Dead by Dawn

Thursday 21st-Sunday 24th April 2005

Sun is shining, birds are singing, flowers are blooming… and I'm sealed in the darkness of the Filmhouse cinema, watching a succession of poor unfortunate souls being despatched in an increasingly bizarre and gory succession of ways. Lock your doors, bolt your windows and don't look under the bed… it's Dead By Dawn 2005.

'When there's no more room in hell, the cows will walk the earth…'

This year, Scotland's premiere horror film festival begins by taking a trip across the water to Ireland. 'There aren't any horror filums made in Ireland,' Dead Meat director Conor McMahon explains with a shrug. 'Plenty of horrific ones maybe…'

A hungry zombie in Conor McMahon's Dead Meat

McMahon's feature debut comes over as a cross between Father Ted and Dawn of the Dead: if Craggy Island were ever to be invaded by mad, flesh-eating cows intent on passing their deadly virus onto the human population, this is pretty much what would happen. Complete with proper, old fashioned shambling zombies (none of this new-fangled running malarkey for these bloodsuckers), heaps of cheap gore and some completely incomprehensible Irish banter, Dead Meat is a highly entertaining, low budget bloodfest that ticks all the right boxes for a traditional zombie flick, before startling us with a surprisingly bleak and chilling Night of the Living Dead style ending.

Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy

Killing words and killer clowns

Friday begins with the Hitchcock classic Frenzy. Definitely a film of its time, the fairly scary serial killer plot pales into insignificance beside the very scary early '70s bouffant hairdos, sideburns from hell and icky synthetic clothing, and the ultra scary early '70s attitudes towards women, sex and anyone with a mental health problem. Yes, a 'learned doctor' seriously does say of the serial killer: 'He rapes them first you know… well, every cloud has a silver lining…'

Spanish psychological thriller Killing Words

Next up, Spanish thriller Killing Words is a fascinating and intricate psychological thriller that twists and turns like an eel in a cooking pot. A beautiful female psychiatrist is kidnapped by a crazy serial killer and forced to take part in a deadly game... but things are not as they seem...

Unfortunately, hampered by a pace that's just a little too slow and a script that's just a little too wordy (especially if you only speak about ten words of Spanish), the unexpected plot twists are a little too far apart to really keep you on the edge of your seat, but nevertheless an interesting film that's well worth checking out.

The short film programme What You Make It features three slices of cinema that, while not strictly horror films, are none the less pretty horrific. Okay so I didn't see the point of the first one, Musical Chairs, in which small children playing musical chairs are shot one by one in very slow motion whilst a creepy clown looks on, but the second, Tag 26, offers a chilling glimpse into a post nuclear explosion world that is both terrifying and heart wrenchingly moving. Three Minutes of Torture does exactly what it says on the tine, making its point about Nazi brutality and the nature of torture in general in a brilliantly succinct and shocking manner that's definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Ten steps to a murder

The superbly atmospheric short The Ten Steps provides us with a master class in how to create something truly scary with a miniscule budget and nary a drop of blood split. Left alone with her brother in a big spooky house in rural Ireland while her parents are out to dinner, teenager Clare must venture down into the cellar to reach the fusebox because all the lights have gone out. 'Oh, the devil's supposed to appear in the cellar,' her mother's friend remarks conversationally as her father speaks to his daughter on his mobile, talking her through a terrifying descent down the ten steps… with parents like that, who needs the devil?

Luigi Lo Cascio as the sexy Inspector Amaldi in Occhi di Cristallo

Occhi di Cristallo is a classic Italian giallo in the style of Dario Argento (but infinitely superior to last year's woeful Il Cartaio). Last year I warned you never to get kidnapped in Italy, as, thanks to the ineptitude of the police force, it's bound to end in tears. This year I say, to hell with that – if sexy Inspector Giacomo Amaldi (Luigi Lo Cascio) is on the case, bring it on… Although perhaps having one's body parts replaced with wooden limbs from a creepy life size 18th century doll isn't the best way to go. An intelligent and grisly thriller with shades of Silence of the Lambs, the ending is a little bit disappointing but can't ruin an otherwise tense and exciting cinematic experience.

