Review of Debut Director Ryan Swantek’s Horror Short, ‘White Willow’

As a horror movie reviewer, when you get the chance to watch a young filmmaker’s first project, you think two things: either it’s going to be rough cut, overly long or chock full of bad acting, or it’s going to to be creative, innovative, and original. With no previous works to compare to, there’s no way to know what to expect. When I got the chance to review debut director Ryan Swantek’s White Willow, I hoped for the latter. Was I disappointed?

The official synopsis:

A girl with a history of self mutilation and mental illness brings her inner pain to the surface, showing beauty is only skin deep.

The cast and crew of White Willow share more than this short – they are all currently involved with, enrolled in or an alumni of the Ringling College of Art & Design. Although he’s only worked in the industry in Sarasota for a year, 24-year-old director Ryan Swantek has spent some time on Dylan McDermott’s web series Sugar, Justin Long’s upcoming The Real Stephen Blatt, the TNT series Claws and White Willow DoP Tony Ahedo’s Barry Baker Aspiring Serial Killer. It was on the set of The Real Stephen Blatt where he met actress Emily Lamberski, FX artist Jess Marie and editor Jada Poon. And it was in his senior year at the University of Toledo where he got the idea for White Willow.

Named after the street Swantek lives on, this two minute short is all at once simple, gory and tragic. A young woman stands over a bathroom sink, her arms covered in bandaged cuts, as she pokes and pulls at her face in the mirror. A quick flash to a torn magazine page that says, “In vain you beautify yourself.” The girl is obviously struggling internally. As she reaches inside her makeup bag, she pulls out not a lip liner or eyebrow pencil but a box cutter. I won’t tell you how it ends, but the expression, “You should smile more,” will never mean the same to me again.

I absolutely loved this short. In the time it takes to brew a cup of coffee, Swantek created a savage yet heartbreaking visual that I swear I will still be seeing for days. The editing was top notch. There wasn’t a second of wasted film. First time filmmakers sometimes have a problem cutting out slow or unneeded bits that they fought so hard to film, even if it means the end result will be better for it. But Swantek and Jada Poon chopped and polished White Willow until it gleamed in bloody brilliance. The FX were outstanding. When I realized what it was that was sticking out the girl’s cheek, I actually gasped. The blood and gore were perfect. I couldn’t have expected anything better from Tom Savini himself.

Even without dialogue, White Willow is a horrifying, devastating piece of bloodletting. The scene of the girl sawing away at her face at the sink as we watch from behind was so like the normal activity of someone brushing their teeth that it made me cringe. I loved the religious symbolism (the picture of the Virgin Mary and the rosary beads stood out to me the strongest) that was added, giving White Willow yet another gushy layer. The combination of society’s vision of beauty and this one tortured girl was spot on in creating a heinous horror piece.

I can’t recommend this short enough. Luckily for you, you can see the film, whole and complete, at the end of this article. I’m dying to hear other’s thoughts on it, so if you watch, be sure to comment your opinions. I’m not the only one who loves it. The film is set to be featured on Bloody Disgusting’s short film series World of Death in June 2017. So break yourself off two minutes of your time and watch White Willow below – and let us know what you think!

About Tracy Allen

As the co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of, Tracy has learned a lot about independent horror films and the people who love them. Now an approved critic for Rotten Tomatoes, she hopes the masses will follow her reviews back to PopHorror and learn more about the creativity and uniqueness of indie horror movies.

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