Dead by Dawn

Thursday 29th March - Sunday 2nd April 2012

The Fields

Spring has come early to Edinburgh this year, and so too has Dead by Dawn. So what better way to start the proceedings than by heading into The Fields? Like Stand by Me brushed by The Manson Family and Children of the Corn, this gently unsettling rite of passage movie explores the experiences of ten-year-old Stephen, deposited at his seamy old grandparents' farm in the depths of Pennsylvania. A farm that is, of course, surrounded by acres of eerie corn fields, concealing mysterious nastiness that's never fully explained.

Hauntingly atmospheric (if a little slow at times) the film conveys well the bewilderment of a child in an adult world – a frightening place enough without menacing corn, sinister hippies and things that go bump in the night – and is well worth seeing just for the bravura performance of Cloris Leachman, as game sweary granny Gladys. Go in the corn and 'you'll be all dead and black and swollen' she warns, but nobody in any of our horror films to come is listening to her..

Bloody tears and big bird spiders

Red Tears

Events on Saturday kick off with Red Tears, a schlocky Japanese monster movie/cop thriller that mixes gory SFX with an unexpectedly tender love story and has you rooting for the monsters all the way: up against a world-weary bad cop so brutally old school he makes Gene Hunt look like Mr Goon, they don't really stand a chance. The opening scene (in which a murdered corpse is packed bone-crunchingly into a small suitcase) and high octane wire-work finale are really quite splendid, but the action does drag a little in the middle. Still, a fun B-movie experience all the same.

What You Make It is our first programme of shorts, showcasing brief gems that don't exactly qualify as 'horror' but are truly horrific all the same. The stand out for me was La Migala, in which a heartbroken lover attempts to distract himself from his misery by facing up to his greatest fear and releasing a deadly bird spider into his flat. Clearly he was out of ice-cream. Meanwhile, my nerves will never be the same again. And that's before I saw Grazia magazine darling Chloe Sevigny transform into a hideous monster in David Lynch-esque meditation All Flowers In Time...

An afternoon with my childhood nightmares

The Omen

Next up is a real treat: I've seen The Omen many times but never on the big screen, and I've been missing out. Sure, some of the effects may have dated, but this does nothing to reduce the power of this truly sinister film as it charts the birth and childhood of the Antichrist. With strong performances, cracking death set-pieces and an unsettling air of credibility, while demonic movies may come and go, The Omen remains the standard by which they should all be judged.

The 'long shorts' programme of half hour mini-movies is another rare treat. First up, Murderabilia cracks open the stomach-churningly nasty world of those who deal in murder mementoes, introducing us to a trio of the most unpleasant characters we'll encounter all weekend: the laconic, reminiscing murderer, the super-sleazy memorabilia merchant and the repressed, obsessed, deeply disturbed collector. It won the festival's short film award and deservedly so; it's a masterpiece of unhygienic horribleness.

Next, The Unliving portrays life in Sweden post World War Z. The premise of the film may seem comic – those resourceful, organised Swedes lobotomise the undead and turn them into menial servants – but the result is anything but, breathing new undead life into the tired zombie genre with serious drama and pathos and leaving me longing to know what happens next. Here's hoping a full-length feature is in the pipeline.

The scary clown from An Evening with my Comatose Mother

Finally, we have An Evening With My Comatose Mother, a lovingly crafted, Sam Raimi-style '80s teen horror pastiche that took me right back to my 'cowering behind a cushion watching Freddy' days. A teenage girl is paid to house-sit a 92-year-old comatose woman. On Hallowe'en. And perched at the bedside of this glassy-eyed, desiccated old crone is a horrible clown doll. Need I say more?

Life in the freezer

Edward Furlong and Michael Berryman in Below Zero

Below Zero is a truly classy slice of meta-horror. Struggling screenwriter Jack (the lovely Edward Furlong) has writer's block. He has a concept for a movie, about a man stuck in a meat freezer, so decides, in his wisdom, to travel up to the frozen north of Canada, lock himself in a meat freezer and wait for the muse to strike. Big mistake. He soon hits on a killer plot, in which the pristine slaughterhouse he's incarcerated in is transformed into a grisly, body-part-strewn lair of serial slaughterer Gunnar (everyone's favourite bogey man, Michael Berryman, aka Pluto from The Hills Have Eyes).

