Apparently, it's not just human beings whose waistlines are expanding. Thanks to the vast amounts of junk food we throw away each day, our city rats are getting bigger too. And in low budget indie-shocker Mulberry Street, which opens the fabulous Dead By Dawn horror film festival this year, the rats ain't just rotund, they're rabid. As the plague they carry sweeps through Manhattan like wildfire, mutating the infected into big scary rat people with vicious claws, pointy teeth and a nasty attitude, it's up to ex-boxer Clutch and his fellow tenants in a rundown apartment block to fend them off.
Combining a nicely crafted sense of suspense with effective prosthetic make-up, Mulberry Street may not have a lot of new ideas, but the unexpectedly moving ending and stark, underlying political commentary (a city is destroyed while the authorities cool their heels; an war veteran returns from Iraq to face death at the hands of her own government) lift this above your run-of-the-mill plague/zombie movie.
Friday's programme begins with another visit into the vaults of the Masters of Horror series. Tobe Hooper's The Damned Thing begins with promise, but sadly descends into a bit of Ghostbusters-style mess. Big burbling Oil Beast, anyone? Hmmm. Our second foray into Masters of Horror, on the other hand, John Landis' Family, is great. Cheers' George Wendt (since when did he become so scary?) plays a serial killer inhabiting a pretty suburban street that makes Wisteria Lane look like Ballamory in this delightful satire on American family values with a priceless twist at the end.
So far so fun, but I've still not actually been scared yet. Fortunately, that's set to change, as the truly, truly bonkers Alex de la Iglesia brings us The Baby's Room, a chilling tale that teeters precariously on the wonky border betwseen insanity and horror as neurotic father Juan discovers he can see an alternative reality through the infrared baby monitor he sets up in his son's room. And believe me, the alternatives ain't good… Gripping, twisted and mind-bending, this was definitely one of the highlights of the festival for me.
Our late night feature on Friday has one of the best titles ever: Flight of the Living Dead. Why oh why did it take someone so long to come up with that? Sadly, this Night of the Living Dead/Airplane mash up doesn't quite live up the promise of its name: after Shaun of the Dead, zombie horror comedy needs to rely on more than a few cheap Zuckerman clichés to really make the grade, plus the grisly action takes way too long to get going.
Saturday continues the theme of life through a lens, with Thai ghost story Shutter. Photographer Tun (played by this year's surprise DBD totty, Ananda Everingham) is freaked out to discover strange images hovering in the pictures he takes. And when his friends start committing suicide left, right and centre, he soon discovers there's more to it than over exposure, as a truly nasty secret hidden in his past begins to come to light. Yes, it does feature the obligatory girl with a white face, long black hair and a scary way of crawling around the floor, but that doesn't prevent this from being really rather creepy – and the ending is a killer. If you thought White Noise was a good idea poorly executed, you won't be disappointed by this take on spirit photography. Watch out for the freaky photos used as well – apparently, they're real…
Next up, the Cutting Edge short film festival, our annual look at the work of young, up and coming directing freakazoids. A medical theme this year, with the rather disappointing Anesthesia thoroughly trumped by the unsettling cautionary NHS tale Lump, but the afternoon was definitely stolen by The Fifth, a brilliantly scripted American serial killer sitcom you won't be seeing on ABC any time soon, and Mime Massacre. It's mimes. Being massacred. Need I say more?
Speaking of short films, the festival is bursting at the stapled seams with class acts this year. If watching mimes being despatched by an imaginary shotgun isn't cathartic enough for you, how about the slaughter of those annoying little brats Les Choristes? Children in a blender – what more could we ask for? How about a mouse being cut in half, in loony tunes French animator Nieto's Carlitopolis? (Trust me, I have a subscription to the SSPCA and I thought it was funny) A Northern Irish serial killer romance that makes Natural Born Killers look like When Harry Met Sally? A pest controller's apprentice eating a pig's snout (don't ask)? Lunatics taking over the asylum? A zombie comedy that, even post Shaun, is actually funny? Or (wait for it) a Danish puppet zombie western, which sees bug-eyed paper-mache muppets despatching each others with chainsaws? Yup, that's Hitch, Le Jour du Festin, Room 69, Zombie Movie and It Came From the West. Hooray! My favourite short, however, had to be the gorgeous and utterly terrifying Monster. You know that thing that lurks in your closet? It's real.
