Dead by Dawn

Thursday 20th-Sunday 23rd April 2006

'Triskaidekaphobia is a fear of the number 13. For an easy life, might we politely recommend being scared of something pronouncable.' Like the films at the Dead By Dawn film festival, for example, which this year celebrates its (lucky) 13th birthday in gruesome style. The venue? A haunted apartment block, an Indian burial ground, a forest in the middle of nowhere. The guests of honour? Cannibal doctors, alien zombies, fallen angels and mountain biking serial killers. Let the massacre begin.

Hayley has a surprise in store for Jeff in Hard Candy

Log on at your own risk. shame!

Things get off to a good start with Hard Candy, a cautionary tale about internet dating, in which paedophile groomer Jeff gets way more than he bargained for when he takes home smart sassy teenager Hayley and finds the tables turned. into an operating theatre. A riveting, intense and morally complex psychological drama brought alive by a truly astonishing performance from the young actress Ellen Page, this is stern stuff.

Friday's fear fest begins with Cigarette Burns, John Carpenter's contribution to the Masters of Horror series. A cross between The Ninth Gate and Ring, it follows film fanatic Kirby Sweetman's search for the only known copy of Le Fin Absolute du Monde, a film so horrific it inspires audiences to commit acts of mass slaughter. An interesting idea that doesn't always quite work (Polanski would probably have done it better - sorry John), but worth it for the sight of Udo Kier feeding his guts into a projector. And. cut!

Back by popular demand, the What You Make It short film program features films which aren't really horror but which scare the crap out of you anyway (much the same could be said of Hard Candy, actually). The pick of the crop is definitely Shame, a bitter sweet four minute tale of a shy woman suffering from an unfortunate disability. And yes, the nasty twist at the end really is. a shame.

Look to the skies

Tea's up! Japanese cuisine in The Last Supper

Next up is Severed. The idea of zombie lumberjacks hacking up tree hugging hippies sounds promising but this low budget, grainy shlock horror takes itself too seriously to really deliver. Hopefully the fantastic looking Worse Case Scenario, a film about (no, I'm not making this up) an invasion of airborne zombie Nazis, will live up to the promise of the brilliant promos we were treated to. Class.

South Korean celluloid nightmare Haze is not really my cup of poison at all - a claustrophobic sequence of unpleasant images of some poor sod trapped in an underground labyrinth of cruel traps, capped with a baffling attempt at explanation in the last five minutes. Next!

Staying with Asian cinema, next up we have The Last Supper (the one with the cannibal plastic surgeon) - a great hour long film padded out to 92 minutes, with some marvellous set pieces separated by swathes of slightly tedious dialogue.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Saturday kicks off with the brilliant Oculus. Convinced that a creepy looking glass has been driving folk to horrific suicidal ends for nigh on 300 years, our hero is determined to catch it doing its evil stuff on camera. Is he a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, unhinged by the bloody deaths of his parents, or is the mirror to blame? A genuinely scary new take on an old favourite theme.

Next up I get another chance to see the fabulous Don't Look Now on the big screen. A beautiful, mysterious and moving film that's part ghost story, part Hitchcockian psychological drama, Nicolas Roeg's horror classic is as romantic, sinister and timeless (bad moustaches aside) as the Venice in which it's set - and will instil in you a life long fear of small children in red raincoats.

Short cuts

The Cutting Edge short film competition is another personal favourite, and this year the eclectic selection ranges from the horrible (apocalyptic Mad Max-on-a-budget Italian zombie schlock Last Blood) to the hilarious (claymation serial killer meets cute'n'cuddly Kong in Repose En Paix) to the hallucinogenic (a bad mushroom trip in the Japanese woods in Cultivation). Competition winner Los Ojos de Alicia is a tense and clever psychological mind trick, while runner up Angel Dust is the first film I've seen featuring killer bedsheets. Nice.

Welsh psycho in gas mask goes radge in Deadly Tantrum Zacarias Zombie - bless!

