Dead by Dawn

Thursday 5th May - Sunday 8th May 2011

After a year left wandering in the barren wilderness of multiplex horror, Dead by Dawn is back to remind us that there's life in the old genre yet (albeit of a rotten, twisted variety) - and, of course, to remind us, lest we forget, that serial killers lurk everywhere, camping seriously sucks, sleeping with your feet sticking out of the duvet is a very bad idea and owls can be surprisingly dangerous.

The eyes have it

Belén Rueda in Los Ojos de Julia

Things get off to a promising start on Thursday night with cute teen short You're So Undead - think Mean Girls with fangs - followed by Spanish psycho-thriller Los Ojos de Julia (Julia's Eyes). The Orphanage's Belén Rueda plays the eponymous heroine, who's sucked into a shady investigation when her sister commits suicide under mysterious circumstances. Haunting and disturbing, this is the first of several films this festival that examines the disintegration of body and mind, with Julia and her sister both inflicted with a degenerative eye condition that eventually leads to blindness.

The initial set-up is flawless and chilling, but the film is overly long, linking flashes of cinematic brilliance (a darkened changing room peopled by blank-eyed, bitching women; a stranger who's seen yet never remembered; the migraine-inducing white glare of a camera flash illuminating pitch blackness) with more run-of-the-mill creeping round a dark house at night fodder.

Stiff as a board

Penny and Harold in Harold's Going Stiff

First up on Friday is my favourite film of the festival. Harold's Going Stiff is a genre-defying zom-rom-com that links the onset of old age and the physical and mental problems that accompany it with, well, becoming a zombie. Men all over the country are succumbing to ORD, 'onset rigors disease', a virus which leaves them stiff and in pain, before attacking the brain and transforming them into aggressive attackers.

In the age of spending cuts and the Big Society, it appears to be left to local volunteers not only to care for the sufferers, corralled into community centres like cattle, but also to police the countryside, vigilante style, 'bringing down' any sufferers they stumble across. But as organised chaos reigns in South Yorkshire, sweet district nurse Penny (Sarah Spencer) is making headway alleviating the symptoms of original sufferer Harold (Stan Rowe) - but how long can they stave off the inevitable?

I just loved this film: thought-provoking, hilariously funny, strangely credible and sweetly moving, it's the first time I've practically blubbed in the cinema at Dead by Dawn.

Carrie White burns in hell

Sissy Spacek is Carrie

Next is a rare treat in the form of Brian dePalma's classic adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie, the first of three films featuring religious mothers so extreme they make Mum and Dad look like model parents. Sure, seen through adult eyes, it all appears a bit overwrought - something that never crossed my mind when I last saw the film as a teenager, which is intself a testimony to the clever way it captures the sheer sucky angsty hell of high school. And the suspense in that famous prom night scene is simply exquisite, a superb piece of edge-of-your-seat film-making.

The What You Make It short film selection is excellent as ever, but smart mini horror gems like Kitty Kitty (cat lovers are in for a rough ride this year, I discovered) and Tous Les Hommes S'Appellent Robert are rather over-shadowed by the almost unwatchable nastiness of the final film, Merry Little Christmas, an unflinchingly brutal dissection of the effects of domestic abuse. Suffice it to say that I'd rather pull out a finger-nail with pliers than watch this again.

Blue Monday

Alex Appel in The Death of Alice Blue

Alex Appel, producer and star of The Death of Alice Blue, is so charming and enthusiastic that I really wanted to like her film. And I did, in parts, but as a whole it didn't entirely hang together. The initial scenes capture well the weirdness of entering the world of work, as young newbie Alice starts a job in an advertising agency run by glamorous, bitchy '80s power dressers and staffed by weary-looking minions. But the retro, goth John Hughes appeal of the setting and set-up aren't enough to bolster a confusing plot that meanders along just a little too slowly. Although, given that Appel freely admits that she and director Park Bench (think Ducky from Pretty and Pink dressed as a Cure fan) set out to make a bad film, one could call it a resounding success...

Fishy Friday

Final film of the night Cold Fish, a brutal thriller from Japanese director Sion Sono, isn't really my bag either. Tropical fish shop owner Shamato is the classic worm who turns, pushed too far by a mobster employer, demanding wife and spoilt daughter. Like A History of Violence, the film charts all too graphically how violence can only beget more of the same, but it's hard to feel any sympathy for the weak, selfish characters, and the misogynistic presentation of the women in the film didn't exactly endear it to me either. Next...

House party

Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House

Saturday kicks off with the 1930s James Whale classic, The Old Dark House. They sure don't make 'em like that any more, do they? A crazy clutch of mismatched characters, trapped over night in an old dark house as a storm rages outside - with Croatian subtitles? What could possibly go wrong? And just who is locked in that upstairs bedroom? He-he-he-he-he...

The Cutting Edge short film competition is always a highlight of the festival for me, and this year's is no disappointment. Stand-outs were: the very creepy Anorexia, which in just four minutes captured perfectly the predatory, infectious nature of the disease; ...Schliess Ganz Fest die Augenlein, which deals with the age-old problem of coping with a zombified partner; and Hungry Hickory, a genuinely scary lesson in leaving old reel-to-reel tape machines well alone and keeping all limbs well under the duvet... Oh and kudos has to go to Caution Sign: beware those tricksy owls...

Here be vampires and zombies

Connor Paolo as Martin in Stake Land

If you liked The Road but felt it didn't feature enough zombified vampires, Stake Land is the film for you. A grizzled survivalist and orphaned boy travel across an America ravaged by decomposing vamps and rogue bands of Christian militia groups, in search of a safe zone known as New Eden. There's nothing startling original in the concept, yet the strong characters and effective post Apocalyptic styling conspire to make this an engaging undead experience.

