity with practicality. Like zooms, the 4:3 aspect ratio was a way to create a dreamlike reality that was inspired by the nostalgia of 8mm home movies. It allowed us to hone in on specific moments and images without the distraction of the world around our characters. One of our biggest visual goals was creating isolation and the feeling of being trapped. Practically, the 4:3 aspect ratio was an important technique to frame out the world around our set. The house feels isolated in the film, but in reality, there’s always a neighbor’s house just off frame.

Outside of the visuals, the editing has a really interesting erratic quality which means we experience the film with sense of disorientation, I’m curious to know how smooth production was and whether this was something you talked about in preproduction or whether it manifested itself in the edit?

It’s definitely a combination of visuals that were planned from the beginning and moments that were found in post-production. The opening sequence jumps through images and sounds to immediately place the audience in a world that doesn’t adhere to the rules of reality. Repeating Max and Dylan’s kiss in slow motion is an example of that. 

The first drowning sequence is an example of a combination of planned chaos. We knew we could use the water covering the lens to cut freely between different moments in the lake. We shot as much as we could before the lens fogged up and there were incredible surprises we found in postproduction.

Like any small budget short film, we didn’t have the time and resources to get every shot we wanted, but Sean’s day job is trailer editing,  a hyper-efficient form of storytelling that relies on image and sound clashing against each other to create meaning. Sean was always confident he could find moments in the editing room, aka our living room, to create surreal imagery and emotion. Some of our favourite moments were 100% discovered in this postproduction process. 

Question of the moment, but how has the current global situation affected your practice as filmmakers? And what does the future currently look like for you both in terms of your next film?

In March we were a week away from shooting our new film, The Thaw, when we postponed production due to Covid-19. In a perfect world, we would have been finishing postproduction right now, but we’re planning on making the film when it is safe to do so. 

Luckily, we managed to shoot a new short last August called Thorns. We premiered at Chattanooga Film Festival’s virtual event in May. We’re currently navigating what a festival run means during all of this. Chattanooga was a really incredible experience that made us excited about how festivals are committed to discovering new ways of presenting films. 


If you’d like to either send us your film or contribute some writing to Twelve Cabins, contact info@twelvecabins.com for all the details.

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