Dead by Dawn

Thursday 22nd-Sunday 25th April 2004

If you go down to the woods today be sure of a big surprise. a masked mad murderer wielding a hunting knife, a chainsaw, and a bad attitude. Yup, welcome to Dead By Dawn 2004.

This year the theme of Scotland's premiere horror film festival was a lesson to us all: if you're from the city, don't whatever you do drive into the country. Deserts, woods, cornfields, bush, they're dangerous places. especially if you happen to run out of petrol. The locals are weird, the woods are evil and, worst of all, there's never any mobile phone reception. Yikes!

A perennially popular plot device in 1970s horror films, from Deliverance to I Spit On Your Grave, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to The Wicker Man, in the 21st century the theme of the alienation of city dwellers from their country cousins is as powerful and terrifying as ever.

Switchblade symphony of horrors

Cecile de France as Marie in Switchblade Romance

The opening film, Alexandre Aja's Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance) plunged us in at the deep end as we followed two college friends, Marie and Alex, into the heart of the French countryside. What was that rustle in the corn? Oh, that'll be the heavy-breathing pervy psychopath about to break into Alex's home, massacre her family and throw her, gagged and bound, into the back of his grimy, bloodstained van. Nice. Except of course it isn't that straightforward, and the film features a masterly twist that, although you might see it coming, nevertheless is scary stuff. Admittedly you'd need a second viewing to work out whether the twist really works and is consistent with what's gone before, but fortunately as the film will be getting a theatrical release in October, you'll have the chance. Don't miss it, because this is a great movie, a gut wrenching mix of slow deliberate sadism and fast paced gory chainsaw action that pays homage to the great slasher movies of the 1970s without being arch or humorous about it.

Friday night saw us still in serial killer country - actually make that city, because Dario Argento's latest shocker, Il Cartaio (The Card Player) is set in the ancient and wonderfully mysterious streets of Rome and swaps the director's usual supernatural themes for a traditional Italian film 'giallo', or detective thriller. Master of the macabre, signor of suspense and doyen of dodgy dialogue, Argento has come up with a fantastic idea (a serial killer kidnaps women then demands that the police play online poker for her life) which is let down by terrible acting, a laughable script and a gay abandon for proper police procedure. Note to self: never get kidnapped by a serial killer in Italy. The police are hopeless. You will die.

Afterwards we were treated to a keyboard performance by Claudio Simonetti, the man behind the synthesised musical mayhem of many of Argento's movies, who played us a medley of horror classics, from Suspiria to Dawn of the Dead (1978, natch) to Halloween.

You can never underestimate the importance of music in a horror film to set the nerves on edge - those scraping violin strings, thudding basslines and obligatory nu metal songs do it every time - so it was great to see not one but two composers at the event, Simonetti and Steve London, who composed the haunting score for Shallow Ground. Nice one.

Cheers to the king of the ants

Whilst Il Cartaio was so bad it was funny, the second film of Friday evening, King of the Ants, was a very different kettle of (dead) fish. Unrelentingly grim and vicious, with barely a trace of humour to lighten the mood, the film, directed by Reanimator's Stuart Gordon, was viscerally uncompromising. Chris McKenna excelled as Sean, a young house painter who foolishly agrees to murder a man who is in the way of local contractor Ray Matthews (Daniel Baldwin). The brutal murder is only the beginning of a trail of casual violence and sickening cruelty that stunned the whole cinema into horrified silence. As a study of man's extreme inhumanity to man, the film is a masterpiece, but it makes for extremely uncomfortable watching. And Cheers fans will never see cuddly Norm in the same light after witnessing actor George Wendt smashing a golf club into the side of Sean's head. Ugh.

Lost in the shadows

Saturday got off to a good start with Australian independent film Lost Things, a clever and involving tale of four teenagers who head for a deserted beach for a weekend of sun, surf, sand and (the two boys hope) a bit of sex. But an encounter with a sinister surfer called Zippo soon puts a dampener on their fun... Shot almost entirely in daylight on the broad expanses of an empty beach, the film creates an almost unbearable sense of isolation and unease and, abandoning straightforward narrative in favour of a hazy, dreamlike logic, it succeeds in both unsettling and intriguing.

