Dead by Dawn

Thursday 30th April-Sunday 3rd May 2009

As house prices tumble, banks implode and a nasty cold sweeps the globe, killing, ooh, tens of people, what better way to cheer myself up than to spend the bank holiday weekend locked in a cinema at my favourite horror film festival, Dead by Dawn?

The hills have maniacs

Things get off to a cracking start with Adam (Broken) Mason's Blood River. Like a cross between The Hills Have Eyes and Wiseblood, it features an incredible performance from Andrew Howard as a demented serial killing preacher who stalks a barren desert wasteland so sunbleached and dry it makes you thirsty just looking at it, doling out a twisted, bloody, semi-supernatural redemption.

Friday begins with the What You Make It programme, kicking off with a truly demented slice of hillbilly Americana, as a purple-bearded woodsman takes on God in  I Live In The Woods, followed by a satirical slab of capitalist greed in Next Floor, which recalls Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The  Thief, His Wife and Her Lover with its super-stylish look and glistening reflection of gluttony, and Wish, a teen goth tragedy made even more shocking by the fact that it's based on 'actual events'.

John Bergin's post-apocalyptic vision From Inside

John Bergin's animated labour of love From Inside takes us to a bleak, blood-drenched, post-apocalyptic wasteland, where we follow the progress of a mysterious steam train on its inexorable journey to hell. It looks beautiful but boy is it depressing, with searing, Holocaust imagery that really sticks in the mind.

Thank God, then, that the next film provides some comic relief. Revisiting Lucio Fulci's marvellously daft exploitation flick Zombie Flesh Eaters as it reaches the ripe old age of thirty is always going to be fun, but coupling it with an appearance from its star, Ian McCulloch, makes it all the more entertaining. A charming old luvvie who'd much rather be playing the Dane than fighting off rotting corpses, McCulloch is refreshingly honest about the fact that he's made a career of appearing in films he thinks are crap, spouting rubbish dialogue. Bless!

The Forbidden Door is the first Indonesian film I've ever seen, and is certainly interesting, if confusing. From its incongruous, Batman-meets-James Bond titles to its final cop out of a 'twist', it definitely holds the attention, but is a little unfocused.  

Nick Searcy as Clive in Cold Storage

Cold Storage, however, is one of my favourite films of the festival: a twisted hillbilly love story that really makes you feel for its misguided antihero, the reclusive redneck peasant Clive (Nick Searcy), who's definitely one banjo short of a duel. Think Misery meets Alice Cooper's 'Cold Ethyl', but with empathy. Oh, and the novel approach to dental hygiene and fried egg consumption featured in the film are possibly the most disgusting things we see all weekend…

The final film of the night is Tamami: the Baby's Curse, a classic J-horror haunted house movie that crosses the English gothic mystery of Rebecca with the gross-out sibling rivalry of Basketcase. Big ol' scary house in the woods? Check. Creepy evil rubber baby? Check. Sit back and prepare to be entertained – and, again, to feel somewhat sorry for the miserable monster in the walls, even as it melts its dad with sulphuric acid. Hooray!

Night of the zombie serial killing preacher vampires

Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter

Saturday begins with a real classic treat, a pristine edition of Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter. Again, we find ourselves in the company of a serial killing preacher, a deliciously laid-back, twisted performance from the sleep-eyed Robert Mitchum, who communes with the heavenly voice in his head while bumping off rich widows for a living.

The films in the Cutting Edge short film competition seem to be of a particularly high standard this year, with not a duff one among them. You have to love the hilariously cheap Wheelchair Werewolf (who could he be?), the utter carnage of lunatics-take-over-the-asylum thriller Kirksdale (a twenty minute  gore fest that strips away all that tedious plot nonsense to concentrate on the nasty bits, making me wonder why any horror film needs to last an hour and a half), the creepy demon ballboys of Advantage (you'll never walk home drunk again), the world's most inept Christmas kidnappers in You Better Watch Out and… The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon. Nuff said…

The Pearce Sisters

The short film we're treated to before the next big feature, Aardman Animation's The Pearce Sisters, is possibly the ugliest thing I've ever seen in my life, and yet, while it boggles the mind to think that these hideous siblings share shelf space with dear old Wallace and Gromit, it shows the same clever attention to eccentric British detail that marks all the studio's work.