After a laugh-out-loud Aussie short, 10 Things I Hate About Camping (just ten?) we're plunged back into zombie land, this time in South Korea. Low-budget portfolio movie The Neighbor Zombie is a little uneven in places, but proves surprisingly original and thought-provoking. Two of its six sections look with poignancy and humour at what folk would do if their loved ones became infected with a zombie virus (clue: it's not bashing them over the head with a baseball bat - could you do that to your mum?), while the penultimate segment sees the cured ex-infected gathering in support groups, moaning about the lack of employment for those who've recently recovered from a craving for brains. Nice.

Will the last one to leave please turn out the light

Por Gloria Divina sees our second candidate for the worst mother of the world award performing a DIY exorcism on her daughter with tragic results. Nasty.

Christian Berkel is The Last Employee

Following it is another festival highlight, Der Letzte Angestellte (The Last Employee) a creepy story about a lawyer taken on to close down an unprofitable firm. I love films that keep you guessing as to whether supernatural forces are at play or whether the central protaganist is losing their mind, and this is a great example of the genre: is our hero really being stalked by the spirit of a suicidal employee, or is it his history of mental illness that's returned to haunt him? Chilling, shocking and eerily atmospheric, this is not one to watch if you'll be working late tomorrow.

The living need their bed

Lightweight that I am, I only made it through the first (amputated) leg of the late night triple bill, but thoroughly enjoyed slacker horror comedy The Living Want Me Dead (the Lynx effect, but with mortal consequences).

I must admit I struggled to stay awake through Chop, but not through any fault of the film, which (from what I saw) was fast-paced, gross-out, abandon-hope-oh-ye-of-delicate-sensibilities fun from ex-Troma man Trent Haaga. A shaggy dog story with a twist in the tail that will have you slapping your forehead in despair, it's a also a cautionary story about causing casual hurt to strangers in the vein of Drag Me To Hell. Consider yourself warned...

Double trouble

Jeremy Irons as Elliot and Beverly Mantle in Dead Ringers

I've never seen David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers before, so was in for a treat on Sunday afternoon. Jeremy Irons is absolutely brilliant as twin gynaecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, who's symbiotic relationship becomes tragically self-destructive, resulting in a film that tempers clinical nastiness with geniune pathos.

How to follow that? Why, with a programme of short cartoons for adults, a recent addition to the festival which I trust will become a permanent fixture. I loved all the films: from the hilarious Aardman Animation Fly to the adorable vegeance of The Hidden Life of the Burrowing Owl to monsters in Scary Therapy (everyone needs someone to talk to - even vampires, zombies and swamp beasts) to a Father Christmas intent on world domination (Santa the Fascist Years) to plasticine sex and death in Vicenta (think Wallace and Gromit with bondage) and the minute long Rise of the Living Corpse. And finally we get to see some positive parenting as The Cow Who Wanted To Be A Hamburger is plucked from the jaws of death by his mother - phew!

There's no excuse

Enter the Dark was one of my top shorts of the festival: condensing the scares of Paranormal Activity into 18 lean minutes and no footage of a bedroom with nothing happening in it in sight. And the ending is much better too...

Leslie Easterbrook as Maggie in The Afflicted

The Afflicted is our final evil mother movie, and this one is a real doozie. Leslie Easterbrook (yes, Sergeant Debbie Callahan from Police Academy) gives a truly deranged performance as an abusive, alcholic parent whose familial reign of terror can only end in tragedy. Based on a true story, this is a harsh, uncompromising movie, and even a failed TV evangelist cowboy preacher in a stetson can't lighten the mood much. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Goodbye Yellowbrickroad

Preceding our penultimate film of the festival is Deus Irae: if Neo from The Matrix were to carry out an exorcism, this is what it would look like. If, like me, you thought Constantine took itself a bit too seriously, this is the fun-size version.

Yellowbrickroad offers an unsual take on the Blair Witch 'let's go into the woods where something horrible happened to find out the truth' idea and uses it in an unnervingly different way. The 'something horrible' in this case occured in 1940,when the entire population of a small town in New Hampshire walked into the woods and never returned. As our well-equipped band of researchers, cartographers, psychologists and rangers set out in their footsteps, why the townspeople left quickly becomes irrelevant: it's where they were heading that's now key. Yup, you're not in Kansas any more.

A strong ensemble cast brings the disparate characters to life effectively and, again, while the question of 'which is more dangerous, the woods or the people invading them' is hardly novel, it's handled nicely here. While not exactly terrifying, the film expertly creates a disorientating atmosphere of claustrophobia and unease, building up to a tense (if odd) finale. Definitely worth seeing if you can.

Rural legends

Tucker and Dale get ready to fight some Evil

And so to the final film. Comedy short The Legend of Beaver Dam - a musical massacre with nerdy kids and an urban legend come true - sets the scene perfectly for riotiously funny horror comedy Tucker and Dale vs Evil, where a plot beloved of so many slasher flicks (college kids set up camp in the woods, only to find themselves beset by murderous hillbillies) is turned on its head, as lovable rednecks Tucker and Dale (Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine) find their weekend in their holiday shack in the woods disrupted by axe-wielding teens. A great premise that works surprisingly well as a feature-length movie thanks to exuberant performances, a slick, funny script and great chemistry between our hapless heroes.

The perfect ending to a festival that's plumbed the depths of human depravity, but also moved me to tears as the redemptive power of love fights off zombification, rescues cows from burger factories and saves the girl from the sawmill. True, the most frightening realisation is that getting old is rather like turning into a zombie, but I'll worry about that later. When I'm feeling less stiff...

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