Dead by Dawn

Thursday 25th - Sunday 28th April 2013

A smirking clown squats in a cold dark warehouse, a malevolent leer on his painted face. Before him, unseen beings squirm and moan in sacks. A brain-melting, grinding groan echoes round the desolate building.

This isn't a movie playing at Dead by Dawn. This is just the trailer.

Dead by Dawn, Scotland's international discovery horror movie festival, has now been running for twenty years. That's twenty years of blood and guts and gore; witches, werewolves and zombies; torture, cruelty and despair; horrific humour and comedic corpses. It's been a hell of a ride... and it ain't over yet.

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh

Things get off to an interesting start with our first feature, The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh, one of four debut films on show this weekend, all of which breathe new life into tired horror tropes. Set in a creepy old house that's bursting at the seams with stone angels, gargoyles, stuffed animals, dolls, and pretty much anything else you can think of that can stare you down glassily should you whisper the word 'declutter', the film explores loss, loneliness and family dysfunction by embodying them physically on the screen in the forlorn, grey, brooding nicknacks left behind when an old woman (beautifully voiced by Vanessa Redgrave) dies alone. Wonderfully creepy and atmospheric, it's a little too slow moving and repetitive in places, but nevertheless a bold, mesmerising piece.

They f*ck you up, your mum and dad. Part I.

Strange as it may sound, Dead by Dawn always heralds the spring. It's almost as if Nature feels the need to compensate for the darkness and despair, corruption and chaos that seeps across the screen of Filmhouse 1 for four days every March or April, to plead her cause as a benign goddess, as opposed to the ruthless bitch we get to see inside the festival: red in tooth and claw and riddled with rednecks.

Which brings us to our first short of the festival, The Game, in which a brutal gang of swampland rednecks find that Nature (or Supernature, even) still has some tricks up her sleeve...

Oliver Reed in David Cronenberg's The Brood

This is followed by a rare screening of David Cronenberg's The Brood, another film in which the natural order of things is disrupted, with fatal results. The movie is introduced by Canadian writer Kier-la Janisse, author of House of Pyschotic Women, a splendidly-titled and ruthlessly candid examination of female neurosis on screen. She bills it as 'Cronenberg's Kramer vs Kramer', inspired by the director's bitter divorce struggles.

I haven't seen the Hoffman/Streep film in many years, but I'll be surprised if it's as hard-hitting as The Brood. In fact, I don't think I've ever witnessed such a damning indictment of separation and the harm it inflicts on children caught in the crossfire. Yes there are killer dwarves, bloody, slimy 'rage babies' and the marvellous Oliver Reed doing his best hypnotic glare, but it's the alternately blank, alternately terrified gaze in the eyes of five-year-old Candy, caught in a battle between angry father Frank (Art Hindle) and her psychotic mother Nola (Samantha Eggar), that's the scariest thing about this film.

Lauren Ashley Carter in Jug Face

Short film La Ricetta proves that it's not just parents who can mess up their offspring: grandparents can have a go too. Then, continuing the theme of suspect parenting, is our next debut feature, Jug Face, a definite highlight of the festival for me. Like The Game, it subverts our expectations of a movie entirely populated by moonshine-making hillbillies, in this case a close-knit community who eke out an existence in the woods at the mercy of a demanding Stygian pit. When young, pregnant Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter from The Woman) discovers that she is doomed to be the pit's next victim, she takes matters into her own hands. But 'the pit wants what it wants', as her preacher-like father intones, and escaping its maw is not a simple matter. Yes, it sounds ludicrous, but it's really not: the combination of a well-written script and some superb performances from Carter, Sean Bridgers (as idiot-savant potter Duwaine), Larry Fessenden and, of all people, Sean Young, makes this HP Lovecraft meets BF Skinner tale of sacrifice vs survival, individual vs community and invisible, limbshredding monsters vs vulnerable folk on the edge of society seem solidly plausible. Top marks!

Indonesian movie Modus Anomali (from the makers of the baffling Forbidden Door, which played at Dead by Dawn in 2009) takes us into the woods once more, for a head-scratchingly confusing but ultimately rewarding trip into a world of midnight terrors. When a film is described as 'slow-burning' I generally translate this as 'snooze-inducingly tedious', but in fact this absorbing horror/thriller keeps the tension taut, the action frequent, swift and bloody, and the audience guessing until the end – and beyond.

Brain damaged basket cases

Belial the 'basket case'

The gleefully gory, riotously ridiculous films of Frank Henenlotter were a favourite when I was a teenager, so it's a treat indeed to see freaksploitation revenge fantasy Basket Case up on the big screen. Introduced by Frank himself (after we've all had our official Dead Pic taken – for more on which see Frank's Facebook page) the tragic tale of conjoined twins Duane and Belial is as ludicrous, funny and ultimately oddly touching as ever, a country fair carnival freakfest transported to the sleazy, junkie, pimp and whore infested streets of Lower Manhattan mourned by Michael Monroe in his latest single.