Sauna is a gritty historical horror set in 1595. War between Russia and Sweden has resulted in an uneasy truce, and a new border must be drawn – through a dismal swamp, an eerie village and a creepy sauna that looks like a Nazi bunker, where sins can be redeemed. This Finnish film looks amazing, features some great performances and is utterly compelling, with a really nasty shock ending, but it is awfully confusing, and I'm really not sure I understood any of it. Oh well…

'The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is they're dead' - Night of the Creeps

Fred Dekker's 1980s zombie alien frat party classic Night of the Creeps is preceded by another great short, How My Dad Killed Dracula, a charming, highly entertaining cross between The Goonies and The Lost Boys which I utterly loved. Night of the Creeps is also great fun. A marvellous mash-up of B-movie madness in which Plan Nine From Outer Space meets Return of the Living Dead, it's stuffed full of funny genre references, and also features one of the best jaded cop performances ever from Tom Atkins.

The dead will walk the earth – and space

Last of the Living

The all-nighter this year is a zombie triple bill, starting with a low budget Kiwi flick Last of the Living. Combining the slacker humour of Shaun of the Dead with the bleak finale of Dawn of the Dead to fairly good effect, it doesn't have a lot to add to the genre, but is interesting nevertheless – and I've never seen a zombie parachute from a plane before…

Computer game sci-fi animation Dead Space: Downfall isn't really my bag at all so I'm afraid I slept through most of it, and retired to bed before Peter Jackson's ultimate gross-out cannibal zombie comedy, Braindead, so no lawnmower death for me. Shame.

Miserable home movies and shocking news

Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery

Sunday starts with one of my favourite horror movies, Misery, which I'm happy to say is as tense and nerve-wracking now as it was when I was a teenager. Horror films aren't generally renowned for star turns, but this has been a weekend of top performances, from Andrew Howard, Nick Searcy, Robert Mitchum and of course the marvellous Kathy Bates here, her bovine calmness punctured by sudden crazy rages which would terrify even the hardiest souls.

Afterwards we're treated to some classic shorts from past festivals, including one of my favourites, the creepy Irish haunted house movie The Ten Steps, before moving on to low budget thriller Dawning. This suspenseful tale of a dysfunctional family holed up in a hunting lodge in the middle of the woods is compelling and avoids many of the clichés you'd expect, but is perhaps a little too ambiguous to really serve up the scares.

Adrian Pasdar and Cady McClain in Home Movie

Home Movie, on the other hand, is fantastic. Smug, over-enthusiastic parents David and Clare Poe (Adrian Pasdar and Cady McClain) are obsessed with filming their silent, moody offspring as they pass the usual childish milestones: opening Christmas presents, hunting Easter eggs, throwing rocks at dad, crucifying the cat and torturing the boy next door… Like The Children, this is a chilling advert for contraception that gets worse the more you think about it – especialy as, unlike the British brood, Jack and Emily's evil cannot be blamed on a mystery virus. Dark, shocking and utterly convincing, this is not one for expectant mums…

Our final short, Heart of Karl, is like the kind of crazed, nasty dream you have after spending a weekend watching horror films: a nightmarish melange of hideous images, flayed skin and ghastly, skull-like visages – and another monstrous hero that we can't help feeling sorry for.

Vampire Party aka Les Dents de la Nuit

Our final feature, the French vampire comedy (yes, you really did read that right) Les Dents de la Nuit is pure fanged silliness. A group of party-loving friends are delighted when they manage to wangle invites for the super-exclusive Nuit Medicis, but quickly realise that being helicoptered into a creepy castle on a mountain top might not be so much fun after all, especially when the guest list and the menu are the same... The film is far too fluffy and daft to have any real bite but is good, old fashioned '80s-style fun all the same – think the exuberance of Weird Science mixed with the sleazy morality tale of Vamp and the SFX of The Lost Boys.

But as this weekend of bad parenting and strangely sympathetic monsters draws to a close, the biggest shock is yet to come, as festival director Adèle Hartley announces that there will be no Dead by Dawn next year. God knows she deserves a break, but the world shifted slightly sideways all the same – where will I be without my annual fix of daring, cutting edge, creative genre cinema? Mummified in the multiplex watching crappy J-horror remakes, that's where. Now that really is scary.

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