Dead by Dawn

Thursday 21st - Sunday 24th April 2016

Decline of Western Civilisation

Dead by Dawn 2016 gets off to a barn-storming start with Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room, a cautionary tale of a young punk band who foolishly agree to play a neo-Nazi club in the middle of nowhere, the owner of which just happens to be one of our most famous skin-headed thespians, Patrick Stewart. Here he plays a ruthless, cold-hearted thug who sails brazenly above the law – and if he says 'let it be so' a whole army of bomber-jacketed yobs jump to it. The youngsters (led by Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Arrested Development's Alia Shawcat, War and Peace's Callum Turner and Peaky Blinders' Joe Cole) are a likeable bunch whose struggle for survival kept me on the edge of my seat until the credits rolled. Four out of five and a great Doc Martened-shod kick off for the festival.

Patrick Stewart in Green Room

Next up is K-Shop, a Sweeney Todd tale for the 21st century in which student Salah (Ziad Abaza) is forced to abandon his dissertation and take over the family kebab shop when his father drops dead after being harassed by drunken customers. Appalled at the behaviour he witnesses across the counter, he decides to take his revenge.

Shot on location in Bournemouth, the most shocking, stomach-churning aspect of the film is not so much the 'special kebabs' Salah dishes up (no prizes for guessing what the main ingredient is) but the lairy performances that take place on the night-time streets, much of which is real footage. By the end of the (somewhat over-long) movie, I, like Salah, felt utterly disgusted by humanity. And it's only day one of the festival...

Stairway to heaven or ladder to hell

On to Friday, and the movie marathon begins with classic government conspiracy flick Jacob's Ladder, in which Vietnam vet Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) suspects that the nightmares, flashbacks and eerie hallucinations he suffers may be linked to his time in the jungle. Slow-burning, shiveringly creepy and intensely intriguing, the film establishes many of the themes for this year's festival: the flimsy line between life and death, and the untrustworthy nature of our own senses and the US Army...

Tim Robbins in Jacob's Ladder

Our first programme of short films brings together five animated gems (the highlight of which is Other Lily, a thoroughly creepy tale of two sisters) with the What You Make It series. Starting with this gloriously OTT performance from Hairy Soul Man, in which Barry White meets Peter Sutcliffe and then some, and ending with a skin-crawlingly unpleasant short from David Cronenberg, The Nest, in which the Master of Horror appears to be reprising his role as the evil psychiatrist in Nightbreed, the films span the crazy spectrum. My favourite however has to be This House is Innocent, a film about the rehabilitation of a serial killer's home so off the scale it has to be a mockumentary... but it's not...

Only the lonely

The Scottish premiere of Gareth (Hinterland) Bryn's Welsh ghost story Yr Ymadawiad (The Passing) takes us into the wilds of the Brecon Beacons, where a young couple who seem to be fleeing some sort of crime crash their car and are rescued by nervous recluse Stanley (Mark Lewis Jones). The pair seem curiously reluctant to leave their host's dilapidated farmhouse, which appears to be stuck firmly in the 1940s, and an unsettling, brooding tension begins to arise between the mismatched threesome. Filmed on location in Wales, Yr Ymadawiad is a lovely looking movie, but the pace is glacially slow, and does occasionally test the patience, not to mention one's ability to stay awake...

Our next movie, Decay, would be pretty much perfect were it not about half an hour too long. Autistic loner Jonathan (Rob Zabrecky, channelling Crispin Glover) spends his days cleaning up at an abandoned amusement arcades, his evenings tending his orchid collection and his nights entertaining his girlfriend. Who just so happens to be dead. With shades of former DBD faves Cold Storage and Chocolate, Strawberry, Vanilla, Decay paints an absorbing, poignant portrait of a lonely soul that simply doesn't fit society, but the sharply edited sequences representing his regimented routine do get a bit too repetitive, leaving us waiting too long for the final denouement.

Rob Zabrecky and Jackie Hoffman in Decay

Friday night brings us a Wes Craven tribute double bill. New Nightmare is the much-mourned director's first foray into meta-horror, the clever, post-modern, self-referential style that would crystallise so brilliantly in Scream but had yet to really find itself here, partly because Heather Langenkamp is such a truly woeful actress she can't even play herself convincingly. So while the idea that Heather's nemesis, the larger-than-life bogeyman Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) could make the jump from screen to reality when a reboot of the franchise is proposed is, in theory, utterly terrifying, in reality it's... a bit rubbish. Oh well, I'm happy just to see Freddy's leering countenance stretched across the big screen in all its latexy gory glory. Sweet.