But as the temperature plummets, Jack finds it more and more difficult to distinguish between the horror of his screenplay and the increasingly worrying events taking place around him as he writes, and soon, like him, we're trapped within concentric layers of narrative in my favourite twilight zone, that shadowy no man's land between fiction and reality where nothing is quite what it seems.

Like Misery re-scripted by Charlie Kaufman, Below Zero brings something really different and exciting to the table (and not just Gunnar's dodgy sausages). I loved this film – possibly even more when I discovered that writer Signe Olynyk had in fact locked herself in a freezer to write it – and highly recommend it if you get a chance to see it.

Raimi Campbell in The Puppet Monster Massacre

Not such a glowing recommendation for our final film of the night, I'm afraid. The Puppet Monster Massacre is a lovingly crafted felt'n'fangs tribute to the slasher movies of the '80s, but the novelty of swearing puppets having sex and getting picked off one by one by a baby Alien-style monster created by a Nazi scientist wears off pretty quickly (believe it or not), and the joke is simply too thin to stretch throughout a feature length film – especially once we lose the rather wonderfully named nerd of the group, Raimi Campbell. Squeeze it down into a ten minute short and maybe I'll give it another go...

Give me Deliverance

The banjo-playing boy in Deliverance. Diddle ding ding ding ding...

As all good horror fans know, bad things happen in the woods. As Little Red Riding Hood attests, this has long been the case, but never have the woods been more frightening than in John Boorman's Deliverance, which kicks off Saturday's viewing. This film (along with Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre) wrote the rule book for the rural gothic genre, in which smart city folk invade the countryside to commune with nature, thinking they're a cut above those local yokel bumpkins they encounter, and quickly live (or don't live) to regret it.

The first time I saw Deliverance I found it almost unbearably tense, as our quartet of suburban slickers, led by gung-ho macho man Lewis (Burt Reynolds – without a moustache!), set off on an adventure of a lifetime canoeing down a river through the heart of hillbilly country. Even if you've never seen the film, you'll recognise the 'duelling banjos' scene, which has become iconic in screen history, its trademark 'diddle-ding-ding-ding-ding' shorthand for inbred threat. It also sets the tone perfectly, the interlopers' mix of superiority and fascination met by the locals with uncomfortable accommodation underpinned with a touch of menace, and before you an say 'squeal like a pig, boy' it's all going horribly wrong...

Nightmares and monster makers

A canine star of Play Dead

I always look forward to the Cutting Edge short film competition, and 2012's does not disappoint. Quedate Conmigo proves that relationships don't necessarily end when death us do part, as a warring couple continue their fight into the afterlife, a twist that's both funny and oddly moving. Also moving is Last Christmas, a domestic take on the post-apocalyptic wasteland of The Road or The Stand that sees a small boy shelter his dementia-suffering grandmother from the horrible truth of their situation. Play Dead adds a novel layer to the walking dead story, following a pack of dogs as they scamper through the zombie apocalypse (although life isn't much better for dogs than it is for human beings, I'll warn you now).

The Pact establishes an intriguing premise that's since been made into a full-length feature, as a brother and sister return to the family home after the death of their mother, only to find that, in true Stephen King fashion, the dead are not necessarily laid to rest. Finally we have the gloriously irreverent The Coldest Caller: at last, a happy ending, as a resourceful old biddy cheats the Grim Reaper – by climbing out of the bathroom window. Hooray!

Next up, Nightmare Factory is a fascinating documentary charting the rise of KNB FX, monster makers for just about every film you've ever seen, from Evil Dead 2 to the Narnia films. Like The Decline of Western Civilisation Part II with fangs and fur (and some equally atrocious hair-dos), it's an eye-opening, no-holds-barred glimpse behind the scenes at the world of monster make up and special effects, well worth catching if you can.

