Just a few short months on from attending the Abertoir horror festival I’m back to report on an even longer running horror festival, namely Scotland’s premier horror film festival, Dead by Dawn. Run by the ever-enthusiastic Adele Hartley, Dead by Dawn has been running for nearly 20 years and has now become a staple in the horror fan’s calendar.
Initially set up by Adele back in the mid-nineties when, after she bemoaned the lack of any horror festivals in Edinburgh to her friends and their retort was for her to get on with it then, she decided to have a go and the rest, as they say, is history.
I’ve been attending Adele’s festival now for over a decade (and then some) and have seen it grow in stature and size. However, I think, in recent years Adele has moved away from the remit of showing just out and out horror films and has now diversified a little to show a wider range of films, all of which are still beautifully deranged, but they often can’t quite be categorised as being purely horror. I’ve nothing against that, but I thought it was of note as, if you only have an interest for pure horror films, you may find some of her selections a little odd or disappointing. Saying that, the categorisation of 'pure horror' is a rather subjective term in itself though, so to others the selections may be exactly what they're looking for.
Anyway, before I blather on I will refocus and tell you about the films and the festival on a day-to-day basis. I’ll drop in a little more background about the event as I go on.
Day One – Thursday 29 March
Dead by Dawn is held at the Filmhouse on the Lothian Road, in Edinburgh, hence, unfortunately, it takes me quite a while to get there. But, after a 40 minute drive to the airport, an EasyJet flight, a 30 minute bus trip and a ten minute walk, my friends and I arrived at the Filmhouse to pick up our festival passes before taking a further walk up to the guest house to drop our bags off. One Indian meal and plenty of drinks later we were ready to get stuck into the opening film of the festival, which rather strangely didn’t start until gone 11.30pm. After all that travelling and drinking, this probably wasn’t the best time to start watching a movie! I must say that it would be good if Adele could start the festival off a bit earlier on the Thursday and screen two films, but I realise that this might not be possible due to more general Filmhouse scheduling; just a thought.
Now, before I continue on to talk about the first film, I should just say that the Filmhouse is a smashing venue with friendly staff and a pleasant bar area. But it does have a couple of minor negatives. Firstly, the aforementioned bar is pretty expensive (although I did notice they’ve started doing discounts for members), and the seats in the Filmhouse can get pretty uncomfortable after a while since I think they were originally put in when people were a few inches shorter than they are now. However, being uncomfortable does tend to help you to stay awake so it’s not all bad!
The first film of the festival was a rather languidly paced piece, called The Fields (2011) based on writer B. Harrison Smith’s personal recollections of long summers of intimidating and inexplicable events at his own grandparent’s Pennsylvania farm.
It’s 1973 and Bonnie and Barry are a young couple in trouble who seem to spend most of their time arguing or avoiding each other. Bonnie takes their son, Steven, (played by an impressive Joshua Ormond) around to Barry’s parent’s farmstead so that the young boy doesn’t have to see any more violence at home after Barry pointed a loaded shotgun in Bonnie’s face following a recent row. The grandparents are a cantankerous, but caring elderly couple who make a fuss of the young lad and try and play agony aunt to the boy’s parents.
It quickly becomes apparent that Steven’s family isn’t the only ‘family’ in the local area, where there’s violence to be found. The film alludes to the Manson Family break up and how some members have now disappeared and may be visiting the area.
The film’s title comes from the fact that the farm is bordered by corn fields, which Steven soon discovers have some frightening secrets of their own in the form of a dead woman’s body, weird rustlings and possible monsters of a human nature, when he explores them against his grandparent’s instructions not to. Kids, eh!
I have to admit that, although I enjoyed The Fields, I didn’t think it was an ideal film to play late at night since it’s very sedate in its pacing and, to be honest, not a lot happens for the most part. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have points of interest – the characters are well drawn, in particular the grandmother, (played brilliantly by Cloris Leachman), who swears like a trooper and has all the best lines; the photography is very good; the film makes good use of its limited locations; there are some genuinely creepy moments and the siege, towards the end of the film, is well done and is quite frightening. It’s just that I would have thought that if you’re going to make a film based on true events, you’d try to base them on more interesting events than these or maybe approach it in a more documentary fashion.
I’d like to see this film again, at some point, as I was struggling to stay awake through this particular screening – possibly due to the long day and also due to the Dark Island ale I’d imbibed beforehand – so I can give it the benefit of the doubt and reassess it. All in all it’s a nicely atmospheric flick, with some engaging characters, but a fairly flat plot and a rather ambiguous ending. I think directors Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni definitely show promise and I’d be interested to see what they come up with next.
Additional note - The Fields is released on DVD from 27th August in the UK, released by Arrow Films.
Day Two – Friday 30 April
Red Tears follows two very different detectives – one is a young, idealistic, by-the-book sort of guy and the other is a much older and more cynical veteran who is almost as violent as the perps he’s trying to catch. Now if that makes it sound like a buddy cop sort of film, it’s definitely not, as both men end up on the same case and take a very different approach to solving it, but don’t really work together.
