Dead by Dawn

Thursday 20th - Sunday 22nd April 2018

The sun is shining for what feels like the first time in 2018, the blossom is blooming and all's right with the world. Or is it? Set aside all happy outdoor thoughts of spring like winter's hat and gloves because there are monsters lurking in dark alleyways, werewolves stalking the moors and trees just waiting to grab you by the throat. Oh, and your living room's laughing at you.

Yup, it can only be Dead by Dawn...

This year's festival gets off to a great start with a screening of FW Murnau's silent classic Nosferatu (1922). Yes, we've all seen it before, and, okay, it is a bit hokey in places, but the unearthly weirdness of Max Schreck still holds the power to chill and, with a pounding live accompaniment from pianist Forrester Pyke, this nightmarish vampire fantasy still has the power to enchant and chill.

Max Schreck as Count Orlock in Nosferatu

Next up, the festival's very special guest introduces the first of several screenings he'll host this weekend. As the director of American Werewolf in London, Twilight Zone: The Movie and of course Michael Jackson's groudbreaking 'Thriller' video, Landis is a well loved and much revered figure in the horror world – and let's not forget he's also responsible for Animal House and The Blue Brothers, surely two of the most influential mainstream cult movies ever.

Tonight this delightfully ebullient and enthusiastic Hollywood legend brings us, along with some cracking anecdotes, his 1992 vampire movie, Innocent Blood, an exuberantly over the top supernatural romp that sees Nikita's Anne Parillaud turn Robert Loggia's vicious mob boss Sal the Shark, followed by most of the cast of The Sopranos and Tig from Sons of Anarchy, into bloodsucking monsters. Oops...

Reine Swart in Siembamba aka The Lullaby

And then for something completely different: Siembamba aka The Lullaby is a chilling slice of post-natal horror from South Africa. Exhausted, unhappy and isolated in her family home, teen mother Chloe is suffering from a horrific case of 'baby blues'. But are the vivid and distressing hallucinations she conjures really in her mind, or is something more sinister afoot? Combining my favourite 'is she mad or is she haunted?' theme with some grisly local legends, Siembamba has some great ideas and builds a convincing atmosphere of psychological dread at the beginning, but, as so often happens, loses its power once the monsters start to be revealed (think The Woman in Black meets Poltergeist II) and becomes a bit repetitive. Still, a great start to the festivities.

A Friday feast

Friday starts with a bit of a fail in that we didn't get to the Filmhouse in time for Australian drama Rabbit (sorry, Rabbit) but we certainly wouldn't miss John Landis hosting a double bill of James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – even if Landis himself very nearly does! I've seen both many times before, but it's always a treat to see Karloff's haunted, melancholy face writ large on the screen, and to experience once more team the joyous, unfettered queerness of Bride, with its squeaking homunculi, bravura camp performances and mad scientist schtick that would set the standard for, well, ever, really.

Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein

There then follows our first series of shorts, What You Make It, which showcases movies that aren't really horror, but aren't really right either. Highlights for me are police procedural Underwater, which does more in 18 minutes than many series do in eight episodes, Two Bites, a black Aussie comedy which could also have comfortably fit the following day's It's Your Funeral theme, and Nothing a Little Soap and Water Can't Fix, a montage of movie bathtimes that proves it's never safe to go back in the water...

Next up is Knuckleball, in which, in their wisdom, twelve-year-old Henry's concerned parents seek to spare him the ordeal of a family funeral by dumping him in the middle of nowhere with his irascible old grandfather (Michael Ironside), in the family home where his grandmother committed suicide. Yay! Home Alone meets The Shining, with the dark ancestral secrets of Pet Semetary thrown in for good measure, in this gripping, snowbound drama which turns on a dime from almost slapstick farce to brutal horror as the denouement unfolds.

The final Friday film is a treat indeed – five treats indeed, carefully packed into a paper bag for an Evil Dead II taste-along. Yes, thanks to the incredible skills of culinary artist Annabel de Vetten-Peterson and her Conjurer's Kitchen, that is an actual thing. So not only do we get to enjoy Sam Raimi's truly deranged horror masterpiece on the big screen where it belongs, but we get to ingest it too, from a delicately inscribed marzipan page from the Necro-nom-nom-nomicon to the obligatory eyeball (a strawberry lollipop encased in white chocolate) to the hair and innards of evil witch Henrietta. (It was made of delicious, feather-light candyfloss, but... boak...)

Taste-along Evil Dead II treats

Spooky Saturday

When I die I want a bio-degradable leopard-print coffin and I want to be consigned to the flames to the strains of Alice Cooper's 'Under Your Wheels'. By some people's standards this is a little weird, but if there's anything today's first set of shorts prove, it's that it's best to be prepared – and the weirder the better. It's Your Funeral features five tales of impending death and five very different ways of dealing with it, from bitter, grumpy belligerence (courtesy of thrawn Norwegian farmer Knut in You've Made Your Bed, Now Lie In It) to a hands-on approach to dealing with an asshole care worker. Meanwhile the overall winner of the festival's short film award, The Mother Situation, raises uncomfortable questions about euthanasia and inheritance, in a squirmily hilarious tale of three Australian siblings awaiting their mother's passing with an indecent lack of patience...