If you go into the woods…

Friday night's movie is Bloodshed, a cautionary tale of what comes to pass when arrogant small town teenagers venture into the woods of rural backwater America. Yup, we're back in Texas Chainsaw Massacre/Deliverance territory, and the natives are getting restless. This ultra low budget gorefest doesn't entirely convince (the characters are all so uniformly awful it's hard to sympathise with any of them, and the 'motivation' behind the crazy woodsmen's killing spree is pretty thin to say the least) but, like Dead Meat, it's saved by an enthusiastic approach and a surprise ending that works extremely well.

Uninvited roommates from hell

Saturday's first flick of the day is the intriguing South Korean ghost story The Uninvited. Yes, the pace is slower than zombie staggering across the fields of County Leitrim, but it nevertheless manages to hold the attention well, beginning with what seems like a classic 'small ghostly children who pop up in unexpected places' set up before departing for quite other worldly and fascinating territory. Not sure it entirely makes sense, but it has a weird and moving logic reminiscent of Don't Look Now that prevents it from becoming overly baffling.

The roommate from hell gets to grips with his new buddies

The Cutting Edge Short Film Competition is always a highlight of the festival, and this year is no exception. Like a series of lessons in how to get killed, we are warned of the dangers of giant spiders (in 1930s style creature feature Larger Than Life), dangerous driving (Kitty and Im Dunkeln), DIY (the brilliantly innovative French Doors), sulky small children (the unexpectedly comic Something Red) and summoning a demon from the eighth circle of hell to be your new flatmate (the hilarious and beautifully observed Roommate From Hell). Oh and kettles. Why does nobody in a horror movie ever have an electric kettle? Whistling kettles are scary. Gaunny no.

Anyway. More short films follow with a retrospective of the work of British horror animator Robert Morgan, a director that somehow manages to create films that are dark, disturbing and deeply wrong, yet at the same time curiously beautiful and sweet. The Separation in particular is truly tragic, whilst The Cat With Hands is like an episode of Jim Henson's The Storyteller gone to the bad…

Ken of the dead

Ken Foree in George A Romero's Dawn of the Dead

Next up we're treated to an audience with Ken Foree (aka Peter in the original version of Dawn of the Dead). A true stalwart of the horror festival circuit, the effusive Mr Foree has a tale for every occasion and could probably have talked all night had the schedule allowed. However, he managed to stay quiet long enough for us to watch a somewhat grainy version of the film that made his name. And I must admit I take back what I said about this film last year (that it was 'bloody boring' in fact) – if you sleep through the first half and watch the ending, it's really quite exciting…

Descent into dorkdom

And so for the moment we've all been waiting for, the all nighter. Things kick off at midnight with a trailer and Q&A for The Descent, the new release from Dog Soldiers director Neil Marshall. Six adventure seeking women descend into a labyrinth of unexplored caves and discover… Gollum. Chicks with picks and attitude – and hopefully the kind of strong group dynamics and sympathetic characterisation that made Dog Soldiers so brilliant. It's out in July and I can't wait.

Tuck into Fruit Chan's Dumplings

After a squirmingly icky body horror short from Sweden called Dysmorpho (put it this way, if you thought chest hair was gross before, you ain't seen nothing yet…), our first feature is Three… Extremes, a compendium of short movies from Asian directors Fruit Chan, Chan-wook Park and Takashi Miike. Fruit Chan's Dumplings is excellent, a Faustian tale of a vain socialite who purchases smooth skin and youthfulness at a terrible price. Just what is in the somewhat pink and crunchy dumplings she must eat? Trust me, you really don't wanna know. The second film, Cut, features a director who finds himself the star of his own horror flick, and whilst there's some superb and shocking visual imagery to savour, the film instead does drag its feet of lead somewhat – although nowhere near as badly as the final instalment, Box. The bits I saw in between falling asleep looked suitably atmospheric and creepy but were also completely confusing and slow as a sleepy zombie that's been shambling round the shopping mall all night.

Still, there's little chance of falling asleep in gross out teen comedy Night of the Living Dorks. Terrible title I know, but the combination of classic zombie horror, sick American Pie penile humour and the fact that everyone's speaking German makes for a highly entertaining, fast paced and crazy laugh a minute movie. And, bizarrely, we at last find some characters we can identify with. Both the hapless dorks of the title, who, suddenly finding themselves equipped with zombie super strength, decide to wreak their revenge on the bullying school jocks, and the sad bunch of squeamish goths accidentally responsible for their transmutation are nicely drawn and instantly recognisable character types.