They’re both after a serial killer who has a nasty habit of decapitating their victims after doing many other unspeakable things to them. While on the case the younger cop begins to fall in love with one of the suspects, who cares for her invalid mother and looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Suffice to say appearances can be deceptive!
Red Tears is fast-paced, stylishly shot and very gory in a splat-stick sort of way. Kudos must be given to some very inventive gore gags, which tend to feature lots of bone fractures – nice! I don’t think any one could really be offended by all the bloody violence in this film, as it’s all way-over-the-top and just too ludicrous to take seriously. There’s some crazy dialogue, particularly amongst some of the younger cops, and the older cop is so outrageously out of control and hard he becomes almost like a superhero!
At the heart of Red Tears is a rather sweet love story between the young detective and his suspect, but you just know that it’s all going to end in ‘red tears’. I also enjoyed the fact they managed to squeeze in a couple of martial arts fights, some crazy monster transformations and a massive cupboard full of body parts!
Red Tears would have been a better film to have kicked the festival off with, me thinks, although I guess Adele probably thought it would be nice for more people to get to see it. It’s definitely a film for lovers of more eccentric Japanese movies and for gore hounds looking for their next fix of arterial spray.
Next up on the agenda was the ‘What You Make It’ short film programme, which is a regular Dead by Dawn slot for shorts that don’t quite make the definition of being horror films, but are still bizarre and weird enough to appeal to that kind of audience.
First up was the Spanish short, La Migala, from director Jaime Dezcallar, who obviously knows what freaks most people out, by featuring a bird-eating spider as his source of audience nightmares.
In this film a broken-hearted man desperately wants to bring feeling back into his numb existence so he comes up with the cunning plan of buying a pet spider (which is what he’s frightened of the most). Only, rather than keep it in a vivarium, he lets it roam around his flat so that every day becomes a life and death struggle for him. I can think of better ways to get over an ex-girlfriend! As you have probably already guessed this doesn’t end particularly well for anyone – the spider included!
All Flowers In Time , by Jonathan Caouette, was a rather bizarre and pretentious short that played, at times, more like an art installation rather than a proper film. A young woman and a boy visit an old French cowboy who asks: ‘Do you know why you are here?’ Perhaps he should have asked: ‘Do you know why you are watching this?’ Weirdly, his crazy questions and chants are being televised by a Dutch TV station, which starts to infect children all over the world who turn into evil demon things. Well, at least that’s what the programme says – I didn’t really get any of that from watching the film. I did get a headache though!
Up next, a film called Hope by Pedro Pires, from Canada. A soldier lies dying in a trench on a battlefield – or is he? Basically this is a film, which had a Jacob’s Ladder kind of vibe to it, and seemed to be exploring what happens to a comatose soldier’s mind as they are struggling for their lives. This was a beautifully crafted piece of filmmaking even though it took me a while to realise what was happening. The explosion in the barbers with all the soldiers’ bodies flying through the air was particularly arresting and, technically, brilliant.
Probably the most accessible film of this selection of shorts was Kidz by Brian Folan. This Irish short consists of a man walking his dog in the park and two really nuts gags one after the other. Games of fetch for this man and his dog will never be the same again thanks to the help of a passing kid. Hilarious in a crazy as a bag of badgers way!
And finally screened Cantata in C Major , which must have been one of the most original, if insane, shorts I’ve seen in a long time. Following a chalkboard explanation of what you’re about to see there follows approximately seven mins of brief clips from old horror and sci-fi films, which all feature people screaming at different pitches, hence the Cantata idea. It is quite nuts, but also quite genius in its own remarkable way. It must have taken its maker, Ronnie Cramer, an age to compile it all together – well done that man – or should that be, Ronnie you need to get out more?
The Omen was the next feature film to be screened following the shorts and, although it’s one of my favourite films, I decided to duck out of it this time as I’d seen it fairly recently on the big screen at Celluloid Screams. All I’ll say about this 1976 Richard Donner film is that if you haven’t already seen it you owe it to yourself to watch it some time as it’s one of the best horror films ever made. So much of it has entered the popular lexicon and, if nothing else, it’s a great yarn, well told. I quite like the follow up sequels, but this remains the best film concerning the anti-Christ.
Instead, with it being a lovely spring day, I wandered through the graveyard at the bottom of Lothian Road, and through the city parks, packed with tourists and locals alike, and onto Princess Street for a general wander around. I do love Edinburgh.
I returned to the fray for the start of the so-called ‘Long Shorts’, I guess because they’re all about half an hour in length.
First up was David Matthews’ Murderabilia , which was probably the grimmest of this year’s shorts. This is an atmospheric short that I’d class as a true horror film, from its subject matter to the general tone of the film. You certainly feel ‘dirty’ after watching this film, which plunges the viewer into the seedy and profoundly macabre market revolving around the buying and selling of murder-related collectibles. We follow a compulsive collector, fixated on one particular murder, who will do almost anything to collect artefacts related to it. His interview with the murderer is particularly disturbing.
