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Cram (2021) Review

Clocking in at just forty-five minutes, Cram skirts the boundaries of a feature film, which is what distributor Terror Films calls it, and a short, which is what I would class it as. Though given its subject matter and bizarre structure, that’s probably an ideal length for it.

Marc Lack (John DiMino, Under the Bridge, Ask for Jane) has left writing his final paper until the last moment. It’s due in the morning and when Alice (Carolina Do, Good Egg, Aviva) refuses to let him copy from hers he’s stuck having to pull an all-nighter. In what should be a blessing, he finds himself locked in the library, but you know it’s not going to work out that way.

Waking up from an unplanned nap, he finds everything he’s written has vanished and his notepad merely blank paper. As if that’s not strange enough, he sees a couple making out in a dark aisle. A couple who promptly disappears without a trace.

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Empty libraries are surprisingly creepy places. I once dated a librarian and if I was picking her up after work I’d do the rounds and make sure the place was empty while she finished closing up. The silent, empty aisles at the far end of the building always gave me odd vibes then that they didn’t during normal hours. Writer/director Abie Sidell uses that feeling as a starting point and then adds an assortment of bizarre occurrences to turn Cram into what feels like the kind of nightmare you would have during finals week.

A copier spits out endless tests, all Marc’s and all graded F. A strange man pokes out his eyes with a quill pen. He finds himself in the middle of a graduation party, even though the semester isn’t over, where he’s fed edibles. And then he meets The Master of the Books (Brandon Burton, The Promotion, Kill Me Twice).

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As much a surreal allegory about higher education as it is a horror film, Cram manages to be distinctly unnerving at times. It may have hit me a bit harder because while I wasn’t as bad as Marc, I actually did research, a lot of my essays were written the night before they were due as I believed I worked better under pressure. And like him, I had my doubts about the usefulness of getting a degree, something my life after graduation has borne out.

But Cram is far from a dry intellectual exercise. There are some grotesque creations courtesy of Beatrice Sniper (Devil’s Five, The Institute). Felix Handte’s (Some of Her Parts, Kill Me Twice) cinematography makes the most of the film’s sets and creates an atmosphere that, even in the film’s more on-the-nose scenes, keeps it from feeling preachy.

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The lack of a solid plotline connecting the things Marc experiences may put some viewers off of Cram, but it’s meant to feel like a nightmare or a dark fable with its own logic. And that’s fitting because for many students their college years don’t make a lot of sense, and not just because of the partying. It’s a surreal film about a surreal time in one’s life, but it still makes its point quite clear at the end.

Cram can be taken as simply a strange exercise in atmospheric creepiness if you simply want to take it at face value. But if you look a bit deeper, there’s a whole lot more there, some of it even more disturbing in its own way.

Terror Films will release Cram to Digital Platforms on March 17th. It’s short and, if you have access to Tubi, free, so there’s really no reason not to check it out. And if you want to cram in some more viewing, FilmTagger can suggest a few titles.

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