Duncan has taken himself and his dog Oscar out on their weekly camping trip. Despite his estranged wife's protests, he has also taken their young son with them.
As night falls, the trip proceeds like countless others, with Duncan building a roaring fire, accompanied by Oscar as his son sleeps in the tent. But then Duncan looks out into the woods... and something else is looking back.
Writer-director Chris Cronin's masterfully suspenseful horror short plays with the gap between what is seen and what is imagined, exploiting the power of the human mind to fill in the blanks with fear and terror. Instead of leaning on horrific spectacle or a tightly-wound plot, the storytelling doubles down on dread and foreboding to pull viewers along to memorable effect.
The considerable craftsmanship takes a pared-down approach, applying its elements with a methodical, measured sense of craft that's almost minimalist in execution. The film is remarkably quiet -- there isn't much dialogue at all -- and it's also quite dark, taking place entirely at night.
The plot is simple, but through deft editing, excellent sound design and an intelligent visual approach that understands the line between mystery and clarity, it uses its thread of story to patiently lay down the groundwork of Duncan's increasingly eerie isolation.
As a result, the pacing takes its time at first, exerting a slow burn to deepen its mystery and thicken its sense of apprehension, especially as the solitude seemingly starts to play tricks on Duncan's mind. The storytelling keeps its narrative arc compact and focused, but it elongates the moment by packing each small beat with the unknown and unseen, making for a quietly intense experience.
When Oscar senses something out there in the darkness, he pursues it, being a dog with an irrepressible sense of curiosity. With the sound of his bell being the only alert we have of his presence, the dog's flight kickstarts the story's momentum, and like dominoes, the carefully constructed mystery starts to unravel, for better or for worse.
"Oscar's Bell" doesn't take the shock-and-awe approach of many films of its genre, instead opting for disciplined and elegant craftsmanship to tell its tale. The film's take on horror is ultimately is more like a psychological thriller, with a deep understanding of how our minds will project our deepest fears into the maw of an unknown yet suggestive darkness.
Though there's a deliciously creepy twist at the end, the chills and thrills linger in "Oscar's Bell" because it takes its time building up its central mystery -- therefore creating a blank space dark and deep enough to be filled with our most deep-seated dreads and anxieties, and our most primal fears.