The short films we feature on our platform come from a number of different sources. Submissions, festival acquisitions, online discoveries – these are all expected routes of discovery for our content, but recommendations from our network of filmmaker friends come with a stamp of quality that always sparks a little extra excitement. Sent my way by director Kate Herron (Sex Education, Loki), who declared it “one of the best horror shorts I’ve ever seen”, Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth’s Night Bus sees an isolated driver of public transport haunted by an unsettling presence.
Introducing us to its protagonist, Natasha, as she waits to pick up the bus she’ll be driving for the night, the first indication something sinister might be about to happen occurs under a minute into the film when a strange item of clothing left hanging on a tree quickly transforms into a cloaked figure (it’s so brief, you might not notice at first). Another 60-seconds into the film the power on the bus has already failed and again we’re allowed a speedy sighting of the hooded spectre, this time in the reflection of one of the windows. It’s already clear that this isn’t going to be a fun night for this isolated bus driver.
These early glimpses of the ghostly figure aren’t included for quick scares and easy jumps, instead, they instil an instant sense of dread, which will be key to the success of Nightbus. Over the remaining ten-or-so minutes the Ashworth’s ramp up the tension with a consistent string of freaky moments – handprints, faulty equipment, security footage – until even their main character can take no more, announcing “nah mate!”, before attempting to flee the vehicle.
The production and performance (from the brilliant Susan Wokoma) are vital ingredients in Nightbus, but like all great films, it started with the concept and the script. Written by Jade Alexander, who admits to loving “a horror story that takes place in a familiar or mundane setting”, she decided to set her story on the titular nightbus as she was fascinated by “how a bustling public space can feel so different when it’s empty late at night”. Discovering Alexander’s script after a “shout-out on good ol’ Twitter”, the directorial duo were instantly drawn to the narrative as it presented a female character that was against the norm of those you usually find in the horror genre.
“Our main aim all through this process was to get people screaming”
Although the filmmakers admit they were “excited to see a woman who was not tiny, blonde and screaming, but strong, humorous and ready to fight”, screams were in their mind when making Nightbus. Explaining one of the main aims of their film was to “achieve was some scares”, the pair were drawn to horror as it’s “one of those delightful genres to work in because you know immediately if it’s working – it’s like a comedy in that way. In comedy, you know it’s working if people are laughing. In horror you know it’s working if people scream. So our main aim all through this process was to get people screaming.”
Shot over three nights in the deep cold of December, the directors worked closely with DP Susie Salavati to ensure the audience had a sense of distrust in the camera, like it could “whip around at any moment and show you something awful”. Trying to ensure the majority of FX were in-camera, the only real element of post-production trickery came in the CCTV footage, where the filmmakers wanted to “dirty” their original footage and play with the frame rate, as they explain: “It was so pixellated and fragmented, that you didn’t know what the hell you were looking at sometimes – which I think adds to the horror brilliantly – you never want to have to lean into the screen when watching a scary movie, but hopefully, that’s something people were forced to do!”
With Nightbus marking Henrietta and Jessica’s directorial debut, it’s easy to see why Kate thinks so highly of these talented siblings. Their short had a solid festival run in 2020/21 and we’re proud and excited to be sharing it with you, our audience, today.