Dead by Dawn

Thursday 18th – Sunday 21st April 2019

Every year it's the same. The first gorgeous warm weather of the year and where am I? Sitting in the dark in the Filmhouse watching someone being dismembered. Yup, it's Dead by Dawn time again and I bloody love it.

Maundy Thursday

This year, the special guest star is cult US filmmaker Jeff Liebermann, and his trip-tastic bad acid ride Blue Sunshine (1977) opens the festival. The moral of the film (besides beware bad wigs and bald babysitters) is be sure your sins will find you out, as a corrupted batch of acid from the swingin' '60s reeks havoc ten years later in the funky '70s. Yes, it's hugely dated and the acting is dreadful, but that's part of the film's low budget charm.

Jeff Lieberman's Blue Sunshine

The short film programmes are always a highlight of the festival, and this year is rich in tiny genre and off-genre gems...

Our first of eight (eight!) themed programmes is One Big Happy Family, which of course is anything but... Whether it's time to meet your Sentinel (in Special Day), who warns you of your death and is way too close for comfort, or tea and cake with your nasty judgemental church circle (Daughters of Virtue) be sure there are no warm hugs found here.

Good Friday

Well, Good Friday certainly lived up to its name, starting with the What You Make It short programme, featuring films that can't exactly be classified as horror but are certainly dark and twisted. Arturo is the booming, teeth-grinding nightmare you have when having an MRI scan; beautifully animated alien invasion story Chichi is apparently a dog's dream (!), while End of the Line features Fleabag's Brett Gleman imprisoning a miniature version of The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg in a cage (yes, really). Roberta's Living Room and Control both deal with the tough subject of suicide, though in very different ways. Both are admirable, but Control, which features an obsessive-compulsive depressive ordering her life before taking it, was one of the stand-out shorts of the festival for me: blackly, bleakly funny and deeply moving, it's really stuck in my head.

Simon Helberg in End of the Line

My ability to sleep through, er, Incredible Violence never ceases to disturb me – and in this case, I mean it literally. G Patrick Condon's bold debut sets out to deconstruct the horror flick, calling into question why we would enjoy watching said Incredible Violence in the cinema when we would never stomach it IRL. Yet while the film begins promisingly enough, with an 'is it real/is it a set up?' scenario of a down-on-his-luck director making a horror movie for free by making it for real, feeding desperate actors their lines and observing as they grimly get down to business. Except, believe it or not, I don't really enjoy watching semi-naked people torture each other – for real or otherwise – so promptly fell asleep. The film redeems itself towards the end with a series of audacious twists, but if I'd been watching at home I might not have made it that far.

So outside is the hottest day of the year so far and the Meadows is pretty much on fire with barbecues, but inside the apocalypse is now with the It's the End of the World shorts programme. What would you do if you only had 8:27 seconds of daylight left? File your paperwork? Arrange a meeting... with a llama? Meanwhile, in zombie-infested America (Good Morning) and rural France (Sepsis and Livraison), people are dealing with the undead while carrying on with their lives as best they can – I mean, just because your neighbours are lurching down their driveways undead doesn't mean you don't have to put the bins out...

John Hunsaker in Just Before Dawn

I'll come clean: I have a pirate copy of Jeff Lieberman's Just Before Dawn (1981) that somebody gave me and it looks so shoddy and shlocky that I've never watched it. Just as well, because to witness such a dramatically scenic movie in rippled, ripped off DVD would be a crying shame. Imagine watching Deliverance on a plane – no thanks! Like it's more famous rural gothic inbred sibling, Just Before Dawn is set in the wilds of the Appalachian Hills, where family is waaay too close for comfort. You've heard the plot before of course: a group of cocky, carefree young folk head to the hills for a weekend of climbing, drinking and flirting and mostly don't live to regret it. Except that Lieberman's Final Girl slasher pick 'em off fest was doing it first, and doing it very well. An underrated classic.

The band in Heavy Trip

Our final film of the night is an absolute corker. Heavy Trip is the story of the greatest Finnish reindeer-grinding, Christ-abusing, pagan Scando black metal band that never was. Turo (Johannes Holopainen) and friends are the only metal dudes in the village. They're been practising together for twelve years (in the guitarist's dad's reindeer slaughter house, obvs) but they've never played a gig. But when a big-shot promoter of the Northern Damnation festival rolls into town, it looks as if their luck you could change... Like Wayne's World crossed with Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, this rock'n'roll rom-com is heartfelt, hilarious and filled with beautifully observed detail. It's also probably the funniest thing I've seen at the cinema since School of Rock. Loved. It.

Easter Saturday

Saturday kicks off with another programme of shorts. Natural Selection features another of my festival favourites, Your Call is Important To Us. Ever wondered what really goes on when you're put on hold? In this slick, seriously funny Aussie short, you'll wish you hadn't found out. Service is the film for anyone who's ever sworn at an automatic check out machine (turns out there's a Sunken Place for rude, entitled middle-aged white guys too) whilst O.I. is an unexpected warning against talking to strangers in bars – and, of course, daring to have an Original Idea.