Of course no Dead By Dawn would be complete without short films, and Saturday afternoon was devoted to them, with six gloriously inventive minute-long films from the Vancouver Film School followed by the shorts competition. The winner, Aussie film Buried, was a classic, showing just how tough it is to be a murderer when it's hot outside and you can't find the shovels and there are cartoons to be watched and beer to be drunk. But hell, bodies don't bury themselves and the car sure is starting to stink. Not one but two shorts based on The Shining also went down a treat: The Shine dealt with the thorny problems of removing bloodstains from your haunted bathroom, whilst Do you have the shine? created a computer game in which you are Danny tricycling round the corridors of the Overlook Hotel, waiting to run into the evil twins. Hey, I'd play it!

In addition, throughout the festival we were treated to many quality short films before the main features. (Why can't all cinema releases do that? It's great!) My favourite was Ward 13, a plasticine animation that was brilliantly conceived and executed. Eat your heart out Morph.

Deadtime Stories

I also loved Deadtime Stories, featuring Emily the Strange looky-likey, the certifiably insane Ebola, and How to Cope with Death, in which an old granny in her rocking chair gives the grim reaper a lesson he won't forget in a while. Little old ladies also proved themselves tough opponents in Dear, Sweet Emma - she may look innocuous but whatever you do, don't annoy her, or you may meet the same fate as her cat, her husband or the cute little tweety birds on her porch. Ouch!

Grave misdemeanours

After the unmitigated joy of seeing one of my favourite films, The Lost Boys, on the big screen, it was time for the world premiere of Canadian movie Shallow Ground. Here we're back in the evil woods, with the familiar Deliverance scenario of a small country town being dismantled as a new dam floods the area. But the local sheriff is unable to make the quick getaway he'd hoped for when a naked boy dripping in blood turns up at the station...

If you can't stand the sight of blood then this film is your worst nightmare, because it's simply drenched in the stuff: dripping, oozing, pooling and splattering freely all over the woods, the blood is the real star of the show. But Shallow Ground (so called because the ground is not deep enough to contain the wrath of the wronged dead) is not your usual slasher gorefest. The plot, although fairly straightforward, is intriguingly presented, engaging the attention as well as chilling the spine, and the special effects are gruesomely good. Intelligent and enthralling, the film's themes of city vs. country, the monstrous nature of man and the endless futile cycle of vengeance come across clearly and effectively. Be sure your sins will find you out. and kill you.

Night of the living dead

ER's Erik Palladine in Dead and Breakfast. Erik also put in a personal appearance at this year's Dead By Dawn

The infamous all nighter got off to a grand start with country and western horror comedy Dead and Breakfast. A group of friends get lost whilst driving through the sticks on their way to a wedding and must spend the night in a Psycho style motel in a town called Lovelock. When you discover that the owner of the motel is David Carradine, you just know that the friends are not going to be in for a peaceful night. Next thing you know, all hell has broken loose (literally) as a demon is released and starts possessing the villagers. Part horror, part slapstick comedy, part musical, the film is all entertainment, and doesn't have a serious bone in its (decomposing) body. Great stuff.

Monster truck for a Monster Man

Next up was another low budget American horror comedy, Monster Man. Again a winning blend of genres, the film combined the plot of a rites de passage road movie with frat boy gross-out comedy and classic Tobe Hooper/John Carpenter horror. The Sure Thing meets American Pie meets Leatherface. However, unlike so many pick 'em off slasher flicks, the film lets us get to know and like the two heroes, uptight virgin Adam and wisecracking asshole Harley, as they drive through the desert on their way to a wedding (spotting a pattern here?). But in the wilds of middle America, the hills don't just have eyes, they have monster trucks as well, and the pair soon find themselves pursued by a sinister and deformed madman in a seriously cool rig. Blood, guts, roadkill and some genuinely funny lines and situations, this is an odd but likeable and thoroughly enjoyable film that incorporates classic horror moments into an unpredictable plot that never ceases to surprise and entertain.