(The second half of the double bill was The Hills Have Eyes, but while it would have been great to see it in the cinema, bed was beckoning...)

Slow snow and wild things

Saturday begins with snowbound post-apocalyptic adventure Astraea. With most of the population wiped out by a mysterious disease known as the Drops, teenager Astraea (Nerea Duhart) and her half-brother Matthew (Scotty Crowe) are travelling across an empty America towards Nova Scotia, where their grandmother lives. But unlike most cinematic life extinction event survivors, their path is not dogged by zombies, cannibals, thieves or the infected; instead their main enemy is a crippling loneliness, as they struggle across a bleak, deserted landscape towards an uncertain future. Thoughtful and beautifully made, Astraea provides a completely new, low-fi, indie take on the apocalypse, but there's no getting around the fact that the fight for survival in a post mass-epidemic world has never been so slow.

Nerea Duhart and Scotty Crowe in Astraea

And so to more shorts. The Where the Wild Things Are programme offer five films in which boundaries – both geographical and social – are transgressed with terrible consequences. Here we met the illegal immigrant who tries to head north (Boniato), the meek housewife who takes on more than she bargains for with her new Bridge Partner, the feckless tourists who simply can't obey the rules in Black Bear park (L'Ours Noir), the engineer who moves to the wilds of Ireland and finds the wilds are moving on him (Foxglove) and mild-mannered Uncle Tan who, finding his peaceful existence disrupted, fights back big style (Bad Throttle).

But these characters have nothing on the crazy family we meet in Der Bunker, a deranged German arthouse movie that mixes Lynchean surrealism with unexpected spates of violence. When an uptight student (Pit Bukowski) rents a room in an underground bunker in order to get some peace and quiet he actually finds anything but. Thrown into the absurdist world of Mother, Father and son Klaus (a thirty-year-old man in dungarees), concentrating on his studies proves rather hard. Aesthetically, The Bunker is a joy, all lurid colours and marvellous kitsch styling, the family's home a veritable museum of madness, but for me the farcical plot and cruel dynamic were just a little too weird and alienating.

Daniel Fripan in Der Bunker

Wasted in America

How do you follow that? With glorious, gory, body horror movie Antibirth, that's how. This for me was the film of the festival, an exhilaratingly wild ride alongside thirtysomething waster Lou (Natasha Lyonne) who seems to spend her entire life permanently sh*t-faced, whether she's sparking up a bong while spark out on her sofa or listlessly pushing a cleaning cart round the downmarket motel where she sporadically works. But when Lou starts displaying all the symptoms of pregnancy, despite not having had sex in months, things begin to get seriously weird.

Natasha Lyonne in Antibirth

Like Rosemary's Baby, the film horribly heightens the fears associated with pregnancy, as our unlikely heroine's body – literally – takes on a life of its own. And like Sheri Moon Zombie's Heidi in The Lords of Salem, Lyonne's brash, sweary, gravel-voiced Lou is an unlikely but deeply likeable heroine, with her devil-may-care attitude and bizarrely thrown together wardrobe. In fact the film is altogether a female tour de force, with Chloë Sevigny and Meg Tilly also putting in great turns, the former as Lou's partner in pill-popping partner in partying crime, the latter as an army veteran who suspects that Lou's condition may have a terrible, X-Files-esque cause.

Part Jacob's Ladder-like army conspiracy thriller that highlights the difficulties faced by ex-soldiers cast adrift on civvy street, part drug-fuelled Cronenbergian trip, Antibirth was utterly gripping from party-hard start to Grand Guignol finale.

Dead but not buried

The Corpse of Anna Fritz is similarly uncompromising – and also definitely not for the faint-hearted. When a famous actress is found dead at a party, her body is transferred to the city morgue, where star-struck attendant Pau (Albert Carbó) decides to snap a selfie. This is the first in a serious of bad decisions that gradually escalate until nothing can ever be the same again. A grisly indictment of celebrity culture, to me the film seemed to take to a horrifically logical conclusion the way in which female stars (or indeed any woman who raises her head above the online parapet) can be trolled and abused from the safety of anonymity. Yes, this film is pretty revolting, but it also has a lot to say, and is all the more compelling because it doesn't spell it out too didactically.

