Dead by Dawn

Thursday 24th - Sunday 27th April 2014

Vincent Price in the William Castle classic The  House on Haunted Hill

24 April 2014 just happens to be the centenary of the birth of legendary shock impressario William Castle, the baby-faced producer who delighted in scaring his audiences silly both on and off screen, with wacky inventions like the 'ghost viewer' and 'Percept-O' electric shock generator, which saw audiences of Vincent Price vehicle The Tingler literally leap from their seats.

Sadly his daughter Terry is unable to join us for a Skype introduction to her father's masterpiece The House on Haunted Hill. But what better substitute than a lovingly edited series of early horror trailers reminiscent of that paean to low-budget film-making Attack of the Killer Bs? And we even get a full episode of Caspar the Friendly Ghost...

Tonight's main feature sees Vincent Price on top sinister form as Frederick Loren, an eccentric millionaire who decides to surprise his wife ('she's so amusing') by inviting five strangers to a deserted mansion which, despite its oddly un-eerie, modern appearance, is reputed, of course, to be haunted. Yet unlike the heady psychological manifestations of Shirley Jackson's Hill House, the supernatural happenings here are decidedly man-made. We can see the strings because we're meant to: the ghosts are merely a ruse to conceal a murderous game. But just who is playing?

That sinking feeling

Day two starts with another Castle classic, in which we the audience are asked to pass judgment on the nefarious Mr Sardonicus by holding up 'punishment poll cards'. Our verdict? He's doomed. Guy Rolfe is no Vincent Price, but this gothic Victorian medical experimentation romp, set in a fictional central European country awash with dry ice and concealing who knows what behind its padlocked doors, is nevertheless enormously good, cruel fun.

Natalie Boutefeu and Mathieu Amalric

Where The Red Fox Lies is a beautiful, elegiac short film about family ties, an exploration of what might have happened had Carrie had a sister, almost. I was less convinced by Les Gouffres, however, a 'woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown' drama that sees a fragile actress mentally dissolve when left alone in a deserted hotel in South America while her speleologist husband investigates sinkholes. The mysterious craters provide a clear metaphor for her collapsing psyche, but that's about all that's clear. My confusion may have due to the fact that I slept through the first ten minutes... or not.

Back to school

After reading Kier-La Janisse's brilliant autobiographical insight into 'crazy women films' The House of Psychotic Women, I've become a bit of a fangirl, so I was particularly looking forward to her show and tell lecture on educational videos, School of Shock. Hell, it even comes with a 'graphic imagery' warning – pretty hardcore for a horror movie festival.

Yikes. This was definitely the scariest thing we'd seen so far. Drinking, driving, taking pills, having sex, not to mention operating heavy machinery: it's all a no-no from now on. Alternately funny, bloody or frightening, and always very much of their time, the school room and work place information videos shown here are nothing if not instructive, as was Janisse's commentary, which set the films in their (occasionally disturbing) social and historical context. Did showing ten-year-old children images of junkies' ulcerated corpses lying in the street put them off drugs? Well, they certainly put me off my dinner.

Ungrateful dead

Greatful Dead

Think J-horror is all about double-jointed girls with long dark hair or schoolgirls slaughtering each other? Eiji Uchida's Greatful Dead is a hearse of a very different colour, a jet-black comedy that centres around the growing culture of isolation in urban Japan, as families fragment and more and more people find themselves living alone. Abandoned by her parents, Nami (Kumi Takiuchi) spends her days spying on 'solitarians', eccentric souls driven to the brink of madness by loneliness. It may start off like a kooky, bitter-sweet social comedy in the slightly creepy style of Amelie, but when Nami 'adopts' a curmudgeonly old codger, things quickly spiral out of control.

Great short beforehand too: no wonder Hitler lost the war if the splendidly incompetent Division Azul were his crack troops... The final short of the night, on the other hand, La Sed Animal (The Animal Thirst) is the most unnerving thing we've seen yet and a shock reminder of why watching found footage backwards is a Really Bad Idea. My favourite short of the festival, its final image has lodged itself uncomfortably in the back of my head, ready to spring out into the darkness at 3am, along with Regan, Hungry Hickory (remember him?) and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

Kevin Bacon as Jack in Friday the 13th

No brainer

Last up, it's the film that launched a million sh*tty sequels, Friday The 13th. It's easy to forget how fresh, fun and fast-paced the original teen slasher movie was – and how impossibly cute Kevin Bacon was back in the day. Innovative deaths and jump scares abound (before jump scares became passé) and you have to forgive 'final girl' Alice her careless habit of leaving the deadly Mrs Vorhees lying unconscious not just once but three times: at this point in horror history, she wouldn't have realised the importance of double-tapping...

