DEAD BY DAWN (2015) A REVIEW BY STEWART HORN
Dead by Dawn 2015
This is my first time at Dead by Dawn, even though it’s one of the UK’s best known and longest running horror festivals, and happens less than fifty miles from where I live. There are reasons: the timing doesn’t fit well with my day job, so I have to miss some of the films, and Edinburgh is one of the most expensive places in the world to find digs, so up to now I didn’t think it was worth my while. But this year I took the plunge. I missed a few things but saw plenty. There was one film on Thursday night that I quite fancied (Tusk) but it would have added around £80 to the cost of the weekend and I decided it wasn’t worth it for one film.
When I arrived on Friday afternoon, having already missed the first film of the day, I was greeted by a table of enthusiasts who gave me a nice canvas bag, a glossy programme, voting forms, a bundle of tickets, free sweeties and a voucher for 10% off at the cinema bar all weekend.
It’s tempting to compare it to Frightfest Glasgow, which I attended earlier this year (You can read my thoughts on that here), but it’s very different in atmosphere. It’s a little more genteel, and the audience seemed to be predominantly middle class. Also the theatre was only about three quarters full, so it felt more comfortable. The Filmhouse staff were uniformly competent and really nice, but the star of the show is Adele Hartley, the benign matriarch who has curated and programmed the festival since it began 22 years ago.
Like a stand-up comic she strides on stage to warm applause, and introduces each film. You will switch off your mobile phone, and you will not unwrap sweeties noisily during a screening, lest ye incur her wrath. She really does give the impression that she would confiscate the offending articles until she gets a letter of apology from your mum. Or lock you in the chokie overnight.
Off stage, however, she is friendly and approachable and spends the whole weekend chatting with audience members and encouraging us to drink more beer.
It’s a bonus that Edinburgh is a beautiful city, and the Filmhouse is only a ten minute walk from the heart of the Old Town. But a festival is nothing without the films. The programme is nine new features, six classics and three blocks of short films and animations, twenty-seven shorts altogether. Here are reviews for all the new stuff I saw.
Marie lives with her father and silent crippled mother. When she starts work in the local fish processing facility she suffers bullying and sexism but meets some handsome young men.
The horror elements don’t really kick in till the last half hour, but up to then it’s a beautifully shot and acted art-house piece about the claustrophobia and petty politics of a small town with only one employer. It’s hard to fault this film in any way, but I was in full horror mode and it felt like a rather gentle start to the festival. The horror is understated though the mood sinister throughout. The whole film seems like a metaphor, but it’s vague enough that it can be about anything you like. It’s definitely about sex, and power, and the constraints of community, but it’s best to watch it with an open mind.
Das Poel (The Pool), Netherlands 2014
It’s a familiar horror trope: a group of people camp by an isolated lake and there’s something scary in the water, but if you think you’ve seen it all before you’re wrong. I won’t stray into spoiler territory but this is a much more psychological affair than you would expect from the scenario. There are two middle-aged business partners, one wife and three teenage children. The characters and relationship dynamics are brilliantly realistic, and all the acting is first rate. Every exchange between characters felt true, and there was subtext in every glance. A splendid piece of film-making that remains believable even when the situation gets extreme towards the end.
Welp (Cub), Belgium 2014
More straightforward horror fare here. A group of cub scouts and three leaders not much older than the kids themselves set out for a weekend camp. After encountering some tracksuited locals they decide to camp deeper in the woods than planned, but there are bad people there. Even the legend of the were-boy Kai seems to be coming true.
There are some original ideas here: the boys are not innocents – they swear and bully and talk about sex a lot - and it’s made clear quite early on that young children are potential victims as much as anyone else. But this still felt a little derivative. There were moments seemingly lifted from The Hills Have Eyes, The Collector, Friday the 13th and even Home Alone.
I wanted a reason for the mutant psychopaths to exist beyond the throwaway line, “Some of the locals didn’t take kindly to the mill closing”. With no reason or context to violence it was harder to take it seriously and it lost some its impact. The twist at the end was a nice touch but it was telegraphed and, again, lacked any logic or context.