Your Call is Important To Us

Speaking of original ideas... Tous Les Dieux du Ciel (All the Gods of the Sky) is a jaw-droppingly brilliant, deeply disturbing mindf*ck of a movie. Simon (Jean-Luc Couchard)) is a steel worker who cares for his seriously disabled sister (a stunning performance from Melanie Gaydos) while battling depression and paranoia. Yet he believes a better world awaits them both when aliens beam them up (told you it was a mindf*ck). Mike Leigh's brand of heartbreaking family realism meets an almost Terry Gilliamish psychotic magical realism in a full on collision, with the film acting simultaneously as a searing indictment of social care fails, an unbearably harsh dissection of dysfunctional sibling codependence and a heart-stopping revenge movie. Hard to describe (I'm trying, okay?) and harder to watch, but utterly brilliant all the same.

Melanie Gaydos as Estelle in Tous Les Dieux du Ciel

The 2D and deranged animated programme is always a treat, and this year's is no exception. Ever wondered what would happen if a potato became sentient? Or bullets fell in love? Or plasticine chickens try to solve the age old chicken/egg question? Or LEGO zombies attack? Or Cardboard City catches alight? Or marmots go radge? Then Attack of the Potato Clock, Bullet Time, Time Chicken, Zombie Time, Fire in Cardboard City and Wild Love are for you... I particularly loved the latter, in which, again, we're reminded of the dangers of disrespecting the countryside. Them marmots is orgnised... Brilliant!

Marmots go radge in Wild Love

Also brilliant, but in a very different way, is Danish thriller Cutterhead. A cutterhead is one if those huge circular pieces of machinery that bore through the earth to create subway tunnels. Yet it still needs to be manned. From a very confined space. Shot up-close, in an improvised, documentary style, the film follows Rie (Christine Sønderris), who's been employed by the tunnelling company to tell stories about their (literally) ground-breaking work. Needless to say, things go horribly wrong. If, like me, you're at all claustrophobic, be warned: this is quite an ordeal that saw me running for the exit gulping air at the end. Like Tous les Dieux, it's gripping but gruelling.

The night ends (for me – the Lieberman Late Show of Squirm and Satan's Little Helper were just too late) on a tasty note – with cannibalism, inter-galactic potatoes, a lot of shrimp, tapioca, the family pet and a disgusting substance that really isn't custard all on the menu in shorts Chowboys, Pleased to Eat You!, Tater, Great Choice, Zebra, Bani and It's Not Custard. Yum!

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday. Morning = egg hunt in the garden Rest of the day? Death, destruction, frenzy and hatred. Yay!

The day begins with a series of shorts entitled Splendid Isolation. Everyone likes a bit of peace and quiet every so often, but sometimes too much of a good thing can be, well, too much, whether you're in outer space (Floatando), rural France (again!) (Supine) the outback of Australia (Round Trip) the woods or the supposed security of your own home (The Visitor).

Next up, I'm afraid directorial debut Luz didn't really do it for me. A slow-burning arthouse possession story in Spanish and German, set during the '80s and styled as if recorded on a wobbly 180 VHS tape over an old episode of Neighbours, it's too slow, too weird and too devoid of any characters you can care about to hold my attention. Not my cup of tea.


Next up is our final shorts programme. Red In Tooth and Claw features yet another reason to avoid the French countryside (Plein Campagne) or indeed to ever go camping (Oscar's Bell, which wins this year's award for best performance by a dog and is, worryingly, based on a true story...) Petul featured far too many dead animals for my liking but finale Dead Birds almost knocked Control off the top spot, a brilliantly observed tale of teenage rivalry and terrible parenting, with a bonus appearance by St Sebastian...

Dead Birds

You Might Be the Killer might be a spoiler of a title, but if you know your horror then you'll already know the plot of this super fun slice of genre geek fandom off by heart. A summer camp miles away from the nearest town, staffed entirely by horny teenagers – and wait! There's a curse on the land! Yet – surely unheard of in horror – in this camp there's actually cell phone reception, allowing beleaguered camp counsellor Sam (Fran Kranz) to phone his best mate, savvy horror fan Chuck (Alyson Hannigan). If anyone can help him, surely she can, because nobody knows The Rules like she does...

Just who is the killer?

Equally daft and endearing is our final feature, Jeff Lieberman's Remote Control (1988). Like all the Lieberman movies we've seen this weekend, the OTT period styling of the film deliberately captures the most ridiculous fashions of the time – and this time it's the '80s, which provides endless scope for ridiculous space age spandex, Flock of Seagulls hairdos and shoulder pads the size of ocean liners (think The Wedding Singer meets the final scenes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show...) A 1950s sci-fi flick, the eponymous Remote Control, is taking over viewers' minds and causing them to kill – and only video store assistant Kevin Dillon (of all the random 'where are they now file' residents) can stop the carnage. Like Videodrome's cheeky little cousin, this retro romp is a daft delight, and makes the perfect ending to the festival.

Kevin Dillon and Deborah Goodrich in Remote Control

And so another Dead By Dawn draws to a close. What have I learnt this year? Aside from crossing rural France off my list of potential holiday destinations, I've learnt not to mess with Mother Nature, lest Mother Nature makes a mess of me; that aliens won't save me but having good mobile reception just might; that picking on the weak is a bad idea, as they might well be stronger than they look; that call centres really are as evil as I always suspected and that getting the night bus home is a really bad idea (anyone else find themselves nervously looking over their shoulder on the N11 last night after the joys of Who's That at the Back of the Bus? Just me?) And as ever, I learnt that if you want to survive at Camp, you don't mess with The Rules of Horror. As if I'd dare...

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