They're here.

And then we were treated to Tobe Hooper's '80s classic Poltergeist. I hadn't seen this film since the 1980s and was surprised to see how well it still stands up. The special effects don't look that cheesy and it's still creepy as hell in places. I also found it interesting that, whilst watching the film as a teenager, you fear for what the pesky poltergeist might do to you (and, incidentally, who in their right minds buys a hideous toy like that clown for their kids?) whilst watching it as an adult you find yourself fearing for what the ghost can do to those you love. But then last time I saw it I was the bratty teenage daughter Dana's age. Now I'm almost as old as the mum. Gads.

Turning Japanese

Six thirty in the morning was as long as I could stay awake, despite copious amounts of coffee and horrible caffeine drinks, so I missed three zombie flicks and the wonderful sounding Bubba Ho-tep (Elvis - played by none other than Evil Dead's Bruce Campbell - is alive and, er, unwell and living in an old folks home that's been possessed by an ancient Egyptian demon - how cool is that?). However, I was back on Sunday afternoon for Japanese weird fest The Big Slaughter Club. A film about five schoolgirls who accidentally kill a man then bury his body in the woods sounded fairly promising (albeit probably a bit pervy) but the film itself was really very silly, and not in a good way. Much to the disappointment of a large proportion of the audience, the girls remained fully clothed as the murdered man returned from the dead to wreak his revenge, but it's hard to take seriously a killer wearing a Columbo style rain mac who's possessed by, er, his own hand. The Addams family's Thing gone radge filmed in a crazy MTV style, it wasn't exactly very scary. Oh well.

Cult Japanese horror director Takashe Miike's Gozu was equally weird, though in a far more intriguing and disturbing way. Yakuza henchman Minami finds himself out of his depth in Japanese hicksville when the body of his boss, Ozaki goes missing from the back of his car when he stops to make a phone call (you'll be unsurprised to hear that he has no mobile reception). A cast of oddball characters that range from the slightly strange to the just plain wrong seem unable to help him find his lost Brother - until he returns in the guise of a beautiful woman. Things get unseemingly gross as the film reaches its climax (literally) and then just kinda stops. Interesting but definitely not for the faint-hearted.

The Toolbox Murders

Tooled up

And so onto the final film of the festival, the latest offering from veteran horror supremo Tobe Hooper. The Toolbox Murders, to steal someone else's line, does exactly what it says on the tin. Refreshingly set in an 'old' apartment block (built in the 1920s - American's really have no concept of the word old), we were mercifully spared any more mutilated victims running through the woods, pursued by chainsaw wielding maniacs. Instead we had mutilated victims running through the secret passages of the Lusman building, pursued by a maniac wielding a chainsaw, a drill, a hammer, a nail gun. you name it, it's in his toolbox. Yup, the film is a classic slasher flick by numbers, in which vulnerable women are picked off one by one by a mysterious demonic masked man who lurks within the building. Utterly predictable the film may be, but Hooper nevertheless is a master at administering shocks, and the final scene, in which he plays with our expectations as we wait for the monster to leap out at the heroine one last time, is really quite clever.

But then again when you've had as much caffeine as I've had this weekend, you'll jump at your own shadow. Just don't ask me about the taxi ride home afterwards, as I nervously watched the driver in the rear view mirror, expecting at any minute to see his eyes glow red as we swerved off the roads into - eek! - the countryside.

Monster men

And then it was all over. Four days of unremitting blood, guts, gore, violence and horror. and it was great! And yet we were left with an uncomfortable moral. Forget demons, witches, vampires and zombies: these days, it's not the dead you need to be afraid of. It's the living. From psychotic lesbians to killer schoolgirls, hillbilly rednecks to sinister surfers, hitchhikers from hell to dear sweet grannies, they're out there. And they're after you. So lock your doors, check your closets and whatever you do, don't go into the woods alone.

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