A second treat comes in the twisted form of Henenlotter's Brain Damage, which I'd not seen before, but which has to be one of the most convincing films about drug addiction ever. When phallic, slimy, parasitic worm Elmer injects his blue juice into the neck of hapless New Yorker Brian (Rick Hearst) and introduces him to a psychedelic world of magical, hallucinogenic colours, Brian is instantly hooked, and will do anything to keep riding that high – even procure Elmer the nutrition he requires: human brains (or course). Forget Trainspotting: the contrast between the glowing, addictive delights of the highs (including a junkyard scene reminscent both of Tommy and of the methadone kiss in the rubbish in Sid and Nancy, in which a grotty New York backalley is transformed into a setting of rare beauty) and the abject misery of withdrawal, and the way in which Brian's addiction leads him to destroy those around him, is surprisingly powerful stuff.

Can you feel it?

To be honest I couldn't really make head or tail of Sam Walker's short Bite Horse (including why a film about an old man in a wheelchair singing into an oxygen mask while surrounded by gyrating, scantily-clad extras from The Wicker Man would even be called 'Bite Horse') but it certainly had style.

Japanese film Abuctee begins with a fifty-year-old man trapped inside a container, bound, alone, his head in a plastic bag. Here we go, I thought, 95 minutes of fruitless struggling and gazing wildly into darkness illuminated only by the light of a waning mobile. But as we discover that our hero Atushi Chiba is not the only prisoner, the plot begins to thicken, becoming part thriller, part touching redemption movie about the regrets of a life half-lived... until the denouement hits us like a bolt from the blue. I certainly didn't see that coming...

Vincent Price in William Castle's The Tingler

Next up is another huge treat: a screening of William Castle's classic B-movie The Tingler, starring the one and only Vincent Price and hosted by the one and only Frank Henenlotter. The undisputed guru of the gimmick, Castle was famed for bringing his pictures off the screen and into the moviehouse – in the case of The Tingler, by placing electric vibration devices under selected seats. Price is magnificent (isn't he always?) as the dedicated doctor researching the effects of fear on the human body, and while the special effects may be hokey (although this is 1959, folks), the script stilted and the plot creaky as an old boat, it's nevertheless a rollicking adventure with some clever surprises up its sleeve. There are no electric shocks in the Filmhouse, but halfway through I almost want to check my seat anyway...

Ambulathantophobia, nyctophobia, arachnophobia

The Graveyard Feeder is probably my favourite short film of the festival, seeing the return of Sean Bridgers as a laconic gravedigger who'll tackle an evil necromancer once he's had a drink – with the help of his undead Pop of course. Just woe betide the witch if she thinks she can steal his $30 shovel... this means war!

Adam Cronheim and Jeremy Gardner in The Battey

The Battery is – oh joy – a low budget zombie movie. Shot for just $6,000 I had visions of another Colin, but shame on me of little faith, because The Battery is a fantastically enjoyable, thought-provoking and utterly involving zombie movie that made me wonder why I bother with the big budget, overblown shenanigans of The Walking Dead at all.

Wisely, the film shifts focus from the zombies themselves to hone in almost solely on our pair of unlikely heroes. Pitcher Mickey (Adam Cronheim) and catcher Ben (played by the film's director, Jeremy Gardner) are 'the battery' of a baseball team. But now they're playing a very different game, battling for survival against, er, not very many zombies. Which is how it should be – who wants to see cheap, boring, animated corpses shambling around aimlessly when you can be enjoying dialogue that zings with wit and character, laughing uncontrollably at the funniest, most unexpected zombie encounter you'll ever see or suffering with our protagonists as they find themselves trapped in a situation so claustrophobically unbearable it makes Buried look like a walk in the park and which reeks so badly of piss and sweaty feet you can almost smell it emanating from the screen in waves. Like a cross between Hot Fuzz, The Road and the aforementioned Walking Dead, The Battery is a very funny buddy movie with a sad, grim message about humanity at its heart, a very worthy winner of the festival's cherished chainsaw trophy.

The Boys from County Hell is one of those laudable short horror flicks that manages to encapsulate an entire movie in just over quarter of an hour. It sets up a premise (a malevolent creature lurking in the hills of Northern Ireland), a hero with a mission (to get through the day and get paid) then throws him into peril and delivers a great pay-off. What's not to like?

Dead Shadows

Next up, Dead Shadows is probably the least successful film of the festival for me, but it's not without merit. Our hero, goodlooking slacker Chris (Fabian Wolfrom) is an IT support geek with a crippling fear of the dark. So when a mysterious comet flies overhead, plunging his native Paris into black out, he's not best placed to start battling the weird alien life-forms that start manifesting themselves. So far so Attack the Block in French, but there are too many plot holes, missed opportunities and forehead-slapping inconsistencies for the film to really work (why, for example, does a nyctophobe not keep a torch – or even a candle! – in his apartment?). A bold first feature however, so let's watch this space to see what director David Cholewa does next.