The Corpse of Anna Fritz

The last film of Saturday (for me that is – lightweight) was We Go On, an absorbing, intriguing ghost story from the makers of Yellowbrickroad. Agoraphobic, anxiety-laden editor Miles (Clark Freeman) decides to try and cure his paralysing fear of dying by offering $30,000 to anyone who can offer him proof that life after death exists. But of course, after he's sifted through the inevitable kooks and charlatans, he discovers that once you peek behind that curtain, you'll never be the same again... Like an intellectual remake of Flatliners, this is a very interesting film that deserved more than my tired, one AM pretence at attention, and is definitely one for a re-watch.

Creature features

Sunday finds us lifting a curtain of a different kind, as special effects gurus including Rick Baker, Steven Johnson and Phil Tippett take us behind the scenes with the Creature Designers. This delightful documentary celebrates the joyful creativity and painstaking graft that goes into designing and making movie monsters, from Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera face to the creatures of Avatar. Sadly a large amount of the film is spent bemoaning the rise of CGI, while at the same time demonstrating how brilliantly it can combine with practical effects in the likes of Jurassic Park and Terminator 2. And while the designers claim that it isn't about 'the rubber guys versus the computer geeks' that's sometimes the way it seems to play out. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating glimpse into some of the most famous SFX workshops in the world, and well worth a watch.

Like Astraea, the Apocalypse Soon short film programme gives us three unusual glimpses into what could be a very near future. Grafitti, another post-epidemic tale, is given a terrible gravitas by being set within the haunted, icy walls of Chernobyl, while The Disappearance of Willie Bingham asks, with Swiftian logic, how far victims' families will go in punishing aggressors, and how far the state will go to deter crime. Finally Monsters is a beautifully made coming of age film whose obvious twist is quickly undermined by a much darker agenda.

Burning questions

And now we come to She Who Must Burn, Larry Kent's angry letter to right-wing, fundamentalist America. And it certainly did make me angry, but for all the wrong reasons. Dedicated counsellor Angela (Sarah Smyth) worked at an abortion clinic which closed down due to pressure from the local religious nutcases, who wield an uncomfortable amount of power in the community. Said nutcases continue to threaten and harass her as she carries on her work from home, with horrific consequences. So far so feminist. So why then, does the chief nutcase have to be a woman who has lost her baby? Why, in a film that purports to uphold women's rights to choose what to do with their own bodies, should this age-old patriarchal stereotype – the woman utterly unhinged by the fact that she cannot successfully fulfil her biological imperative – take centre stage? Grrr!

In both Antibirth and Anna Fritz, the female body becomes a symbol for the way in which people (men and women) can be consumed then cast aside, yet the women themselves remain rounded individuals, strong, f*cked-up, and feisty. Here, however, women's bodies are an ideological battleground, yet the women themselves ciphers rather than fully realised characters. The angry axe-grinding gets in the way of convincing story-telling, and all the time Kent is preaching to the choir. Meh.

Anyhoo, onto our next programme of shorts, I Blame the Parents. Here we get to see the marvellous Sophie Thompson as we've never seen her before: smoking dope and digging up dead bodies in Viking, a beautifully-crafted tale of two siblings coming to the terms with the death of their no-good dad. De Kleinzoon features the most devious little monster we've encountered yet, while finale The Babysitter Murders (which scooped the audience award) may offer an obvious twist on the old home alone teen babysitter/escaped psycho motif, but is all the more fun for it.

Andrew Lancel and Sophie Thompson in Viking

Poultry returns

Scandi zombie movie Sorgenfri (What We Become) also takes tropes we've seen many, many times before (a mysterious epidemic that begins insidiously to wipe out the residents of a peaceful suburban community, dead bodies that refuse to lie down, a mishandled government lock-down and a rebellious teenager who makes everything a hundred times worse) but somehow, because it's in Danish, it all seems fresh and cool. A thoroughly enjoyable movie that skilfully mixes The Crazies-style small town paranoia with claustrophobic family drama. Like.

Keeping it Danish, our final movie, Men and Chicken, crosses The Island of Dr Moreau with Dumb and Dumber in a bizarre tale of two chalk and cheese half-brothers who go in search of their real father and discover a whole new dysfunctional family. And, er, well, I kinda slept through most of it so I won't pass judgment, but let's just say that every time I woke up, things had got weirder...

And so another Dead by Dawn reaches its conclusion. My conclusion? With so many of the weekend's movies feature debuts from bold, exciting new voices, it seems that 2016 is a great time to be a horror fan. And as long as there are families failing to function, scientists making dodgy drugs and governments covering up the fallout, the future's looking bright for the genre. Even with an apocalypse hovering on the horizon...

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