However, it was fun, well-made and well-acted. The children especially were unpleasantly realistic, and there were some deliberate parallels equating them with the murderous maniacs and adding a little intellectual interest.
Amnesia, Norway 2014
A successful author and his wannabe author wife go to a secluded island and the author’s controlling and abusive personality comes to the fore. They fight, he hits his head and suddenly he can’t remember anything and he seems like the loving sweet guy she knew before. But freed from his memories, what is his true personality?
The filming is beautiful, on the Norwegian coast, and features very strong performances, especially from the male lead, but it didn’t really make sense. The two characters and the relationship between them seemed to change in ways I didn’t understand. A lot of the tension in watching the man’s face wondering what aspect of his personality is going to manifest next.
Musaranas (Shrew’s Nest), Spain/France 2014
An intense and Claustrophobic horror thriller about two sisters whose parents are both long dead. The elder sister has severe agoraphobia with a good dose of schizophrenia mixed in – the true extent of her problems becomes apparent as the movie progresses. The younger sister is developing an interest in boys and yearns for freedom, and the relationship between the siblings is complex and strained. Then a man literally falls into their lives.
It progresses from a quiet personal drama to a bizarre grand guingol finale, mainly held together by astonishing performances by the leads, especially Macarena Gomez who brilliantly portrays both fragility and a terrifying sternness. It’s worth watching just for her, but as film it’s a tense and uncomfortable watch. This won the audience award for best feature at the festival.
Amigo Undead, USA 2015
A loser spends the last of his inheritance on a piece of land from some Native Americans. After a tragic accident he buries his friend there. But the land is cursed and the friend returns as an unkillable demon. Completely absurd, played largely for laughs despite buckets of gore, it’s an entertaining way to spend 84 minutes. There are some real issues in the subtext about family and self-sacrifice but it’s done in a light-hearted way and doesn’t alter the upbeat mood of the film. Great fun.
Ava’s Possessions, USA 2015
We’ve all seen The Exorcist and another half dozen possession/ exorcism films. Most of them are only okay or not even that, and they all end when the demon is gone and the priest leaves. But what happens after that?
Ava was possessed for a month and doesn’t remember any of it. Now she can only avoid jail by attending Spirit Possession Anonymous meetings and as part of her therapy she has to find everybody she hurt and apologise. From there it turns into a strange detective story as she finds clues and pieces together all the weird stuff that happened. It’s worth watching for the embarrassment and inevitable humour of the situations we uncover, but it works well as a fast-paced horror thriller too. Ava is an engaging character surrounded by a quirky supporting cast including the other SPA members and their mentor, prostitutes, a hit-man and his son, and a pimp. The ending was a little tidy for my taste, but very entertaining.
There were two other films that I didn’t manage to catch, Blood Punch and Tusk. I can’t review them but they both looked promising.
Adele likes to throw in a few oldies, perhaps in some way inspired by the program of new features or perhaps just because. This year we had Manhunter, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Fly, Dagon, The Vanishing (the French original), Dagon and Reanimator. If you’re not fussed about seeing films you’ve seen before it’s not compulsory and they tend to be programmed at the beginning or the end of each day so you can skip them. But I enjoyed seeing them on the big screen. I didn’t catch Dagon because it was programmed at 2.30 on Sunday morning but I expect it was spectacular.
THE SHORT FILMS
I think the horror genre suits the short form very well but short films rarely get a theatrical showing even at festivals. Adele is a champion of short films and the festival had three sets of short programmes titled What You Make It, What Can Possibly Go Wrong? and 2D and Deranged. They were subtly different in approach but I’ll just review all the shorts in one go here.
Cargo, Australia 2013, 7 minutes
A heart-warming and sad story about good parenting when the zombie apocalypse starts. A simple idea, well-executed. No pun intended.
Father/Son, USA 2012, 11 minutes
A young man brings his new girlfriend to meet his hunting trophy obsessed father. Atmospheric and disturbing.
My Shadow Mocks ME, UK, 2014, 4 minutes
A short ghost story related by an unseen child over beautiful visuals.
Out of Order, UK, 2014, 4 minutes
A fun little bit of animated whimsy and a warning about keeping your bread bin clean.