Why has no-one thought of remaking the Life of Christ as a spaghetti Western before? Whatever your religious views, you can't help but laugh at Fist of Jesus, a gleefully ridiculous take on the Lazarus story, in which buddies Jesus and Judas find themselves taking on Pharisee zombies, Roman zombies and... cowboy zombies... Intrigued? You can watch it here.

There are laughs aplenty in Big Ass Spider! too, a film that does exactly what it says on the tin, but would to my mind have worked far better as a short, as there's possibly less going on its story than the aforementioned Boys from County Hell. Still, if you like daft monster movies and sub-Airplane humour and you're not too sensitive about racial and sexual stereotypes, it's worth renting on a drunken night in.

And that for me was Saturday. Much as I would have loved to see Hellraiser on the big screen, bed was calling like a siren, and there were still another twelve hours of action to come...

They f*ck you up, your mum and dad. Part II.

Sunday begins with a trilogy of short films that can only be watched through your fingers. Careful with that Crossbow, Careful with that Axe and, yes, Careful with that Power Tool are almost unwatchably tense adventures into careless parenting, as a young boy runs around a farm in his bare feet, casually examining any weapons he discovers. You have been warned – just a shame he never was...

Zomvideo

Japanese comedy Zomvideo is daft, shrieky, cute and gory as only teen J-horror can be, a low budget, slapstick bloodbath that mixes strains of The Ring with a savvy, postmodern take on the zombie genre that's closer to Clueless than Shaun of the Dead. Silly, but eminently watchable.

I must admit I've never see The Amityville Horror, the fictionalised story of the haunting of the Lutz family on Long Island. Gripping documentary My Amityville Horror focuses on eldest son Daniel Lutz, who appears to have been scarred beyond belief by the events that took place in 112 Ocean Avenue in 1975, condemned to a life spent in therapy that is yet to resolve his issues. But whether paranormal activity is to blame, or whether Daniel's destructive relationship with his overbearing and somewhat sinsister stepfather George lie at the root of his problems is not made clear. For while it's obvious that Daniel has undergone great trauma and that he believes his own story categorically, his self-contradictory revelations and slippery refusal to pin down dates make us doubt the veracity of his memories, and there's very little to convince you that the hauntings were supernatural rather than psychosomatic. It's also obvious that Daniel is a bit of a scary man (think Irvine Welsh only angrier), although nowhere near as bat-sh*t crazy as others of his acquaintance: the scene with ageing self-styled 'demonologist' Lorraine Warren, who explored the Amityville property in the '70s, is seriously out there – not least because she appears to live in Rosalind Leigh's house...

Robot friends, best buddies, werewolf lovers and Kandarian demons. Groovy.

Friendly robot Blinky

Short film Blinky TM is something of a joy. Young Alex hates the fact that his parents row all the time, but he sees the gift of a robot friend as a means to escape their bickering. But the smiley robot's incessant niceness soon starts to grate... will he really do anything the family asks of him? Find out here...

Next up is Mon Ami, a delightfully black slacker comedy about two DIY store employees who hit on the masterful plan of kidnapping their boss's daughter to hold her for ransom. A definite homage to the Cohen brothers, its disastrous progression is a little predictable (although I'm not sure I saw quite such high levels of carnage coming) but on the whole it's a well-written, nicely paced dissection of a friendship under intense strain.

I've always found interviewing potential employees as stressful as being interviewed myself, but I've never experienced anything quite so off the wall as the situation in The Applicant, our final short of the festival. Funny, creepy, and with a great twist at the end, this is another lovely example of capsule filmmaking.

I've reviewed the fabulous American Werewolf in London before, so suffice to say it's a delight to see it on the big screen again, a classic of the genre that never seems to get old (although it would be nice if you could still get a London cab for £1.50...)

Bruce Campbell as Ash in Evil Dead II

And so on to the final film of the night, preceded by the usual thank yous, giveaways and the sh*t film amnesty. Which I won, so expect some fairly terrible reviews in the next few weeks... And that final film is an absolute classic: Evil Dead II. Forget the remake, here's everything we love about Sam Raimi rolled into one glorious, Technicolor nightmare: the hideous, cackling monsters, the Clive-Barker-on-drugs backstory and the gung-ho quips of have-a-go-hero and undead dispatcher supreme Ash (the inimitable Bruce Campbell). How can anyone fail to love this movie, as inventive, exuberant and exciting now as it was over 25 years ago?

So a great end to another great festival that cherry-picked some classic horror cliches then served them up in entirely new and innovative ways, from a ghost story narrated by the ghost to pit-worshipping hillbillies to a zombie movie with hardly any zombies; and that made us look afresh at the legacy we leave the next generation. And that said, I'll leave you with this: I Am Your Grandma, which played as a short before Hellraiser. And to my two-year-old niece I say: I am your auntie, and I can't wait to introduce you to a world of horror I loved as a teenager, continued to love as an adult and, in the future, will no doubt still love as a batty old lady in a house full of gargoyles and taxidermy.

Happy birthday, Dead by Dawn. I can't wait for the next twenty years...

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