And while we're on the subject of shorts, other treats scattered across the four days include El Desafio a la Muerte, a delightful tale of a plasticine guru in a blender, uproarious crowd pleaser Deadly Tantrum (Welsh psycho in gas mask goes radge) and two very different animations, the Manga-esque Gorgonas, which rewrites the Gorgon myth to star a girl band gone bad (always knew there was something dodgy about the Sugababes) and Zacarias Zombie, in which our cute wee decomposing hero discovers an unhealthy love of animals. yummy!

I like to ride my bicycle? It's broken.

The Ghost Inside is a nice Chinese ghost story that, miraculously for an Asian horror, actually more or less makes sense - okay, so we've seen the freaky-woman-with-hair-across-face thang many times, but this is still an effective and occasionally (and unintentionally) hilarious wee tale.

Another cautionary tale, this time on the dangers of one night stands, Blood Trails sees bike messenger Anne stalked to an unpleasant end in the Whistler Mountains by a seemingly superhuman BMX bandit. Beginning predictably enough, it gets better as it goes along (the denouement is really quite gripping), but the ultra cheap look will never see it on general release.

Broken, on the other hand, is a film well deserving of a cinematic release. Never has a movie been more aptly titled than this truly horrific tale of a monstrous Ray Mears who abducts and tortures women in an attempt to turn them into survivors. Making Hostel look like Mary Poppins, some parts of this blood chilling, relentlessly bleak film are almost unwatchable, and the ending is the cruellest trick in the book.

Genetic experiments go awry in Isolation

Last year we had mad cows in Ireland, this year we have. mad cows in Ireland. Isolation takes itself more seriously than the zomcom Dead Meat, offering a chilling warning about the dangers of genetic modification as a slimy killer calf goes on the rampage. Alien on a farm? I'll get me wellies.

A grim bug's life

Sunday is no day of rest at Dead By Dawn, or for the eponymous hero of short film The Ancient Rite of Corey McGillis. Distraught at the death of his father, this disturbed young man finds a way to bring his family back together again - with dark, slimy, gory results. Although surely everyone knows by now that when you find a list of unfamiliar words lying in the middle of a pentagram in a Satanic temple, you don't read them out.

Next it's back to the 1940s with the classic Ealing portmanteau film Dead of Night, five tales of terror (ahem) held together by a clever linking device. Cue polite chain smoking, bizarre rolled up hairdos and some corking lines - but Michael Redgrave and his creepy ventriloquists dummy Hugo are still really quite spooky, in a stiff upper lip kinda way.

Back in time again to the wild wild West for a second anthology film, Grim Prairie Tales, a likeable frontier romp in which James Earl Jones' tobacco spitting bounty hunter crosses paths with Brad Dourif's effete city boy for a night of horror story telling in the middle of the cold desert. From Indian burial grounds to KKK posses to a gunslinger suffering from OCD, all the western clichés we know and love are present and accounted for - with a twist.

A second trip to the Masters of Horror vault drags up Lucky McKee's Sick Girl, an utterly delightful but twisted lesbian love story in which girl meets girl, girl meets scary giant insect and it all goes horribly. right.

Tony Todd in Shadow: Dead Riot - beware of the colons...

Shadows in the mirror

And before we know it we're almost at the end of another Dead By Dawn, wrapping up with the new film from special guest star Tony (Candyman) Todd, Shadow: Dead Riot. I'm always suspicious of films with colons in the title (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl aside, 'colon films' are uniformly dreadful, don't you find?) and with good reason - this black magic lesbian kung fu zombie prison flick throws every horror cliché in the (skinbound) book into the cauldron and the result is a truly appalling, really quite unappetising mess. Face it, if the star of the movie feels moved to apologise for it, it's never going to be good.

And so another Dead By Dawn is brought to a bloody conclusion. As ever, the festival has offered a top notch mix of the grim, the gory, the ghostly and, er, the grainy low budget. And this year's Monkey-style moral to take home? Well, with special guest Candyman and the theme of the haunted mirror running throughout the weekend, perhaps this year we should stop looking under the bed for the monsters and take a good hard look at ourselves. We have, after all, spent four days watching people being tortured, eaten, infected and dismembered. Oh dear.

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