It's been a while since we've been stuck in a bunker with a load of undead German soldiers, but British director Leo Scherman goosesteps away from zombie Nazis and sets his wartime horror, Trench 11, at the end of 1918. The Great War is winding up, and a small band of Allies are despatched beyond enemy lines to investigate a mysterious trench that may house a secret laboratory – a facility that the Germans themselves seem strangely eager to wipe from the face of the earth. Part The Hornet-style derring-do war story (complete with pantomime mad German scientist), part body horror, Trench 11 is a little predicable but a lot of fun. And, as you'd expect from a director mentored by David Cronenberg, the special effects are cracking. Let's just say a taste-along of this tale of invasive parasitic worms would involve a lot of spaghetti and a whole heap of tomato sauce...

Rossif Sutherland (son of Donald!) in Trench 11

The short films featured in Not In Kansas Anymore represent horror with a twist, from a tense and haunting tale of a young boy trapped in his home after some kind of apocalyptic disaster (Homesick) to breakdancing zombies (We Together) to Dennis Wheatley meets Clerks in six-minute slacker comedy We Summoned a Demon...

Next up is another festival highlight, as John Landis introduces his classic British horror movie An American Werewolf In London, which I've raved about before on here, but this time comes with added anecdotes about Michael Winner and the Metropolitan Police...

Last film of the night (for me – the double bill of The Living Dead in the Manchester Morgue and Dellamorte Dellamore proved a step too far – or a few hours too late at any rate...) is Spookers, a thought-provoking documentary from New Zealand, about a 'haunted house' south of Auckland, which is sited in the sprawling grounds and wards of a former psychiatric hospital. While former residents are wary about choosing to house in a hospital a visitor attraction that so blatantly revels in unhelpful, stigmatising stereotypes of mental health (think the Alice Cooper show on steroids, all evil nurses, double-headed corpse babies and headbanging, straitjacketed lunatics), it quickly becomes clear that the attraction has become a haven for its family of workers, most of whom seem to be battling their own mental health demons. The lunatics have indeed taken over the asylum, and are all the better for it.

Actors from the Spookers family

At 90 minutes, it's at least half an hour too long, but on the whole offers a fascinating glimpse into a whole new world – even if the most shocking content relates not to the scariness of the attraction (although you don't want to know what a 'code brown' is...) but to the way former patient Deborah was treated when Kingseat was a hospital – and how recently that happened.

Sunday: lost in a dream

The first film of Sunday is another festival highlight for me. Dave Made A Maze is a delightful, dazzlingly original indie slacker horror romance about a would-be artist with a tendency towards depression who builds a cardboard maze in his living room while his girlfriend Annie is away for the weekend. But there's waaaay more to this recyclable labyrinth than first meets the eye, as Annie, dour best mate Gordon and a whole bunch of other people (including a documentary film crew) discover when they venture inside... Endlessly inventive, constantly surprising and brimming with Jim Henson-like charm and attention to detail, this is a creative cardboard classic, and if you get a chance to see it on the big screen, don't miss it.

Inside Dave's maze

The 2D and Deranged animation programme is made utterly hilarious by the inclusion of not one but six of Lee Hardcastle's genius claymation shorts, including this bluff, Northern tribute to The Exorcist... Alongside it, Belial's Dream sees festival favourite Rob Morgan delve into the slimy, surreal subconscious of other festival favourite Frank Henenlotter's famous basket-dwelling creation, while winning short The Death, Dad & Son is a super-cute story of father/son bonding, as young Death struggles to come to terms with his parent's perilous profession.

It seems Adèle saved the best of the new feature films for Sunday, as Taiwanese drama Mon Mon Mon Monsters (to be said in the style of Shaggy from Scooby Doo, apparently) is another excellent choice. An impressive and unexpectedly moving study of the dynamics of bullying, the film tells the tale of teenager Lin, whose life is made a misery by three vicious, swaggering school mates. But when the four boys are thrown together to carry out community service by a well-meaning (but unbelievably inept) teacher and end up capturing a child monster, Lin realises with uneasy joy and relief that he is no longer the bottom of the pile. But at what price? For, as so often happens in horror, the monsters are nowhere near as monstrous as the human beings.

Mon Mon Mon Monsters

Set in a world almost entirely bereft of adults, as if to echo Lin's sense of helplessness and isolation, Mon Mon Mon Monsters belies its cartoon title to present a complex view of teenage politics that is as shocking as it's gripping, the cruel smarts of Heathers colliding slap bang with the 'sympathetic monster' theme of Frankenstein.

Let's just say I wasn't overly enthusiastic about the prospect of yet another rom-zom-com. But Peruvian take on the genre Aj Zombies! (which rather wonderfully translates as 'Ew! Zombies!') proves unexpectedly endearing, breathing new life into the now-hackneyed undead slacker tropes of Shaun of the Dead and combining them with some really funny fantasy sequences.

And so to our final film of the festival. And talk about going out with a bang! Brutal drama Downrange sees a carload of strangers become random victims of a sniper hidden in a tree (really). Their vehicle shot from the road, they are left exposed like sitting ducks, helpless in the face of an unseen, deadly, faceless assailant who plays with their lives as cruelly as a cat with an SUV full of mice. And while that may sound a slim premise for an 87 minute-long movie, the tension is maintained to the (bitter) end. And the gore is great!


And so another Dead by Dawn draws to a reluctant close. We've seen monsters made and monsters destroyed, and been moved and repelled and charmed by their stories. We've seen people meet out unspeakable cruelties to each other, yet band together in the face of adversity. And we've seen that the best laid (funeral) plans of mice and men and women and monsters gang aft a-gley...

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