Werewolves of España

The fearless werewolf hunters in Lobos de Arga

Lobos de Arga (to be released here on DVD as Attack of the Werewolves) was another festival highlight. Struggling writer Thomas Mariño (are you spotting a connection between my favourite films here?) is invited to return to his childhood village for an honorary celebration. Puffed up with pride, he falls into the villagers' rural gothic trap like a slaughtered lamb, for little does he know that he's the last descendant of an evil Marchioness whose ruthless ways caused a curse to be placed upon the village, that only the death of her heir can assuage.

Like The Wicker Man meets American Werewolf in London, the film mixes myth and legend with real, laugh out loud comedy and some lovely moments of guts and gore. Oh yes, fur will fly. Populated by marvellous characters and zinging with an exuberant sense of humour, this is an enormously likeable film that both subverts and lovingly pays tribute to the werewolf genre – and features a star turn from Vito the Jack Russell that puts The Artist's Uggie in the doghouse... Forget the disappointing wolves of Twilight and The Wolfman – if you're a werewolf fan and enjoyed Shaun of the Dead and Tucker and Dale vs Evil, you're going to love Lobos de Arga.

Juan of the dead

Before the late night triple kicks off, we have a short. Nash Edgerton's Spider was one of the funniest, most cringe-inducing and most brilliant shorts ever to grace the screen at Dead by Dawn. Now Jack, the rubbish, prank-playing boyfriend is back in a sequel, Bear, and he's up to his old tricks again. I won't spoil it for you, but let's just say that what comes around has a nasty way of going around...

Juan of the Dead

And now for something completely different. Juan de los Muertos is not only the first Cuban movie I've ever seen, it's also the first Cuban zombie film ever made, and it brings a refreshingly new slant to the rotting corps(e) of undead movies. Like a sun-drenched, slum-set answer to Shaun, it tells the story of feckless loser Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas), who comes into his own when Havana falls prey to zombies.

Like George A Romero, director Alejandro Brugués takes the zombie legend and turns it to political ends, the shambling, scrabbling undead providing a clear parallel to the country's repressed underclasses, struggling to make ends meet in a city where nothing seems to work properly and 'truth' is controlled by the government. But while an understanding of Cuban politics would certainly help to unravel the deeper messages of the film, at surface level it's a hugely entertaining, gutsy adventure built around marvellous, credible characters and a darkly comic script. Like Shaun, it's got real heart – and you can't argue with a film that ends with Sid Vicious singing 'My Way'...

Sunday: a horror compendium

The cake-obsessed corpse in Creepshow

Why have a I never seen Creepshow before? This gloriously OTT portmanteau movie, the brainchild of George A Romero and Stephen King, is exactly the kind of film we lapped up like chocolate milk back in the '80s. Ah well, better late than never, and I finally get to see Ed Harris crushed by a giant tombstone wielded by a cake-obsessed corpse, Stephen King overacting for America as a hopeless hillbilly swamped by extra-terrestrial weeds, Ted Danson returning from a watery grave as a seaweed-draped ghoul to wreak revenge on Leslie Nielson, and Adrienne Barbeau fed to a monstrous creature living in a crate. Loved it!

Next up, the 2D and Deranged shorts programme certainly did what it said on the tin. One of the nice things about Dead by Dawn is it helps me adjust my inner sense of normality. Some folk may consider me weird for wishing to spend four days in the dark staring at a blood-soaked screen, but compared to the likes of David O'Reilly (The External World) and Rob Morgan (Bobby Yeah) I'm Pollyanna. No bug-eyed fornicating cartoon creatures or KY jelly-smeared pulsating plasticine models in my imagination I'll have you know. (Or at least there weren't...)

Pork 'N Bones

In fact, I'm such a softie these days that opener Escape from Hellview, a Raymond Briggs-esque descent into a toddler's nightmare world, almost reduced me tears – I'll settle for the adorable cuteness of Pork'n'Bones I think (basically The Coldest Caller with a cartoon pig – you can see it here). As for Wisdom Teeth – how is it possible for an animation consisting almost entirely of two stickmen to be so stomach-churning? Genius.