The Unliving , a Swedish film from promising director Hugo Lija, was up next and this was well received by the Dead by Dawn audience, much as it was last year at Celluloid Screams. In the wake of a viral apocalypse, zombies have spread across Sweden and survivors live in gated ghettos. Politicians have approved the use of experimental drugs to control the undead for menial work, which leads to some interesting dilemmas for the survivors, particularly when they’re faced with their zombified relatives taking out the trash! The Unliving is a breath of fresh air, injecting some fresh life into the often rather stale zombie genre, but the film’s main failing is that it plays too much like the first third of a feature film rather than as a standalone short. Having said that, I’d love to see a full feature of this so hopefully the makers will be able to do just that sometime soon.
The final film of the long shorts batch was Jonathan Martin’s An Evening with my Comatose Mother
, which again played a bit like a cut down feature film, rather than as a tight short. Young, attractive Dorothy seems to have landed a cushy gig on Halloween night, house-sitting for a wealthy couple. However, she soon discovers that along with the fat paycheck comes a fat headache in the form of Mrs Poe’s elderly mother and her very creepy clown doll! While it was quite a fun watch, and it’s well made, this short was pretty frustrating to watch as, although it had some cool ideas, it never really made good use of them and it kept destroying any tension with some bizarre editing choices and with a plot that didn’t really make much sense most of the time.
After a fairly brief break we were back with the features kicking off with Below Zero (2010) , an interesting and very well acted film from Canada.
Jack (played brilliantly by Edward furlong) is a screenwriter with writer’s block who relents to pressure from his agent to spend five days locked in a walk-in freezer so he can just focus solely on his next script, which is due to be completed imminently. He reluctantly agrees and heads off to the wilds of Canada to an abertoir, which has the requisite freezer. He’s met by the abertoir owner, (played by Kristen Booth - who has most of the best lines; in fact her character is a real hoot) – and together they head off to what will be his home for the next five days.
As you’ve probably already guessed it doesn’t take long for things to go a bit strange and f**ked up, as the story twists and turns its way along multiple time-lines, in and out of his consciousness and we’re quickly as confused as our main protagonist is as to whether he’s dreaming, hallucinating or whether it’s all really happening to him.
This is a very self-aware film and writer Signe Olynyk obviously enjoys the horror genre and confounding audience expectations. My only real worry when I first read the synopsis of the film was that it sounded like lazy plotting as writers do often go down the ‘writer’s block’ plot line when they themselves are having problems with a story or script. I needn’t have worried too much, although, for me, the film unravelled a little towards the end, tripping over itself trying to be a bit too clever for its own good, and becoming a little confusing at times.
Overall though Below Zero is a nicely made, well-acted and very professional piece of fairly low budget filmmaking that deserves to have a wider audience than just horror fans. I think it would go down well with more general movie fans who just enjoy some excellent character development. It was also nice to see horror icon Michael Berryman in a more ‘meaty’ role (pun intended) for a change.
A fun and enlightening Q&A with producer Bob Schultz and scriptwriter Signe Olynsk followed the screening. It appears that you can still make a decent film on a low budget with a lot of good will and determination, which is always encouraging to hear. Both Bob and Signe came across as very pleasant people who, to their credit, also seem to do a lot for other would-be filmmakers. Let’s hope Below Zero does well for them and they can continue to make interesting and thought-provoking films.
The final feature of the day was the brilliantly titled The Puppet Monster Massacre (2010) , which, sadly, was a long way off from being as awesome as its title suggests. Now I know that animated films are an acquired taste, but there are many animated classics out there, even if you’re not particularly a fan – alas, this isn’t one of them!
Written and directed by Dustin Mills, this puppet extravaganza is about a group of teens that are invited to spend the night at a haunted mansion on the promise that whoever stays the night will win a prize. What our rather dumb teens haven’t figured out is that their host, Dr Wagner, is a crazy ex-nazi scientist hell-bent on ruling the world with his monster, which requires just a few more bodies to feed upon to bring it up to full strength.
While it tries to be a horror version of Team America it ends up being something more akin to a really dull episode of Scooby Doo, with very little of the latter’s charm or humour. Even the visual effects were below par, which is a shame, as I do like a good puppet movie; sadly this isn’t one of them. To be fair, I think Dustin stretched his talents too wide on this one and tried to do too much himself on this film and, consequently, he failed to do a really good job on anything.
Don’t get me wrong there are a few laughs to be had, but this would have been better being boiled down to a 30 minute short because it overstays its welcome by a good 40 minutes. I have to admit I was really struggling to stay awake through this, but this time I don’t think I can blame it on the beer, but more because the story just wasn’t engaging or original enough to hold my attention. Let’s hope that Dustin will do better next time; fingers crossed.
Part 2 of the write-up can be found here.