And I'm afraid that's as far as I made it with the all nighter. Yes, I missed the chance to see Jaws again on the big screen, not to mention witnessing Little Red Riding Hood kick ass in the short film Moondance and Satan dress up as Jesus in American suburban satire Satan's Little Helper. Shame! Although the latest offering from Dario Argento, Do You Like Hitchcock? was apparently pretty dreadful, so no loss there.

Ron Perlman in Cronos

Bizarre bloodshed followed by a tea break

Still, I was back the following afternoon for Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro's Cronos, a wonderful and strangely moving take on the old Faust/Philosopher's Stone/vampire legend. You just have to love a film which features as its hero and heroine a white haired old codger and his silent, bowl haired granddaughter. Lovely stuff.

Gusher No Binds Me, aka The Bottled Fools

Not sure I can say the same for the Japanese bloodbath Gusher No Binds Me, which roughly translates as The Bottled Fools. The fools of the title are trapped in an elevator in a weird futuristic world that's straight out of The Machine Stops. Now, you would have thought that convicted sex killers and terrorists would get their own elevator, wouldn't you? Oh no, they're in there with the schoolgirls and the woman with a pram. What seems like hours of random violence, bizarre flashbacks and Japanese screaming is just about saved by a startling and clever ending, but as you care not one jot for any of the characters, really it's just a case of dozing 'til it's all over. Next please…

Next was great: another retrospective from a British short film maker, Sam Morgan, an affable bloke with sticky up hair, a sick mind and a very bloody imagination. Me like. Duck Children is small children dressed up as ducks getting shot. Pool Shark is small children in a local swimming baths getting eaten. And Tea Break is grown ups gagged and bound on a conveyor belt, being matter of factly despatched by a clock watching factory worker. Genius!

Dark hours and dead birds

As was the next film, Canadian thriller The Dark Hours. After all the Japanese weirdness, confusing plots and slooooow moving talky stuff, we were now really ready for a nice, traditional, psycho killer movie with a plot we could actually get our heads round. And The Dark Hours delivers with a vengeance. Definitely the best film of the festival for me, it's gripping, intelligent, absorbing, fast paced (hallelujah!), shocking and violent, the plot managing to keep one step ahead of us without ever spiralling out of reach - and it also features the only moment of the festival when everyone in the cinema gagged as one. A game of Truth or Dare with pliers? Ooooh yes…

Patrick Fugit faces his demons in Dead Birds

So that just left our closing movie, Dead Birds, a title bound to strike fear into the heart of anyone with a phobia of our feathered friends (so that'll be me then…) Set during the American civil war, it tells the tale of six confederate soldiers who hole up in a spooky old farm house in the middle of a corn field after robbing a bank. And as we all know, like white noise on the telly and bathroom mirrors, corn fields are always bad news. Sure enough, there's something deeply rotten at the heart of the Deep South, and it's about to leap out at our hapless heroes, scary teeth bared. Once it gets going, this is a gripping and really quite scary film, but the start is as slow as, oh, a zombie lurching round a school campus in Germany, making it somewhat hard to stay awake if you're already suffering from severe sleep deprivation. Perhaps this explains the film's annoying tendency to over explain the plot – not content with showing us the creepy demonic backstory in three practically identical sets of flashbacks, we're also treated to a longwinded explanation from the token black guy, Tod. Useful, I suppose, if you were asleep the first time round…

Devil inside

And so another Dead By Dawn draws to a gory close. Less of a nerve shredder this year I'd say, with more of an emphasis on, on the one (amputated) hand, intense psychological thrillers and, on the other, bucket loads of the red stuff, with some unexpectedly moving moments thrown in for good measure. Fewer random psychopaths this time round, too – this year I wouldn't bother locking your doors, for you may well find that, like Frenzy's friendly neighbourhood sex killer, The Uninvited's childhood ghosts or even Roommate from Hell's toilet cleaning demon, the murderous monster is already inside…

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