Filthy lucre

Saturday gets off to a cracking start with charmingly sick short One Please, in which horror stalwart Michael Berryman plays an ice cream seller you really don't want in your neighbourhood. What are you prepared to sacrifice to make your children happy?

Ron Perlman in 13 Sins

This is followed by the marvellously dark, wince-inducingly funny black comedy 13 Sins. A mild-mannered man (Mark Webber, but if they do a Channel 4 remake Fargo-style then Martin Freeman is a shoe-in) accepts a bizarre telephone challenge to kill a fly for $1,000, with the promise of over six million more if he completes twelve more tasks. These of course quickly escalate from somewhat shan cruel pranks to sick and dangerous illegal acts – just as well then (not) that Ron Perlman's suspicious police detective is on the case. A lesson worthy of the School of Shock as to why you should always hang up on PPI calls: if something sounds too good to be true, that's probably because it is.

Urban legends

Next up, documentary Killer Legends explores the true cases behind popular urban myths such as the killer with a hook for a hand and the murdered babysitter (you know: 'he's on the upstairs phone'). Compared to the excellent and creepy Cropsey, the previous outing from director Joshua Zeman, it feels a little under-researched, with a penchant for loud, ominous music and shooting on location in the pitch dark, which not only lends proceedings an unnecessarily cheap, Most Haunted air, but also makes it kinda hard to tell what's going on. It's interesting, occasionally shocking stuff, but not to me as insightful on the topic of urban legends as the film which follows, Bernard Rose's gorgeous Candyman.

Tony Todd as Candyman

This is the film that introduced me to the idea of urban legends as modern folklore, a theme which Wes Craven was quick to pick up on in his '90s oeuvre, exploiting the meta-textual possibilities of horror discussing the origins of horror in the likes of Urban Legend and the Scream movies. I've not seen Candyman since it hit British cinemas in 1993, yet despite making the early '90s look like the Stone Age (the hair! the baggy clothes! the rattly, blue screen computers! the clouds of cigarette smoke!) it's held up remarkably well, a seductively involving, cleverly constructed puzzle box of a story, with an awesome soundtrack from Philip Glass. Incidentally, I remember thinking at the time that a married, childless woman in her early thirties made an unusual horror heroine, and over twenty years later, not much has changed. For that and so many other reasons, there is still nothing quite like Candyman.

The sublime to the ridiculous

Dead Banging is silly, frothy Japanese fun about a band of feisty female musicians whose success depends largely on their pet zombie Tetsuo and his cavernous 'dead vocals'. Yeah. Perhaps as a short this flimsy premise would have worked nicely, but the joke wears thin far too quickly to support a full ninety minutes. The world's most unconvincing army squad and atrocious subtitles don't help. Fortunately the short that precedes it, Tune for Two, is adorable. Cue much humming of the tune in question in the Filmhouse toilets...

99 problems

Glenn Maynard as Warren in Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla

What can I get you? Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla is a wee gem: a low budget Aussie drama that mixes black humour with genuine pathos in the style of Cold Storage or Harold's Going Stiff. We follow lonely loser Warren (a fabulously committed performance from Glenn Maynard) as he sells ice cream, eats baked beans and fantasises (that's a euphemism by the way) over his dream woman, soap star Katey George (cue some spot-on piss takes of Neighbours and Home and Away). A bitter-sweet 'worm that turned' movie that's both moving and funny, it also includes the best 'hair cutting scene as metaphor for stripping away inhibitions' since Taxi Driver.

And this for me is the end of Saturday's films. I'd have loved to see The Howling on the big screen, but I can't face sitting through a two hour Takashi Miike film first (really not a fan), so, disgracefully early, I bail at half eleven.

Sunday service

Astrid Whettnall as Elisabeth in Au Nom du Fils

Having seen dog collars in the festival brochure, I thought Au Nom du Fils was going to be an exorcism film, so was somewhat taken aback when I learnt it was actually a black comedy about paedophile priests. This is the kind of film I love to discover through Dead by Dawn, something that I would never have chosen to see, yet found utterly compelling.