In Passing, USA/ Canada, 2014, 5 minutes
A beautiful, funny and elegant piece about despair, love, suicide and last chances. Perhaps a parable about making the most of what time we have. Highly recommended.
Intereior. Familia, Spain, 2014, 9 minutes
A young man’s parents wake him in the night to tell him a few dark truths about his life. Simultaneously nasty and hilarious.
Rat Pack Rat, USA, 2014, 19 minutes
A Sammy Davis Jnr impersonator accepts a gig to entertain a very sick man but has to do more than he bargained for. Very well acted, engaging, repulsive and sad. I might never hear The Candyman or eat a milky way again without picturing bits of this film. In fact I might just never eat a Milky Way again.
The Matchmaker, USA, 2014, 11minutes
A sweet little love story about a very shy man trying to talk to talk to a girl he really likes while they’re dressing a corpse together. Lovely.
Done In, UK 2014, 8 minutes
A man drinks tea and calmy composes a suicide note, but it’s not quite as it seems. Very nicely shot, and it surprised me at the end.
Mitten, Canada, 2014, 4 minutes
A very creepy story about a man who finds something sinister in the woods. Shivers.
The Hunter, USA, 2014, 4 minutes
EVERYONE SHOULD WATCH THIS! I don’t want to tell you anything that might spoil it, but it’s hilarious, presented as a trailer for a film about one of our most famous hunters.
Four Brothers. Or Three. Wait… Three, USA, 2013, 5 minutes
Siblings with a loving bond, despite extreme circumstances. Silly and one-dimensional but fun.
Where is Alice? USA, 2015, 11 minutes
A creepy story about a man visiting an asylum to meet the previous owner of his haunted house.
The Peripheral, USA, 2014, 12 minutes
That feeling we’ve all had, when something moving just on the edge of our peripheral vision. I enjoyed this though the reveal at the end was a bit silly. It would have been better kept vague.
Emptied, USA, 2014, 7 minutes
An urban legend made flesh. If you’re already nervous about visiting the dentist you probably shouldn’t watch this.
Super, New Zealand, 2014, 5 minutes
A simple story about a creepy man with designs on a young woman, and what happens when he doesn’t take no for an answer. Extremely satisfying.
Violent Florence, Australia, 2014, 12 minutes
A woman has a pathological need to torture and kill, but in this case it’s completely understandable.
Splintertime, Netherlands/France/Belgium, 2015, 11 minutes
A surreal and psychedelic nightmare about what looks like members of a rock band in an ambulance driven about by a dancing nurse, trying to break through… something. Weird and rather cool.
Naraka, Canada, 2013, 4 minutes.
More surreal animation. The blurb says it’s about souls being guided to the underworld but if you don’t get that it’s still a series of cool visuals.
Day 40, Canada, 2014, 5 minutes
Noah builds an ark and invites all the animals in. They behave themselves for a few days then it all gets hilarious.
Flower and Grave, Finland, 2014, 4 minutes
A hard to follow, but amusing tale about inappropriate reactions at funerals and how much trouble you can they get you into.
Faceless Neil: Out of the Darkness, USA, 2014, 10 minutes
A boy wakes up in a strange dark place to find he no longer has a face. And he’s not alone. Very stylish and a bit creepy.
The Face Shop, USA, 2010, 6 minutes
An earlier version of the Faceless Neil character. More slapstick in tone but still dark and entertaining.
Mite, Germany, 2013, 4 minutes
In a corridor in (perhaps) the Overlook Hotel, the camera explores smaller and smaller things until we’re in a jungle in which a mite is a huge terrifying monster.
Deadly, Ireland, 2014, 9 minutes
After all the abstraction it was a relief to have a story with characters. Boney collects souls. It’s just a repetitive job until he finds a friend in a feisty old lady.
Daisy, USA, 2010, 2 minutes.
If you’ve ever pulled the petals from a flower in a meadow, this is what it’s like from the flower’s point of view. Brutal and wonderful.
T.P., USA, 2015, 11 minutes
Imagine you’re a freshly pressed shiny white roll of toilet paper. Then you find out what destiny has in store. Wouldn’t you try to escape? Yucky and funny.