Mail Order (2011) Review

by Jason Lees, MoreHorror.com

There are certain tricks when it comes to adapting a short story to film. Novels, while obviously longer and more complex, seem to be more forgiving to the new medium when they’re translated. All that extra literary real estate offers up more opportunities for the filmmaker to pick and choose what to present to an audience. With a short story, if you don’t almost take the written word point by point, you can come up with something miles away from the source material. That’s especially true when it comes to literary works that are written in the first person or that recount one character’s observations. When it’s a straight forward expositional piece, something like King’s SURVIVOR TYPE, then it’s possible to take the story straight from page to screen, but when it’s something like Jack Ketchum’s MAIL ORDER, which is mostly subjective from the point of reference to the main character and his memories, then that translation is much more difficult.

That’s just a long and overly wordy way of saying that writer/director Eric Shapiro didn't pick an easy story to make into a short film. Nope, no gimme here. Ketchum makes him work for it.

The short, which you can find in Ketchum’s collection PEACEABLE KINGDOM, is about a man who has a certain unique taste in cinema. Less Blockbuster, and more Faces of Death. Rather than searching for that perfect Sandra Bullock rom com, Howard is searching for the perfect snuff film. It’s a point in the short story that Ketchum handles like an obsession, something that consumes Howard’s private life without making it too heavyhanded or blocky. In prose, we experience his taste by glimpsing into his memories, without seeing too much.

That works really well on the page. Let’s face it, Ketchum is a certified master at his craft so that shouldn’t be a surprise. Lately he’s been getting some serious big screen time, with films based on his work like Lucky McKee’s upcoming THE WOMAN. He’s not that easy to adapt (see OFFSPRING and THE GIRL NEXT DOOR), but when he’s done right (see RED and THE LOST) he’s golden.

Shapiro, fortunately, does it right. With a few minor tweaks, he’s taken a nice and grim story and made something special. I’ve said this before, but I really feel that if you’re going to make a short film, make a short film. Don’t just make a condensed feature or a demo reel for yourself. Realize that the short film is its own artcraft and don’t ignore that. I’m not saying Shapiro’s ever heard me ramble on, but he might be a fellow believer. What he’s done with MAIL ORDER is to make a solid little movie that economically comes in and gets the job done.

Another aspect of the short film format is that it’s the place that filmmakers can really play around and experiment. If you’re going to invest your life savings into a feature, then maybe you might want to play it a bit careful, but if you’re only shelling out enough green (or whatever color your credit card is) for a short, then by all means stretch a little. Try new things. Play with time or other conventions of filmic language.

Shapiro does that here. From the opening, we see the world through Howard’s eyes in a distinct style. It can be a bit distracting at times, but it’s something that works here in small doses. The repetitive nature of his edits, while jarring, works to set up a mood that would wear out its welcome in a feature, but here succeeds as a way into Howard’s redundant life.

I need to go back and look up Shapiro’s other films. I’m curious what the man does when he’s not under the constraints of the short format, but from what I’ve seen on display here, I bet it’s pretty solid.

MAIL ORDER is a experience that Ketchum fans should seek out. I’d love to see an anthology made up of nothing but film adaptations of his shorter fiction. For now, though, I’m going to have to be satisfied that there’s another strong Ketchum flick out there to enjoy.

For now.

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