Slow burning Deep South sizzler Southern Gothic does exactly what it says on the tin, combining the lush, twisted idiom of William Faulkner and Anne Rice with the dusty road movie ethos of John Carpenter's Vampires or Near Dark. In the dead end town of Redemption (where else?), sleazy preacher turned bloodsucker Enoch Pitt (William Forsythe) believes he is the resurrection and the life – and only alcoholic misery guts Hazel Fortune (Yul Vazquez), a bouncer at a local strip club, can stop him… A classy, beautifully filmed piece, Southern Gothic breathes new life into the tired vampire myth by picking up Bram Stoker's themes of blood as life and running with it, at the same time creating a likeable anti-hero in the form of the world-weary Fortune.
Saturday's all-nighter begins with End of the Line. As Christopher Smith's Creep amply proved, the subway is a scary place. Especially if your train happens to be full of smug Christian fundamentalists who've just been paged that the Apocalypse is nigh, and it's time to start 'saving souls'. Cue a blood bath and lots of running about in dark tube tunnels, in a film that has some good ideas but strings them out rather, before throwing in a final twist that would be good if it didn't look, well, a bit rubbish.
Likewise, Gruesome begins brilliantly, as teenage store clerk Clare (Lauren Currie Lewis) is murdered by stone-faced serial killer Duke Desmond – only to wake up and find herself back at work, about to relive the experience all over again. Like Groundhog Day without the groundhog, Bill Murray or, well, anything cute and cuddly at all, this film has an excellent premise and at first it's utterly terrifying, but it does lose its way a bit in the middle, only gaining momentum at the end as it builds up to an interesting, unexpected and horrible climax. Not one to watch alone in the living room with the back door unlocked…
I dread to think what the producers of the Masters of Horror series must have thought when they saw Imprint, the instalment sprung from the sick mind of Japanese squelchmeister Takashi Miike, because this torrid tale of incest, abortion, prostitution and mutation makes the other episodes look like the Children's Film Foundation. Coming on like Memoirs of a Geisha on absinthe, it includes a scene that even I couldn't watch. It involves fingernails. I'll say no more.
And now for something completely different. La Hora Fria (The Cold Hour) is a fascinating tale of a group of post-apocalyptic survivors stranded together in an underground bunker, surrounded by plague-ridden, zombie-like 'Strangers', whose infected touch is instantly fatal. Seen through the eyes of eight-year-old Jesus, the film deftly sets up the ties and tensions between the disparate bunch, feeding us just enough information about the Final War that destroyed life as we know it to make us fear the worst, before hitting us with an ending that is as shocking as it's cool. Definitely recommended.
Back in 2001, Jaume Balaguerós' Los Sin Nombre scared the crap out of me with its sinister atmosphere and mind melting horror philosophy, but his latest venture, To Let, is more slasher on steroids than mental maze. Like Mulberry Street, it offers a cautionary tale on the dangers of letting old apartment buildings go to rack and ruin that Shelter could use as an educational movie – although I'm not sure how the blood-soaked loony landlady wielding a pizza cutter would go down at the Glasgow Housing Association... It's scary and gripping, but it's also full of people doing forehead-slappingly stupid things, like thinking that hitting a homicidal nutter over the head will actually kill them – do these people never watch horror movies? Doh!
Finally, The Abandoned offers us an unlikely horror heroine in the form of Marie Jones (Anastasia Hille), a 41-year-old film producer who travels to Russia to trace her roots and, by dint of travelling alone to a deserted farmhouse in the middle of nowhere (doh! doh! doh!), finds a lot more than she bargained for... like a twin brother, Nikolai, and a scary, dead-eyed doppelganger warning her of impending doom. The film is brilliant at evoking a tense, eerie atmosphere of isolation but the plot is a little simplistic (trust me, I slept through large swathes of the film and still knew what was going on), with a horribly inevitable ending.
And speaking of endings… that's it. End of another Dead By Dawn, and one of the most diverse and gripping programmes we've had for a while. And our moral to take home? Well, if last year it was mirrors, this year it's the camera that reveals the ghastly truths the naked eye can't see. Rather like the way the horror movie refracts and distils our darkest fears and desires, capturing and framing them in a way we can understand while showing us the truth of our own nasty souls? I'll leave you to think about that one. Just remember, as you take home images of dismembered bodies, rotting corpses and those needles in the fingernails: the camera never lies…