Astrid Whettnall plays Elisabeth de Baie, a deeply religious, somewhat bigoted woman whose faith is shattered when her son kills himself after being seduced by the resident curate. Like Warren in Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla, rudely stripped of the belief that sustains her, Elisabeth snaps, with similar self-empowering yet gory consequences. In a way, this wry, angry, clever film does depict an exorcism: a violent excision of evil from a dangerously corrupt institution.

Want to see something really scary?

Next up is a classic l haven't seen since I was at school. Twilight Zone The Movie is still as weird and wonderful as it was over thirty years ago, with John Lithgow continuing to steal the show as a terrified, claustrophobic plane passenger who may not be as paranoid as everyone thinks. However, the cartoon-like 'boy who wishes' sequence is equally strong and at times really quite disturbing: the image of sister Sarah is another one for the 3am memory bank, having stayed with me since the '80s.

Malaria

l always enjoy the animation programme, and this year's 2D and Deranged is no exception. We even get a film in 3D, the Coraline-like Foxed!. The winning film, Malaria, is like the best Vine you've never seen, a stunningly innovative take on the Western that combines a thoughtful plot with ingenious animation. And we get another gem from Robert Morgan, combining his trademark KY jelly-smeared pink wax models with a cuddy ol' teddy bear in Invocation. What could possibly go wrong..?

DJI: Death Fails is a delightfully funny tale of a bad day for the Grim Reaper, Sangre de Unicornio is a beautifully drawn fable of brotherly rivalry, Supervenus is a thought-provoking take on ideals of female beauty created on the operating table and The Evening Cigarette belongs in the School of Shock... We're also treated to four of Jennifer Shiman's adorable bunny horror movie parodies – you can see them all and many more at angryalien.com.

Tagged

Morgana O'Reilly and Rima Te Wiata in Housebound

Next up, Housebound is the film of the festival for me, a deliciously black horror comedy from New Zealand in which Rear Window meet The People Under The Stairs as tearaway daughter Kylie (Morgana O'Reilly) is confined to house arrest in her mother's home – which just so happens to be haunted. Perfectly balancing laugh-out-loud humour and icky gore with a witty script and suspenseful plot, the film also offers us well-rounded characters we can believe in, in the bickering mother/daughter team of Sons and Daughters regular Rima Te Wiata and O'Reilly. Great stuff.

Reflections on terror

After a lovely little short, Lights Out, that reminds us why hiding under the duvet keeps you safe and peeking out is (again) a Really Bad Idea, comes the feature-length version of Mike Flanagan's awesome Oculus, which still scares the bejesus out of me no matter how many times I see it.

Karen Gillan in Oculus

The Lasser Glass is an ornate 18th century mirror that conceals within its smooth surface over two hundred years of torment. 21-year-old Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has spent his entire childhood in a psychiatric institution after shooting his father as a boy. But sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) is convinced that Tim is innocent, and the sinister mirror hanging in her father's office is to blame for the terrible things that took place in their happy home eleven years ago. Obsessed with proving her theory correct, she acquires the fatal glass and installs it in the family house, surrounded by cameras and other precautionary measures, intent on documenting the mirror's nefarious supernatural activity then destroying it for good. The mirror, however, has other ideas...

Deftly balancing the events of past and present, which unfold in parallel, the film evokes an insidious sense of tension, while also keeping the plot credible enough to make us doubt the siblings' sanity. In the short film the mirror is very much the gaping, terrible focal point, radiating a hideous malevolence simply by standing there, whilst the longer version focuses more on the story's characters and their ghastly actions, driven mad by the power of this sinister object. It's not quite as scary, but, with great performances from all involved and shocks aplenty, this is a compelling movie that deserves mainstream success.

Life lessons

And so another Dead by Dawn comes to a close. Lessons to take home this year? Well, we've had graphic warning of the dangers of sex and drugs and even rock'n'roll, flying, driving, smoking and answering phone calls from unlisted numbers, not to mention operating forklift trucks without taking the requisite safety precautions. But we've also seen what happens when the meek are pushed too far and inherit not the earth but basic weaponry – fragments of brain and skull will fly, so be careful who you cross. And for pity's sake, stay away from mirrors...

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