Asian nights

Carrie Ng in Red Nights

I'll admit I was somewhat wary of a film described as 'an erotic thriller evocative of Dario Argento's bloody escapades into sex and death' but Red Nights is pretty spectacular. Soaked in rich reds, poisonous greens and shiny, shiny black, it's beautiful to watch, even if the plot is rather hard both to follow and to stomach.

Rich, sensual and incredibly beautiful, Carrie (Carrie Ng) is also a sexual sadist who has honed her art to perfection. Only one thing is missing from her arsenal of pain, a legendary poison created by the executioner to the Jade Emperor, which both paralyses and heightens sensations exquisitely, and which has recently surfaced on the antiques black market (Lovejoy this ain't).

Populated by really rather nasty people, the film portrays Hong Kong as a dog-eat-dog world in which even determined criminals can find themselves out of their depth, and the most sympathetic character flays women alive for fun, while sipping a dry Martini. This is definitely a film to appreciate aesthetically rather than morally, a feast for the eyes but something of a famine for the heart.

Haunters

South Korean slacker superhero movie Haunters, on the other hand, presents us with a lovable trio of friends who must band together to battle a seemingly unstoppable evil, and who engage our sympathies entirely. We first see supervillain Cho-in as a child, rejected by his parents for a terrifying ability to control others with his mind.

As an adult, he makes a comfortable living robbing banks and pawn shops, but remains a lonely, limping outcast. At the opposite end of the autistic spectrum, happy-go-lucky Kyu-nam is surrounded by friends, and will do everything he can to protect them. And, as the only person immune to Cho-in's powers, he's forced to do just that. Like a cross between Misfits and Unbreakable, Haunters takes the well-worn idea of ordinary people with extraordinary powers and shakes it about to create something new, exciting and enthralling – without a cape or mask in sight. Definitely recommended.

Dead and black and swollen and smelly

'We should all split up!' Chris Hemsworth leads the stereotypical teens in The Cabin in the Woods

It may be a bit more mainstream than is usual for Dead by Dawn fare, but I can't think of a better film to end this year's festival than The Cabin in the Woods. Five stereotypical teens set out for a weekend 'off the grid': the ditzy blonde and her jock boyfriend, the smart virginal student, the bookish brains and the dope-smoking Shaggy character. So far so seen-it-all-before – except we're not the only ones watching them; they're under surveillance, and it's as if the shadowy figures observing them from some mysterious underground bunker actually want them to get into trouble. But are these post-Scream, horror savvy kids going to fall for all that 'reading out an old book in Latin' hokum, or are they going to have to be helped along? And if so, why...?

This postmodern horror comedy, while seemingly playing affectionate homage to the slasher movies of the '80s, simultaneously manages to eviscerate the entire genre, calling into question our desire to entertain ourselves with horrific happenings, yet also positioning the vital, cathartic, self-protective and tribal nature of horror storytelling within a grand historical and psychological context. And if that sounds a lot for a monster movie that centres around an old shack in a woods, well, I guess it is.

But all that aside, as you'd expect from the guy who invented Buffy, this is a highly entertaining film that cannot fail to raise a smile on the lips of even the most hardened, hardcore horror fan, littered as it is with countless genre in-jokes, from Evil Dead (natch) to Hellraiser, Alien to Texas Chainsaw Massacre... the list is endless.

And so a fitting film to bring another fabulous festival to a close. While the gurus of gore at KNB FX may mourn the decline of the movie monster, in four days we've encountered every death-dealing supernatural creature imaginable, from werewolves to vampires to reanimated zombie torture families. As ever, it's the human beings who've turned out to be the real monsters – whether they're subduing us with their mind powers, slashing us to pieces with razor-sharp knives, trading in on murder and misery or, er, rising from a coma to vomit black bile at us – but this year, the monsters have given mankind a good run for their money.

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