It's that time again. The UK's longest running horror film festival returns too the Edinburgh Filmhouse as it has done every April for twenty-four years. I've gone to the last four or five and it has become my favourite festival . This year I took my partner Robert, who had no interest in horror until he met me, but I persuaded him that Dead by Dawn is known as much for the beauty of the films as for the gore. Any insights here that seem intelligent are probably his.
Alongside the new films there are classics, which I won’t review. They’re generally on either at the beginning of the day or after midnight. This year we had:
THE DEAD ZONE
THE MONSTER SQUAD
SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN
Thursday night began with THE EVIL WITHIN, a project begun fifteen years ago by Andrew Getty, the oil heir, but completed after his death by long time collaborator Michael Luceri.
Dennis has learning difficulties, but with the support of loving and diligent older brother John he has grown into a contented young man. He keeps his hamsters, eats pizza and flirts with the waitress in the ice cream parlour.
When John buys him an antique mirror for his bedroom Dennis's reflection takes on a life of its own, goading Dennis to increasingly depraved acts of violence. Along the way it picks at a few issues about why it's acceptable to kill and eat some animals like cows and chickens, but not hamsters, cats, or children. The reflection's erm... reflection on this creates a context in which the violence makes sense.
The movie is flawed in many ways: the tone and pacing are uneven and there are major gaps in the logic, but I enjoyed it a lot. The visuals are striking, mixing dream imagery with real life until we're not sure what's happening. Fred Koehler's performance as Dennis is outstanding, reminiscent of Charles Laughton's Quasimodo, and his reflection is sometimes Michael Berryman. The final scene, while neither believable or in keeping with the rest of the film, is a Grand Guignol visual feast. Four stars.
The short films are grouped into hour-long sets, each with a rough theme. The first set was called LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER.
PLEASE LOVE ME FOREVER is a sweet little fairy tale in which teenage Lili is fixated on her handsome neighbour Lyesse. But Lili lives a sheltered and solitary life with her beauty-obsessed mother, who calls herself a surgeon and grows herself new body parts in the greenhouse. When Lili decides that Lyesse's heart is too cold she takes matters into her own scalpel wielding hands. A very beautiful film about beauty and our obsession with it.
SET YOURSELF FREE: An Australian public information film about the dangers of skipping school. A two minute joke with a bloody good punchline.
MISTER POPULAR. A lonely schoolboy is jealous of the most popular boy in the school and hatches a plan to take his place. His method is direct. A short comic piece with a satirical punch about the shallowness of teenage society.
THE SUB. A rather silly take on high school horror, like Stepford Wives meets The Faculty. It's well executed and the two central characters are engaging but it has nothing new to say.
Friday began with another set of shorts called WHAT YOU MAKE IT. This is a set that don't fit the standard definition of what horror is, but warrant inclusion for one reason or another.
In UPSIDE DOWN FEELING a young Australian boy develops an obsession with death and an imaginary friend helps him through it. This is sweet and uplifting and very enjoyable.
BIRD. A young boy left to amuse himself in a grand house plays first with a frog, then with a caged bird, which he accidentally kills. What follows is surreal, sexy, spectacular, grotesque and beautiful, and features a truly amazing dancer. A must see. Wow.
BASURA. Two suspicious looking men pay an early morning visit to the recycling centre to dispose of some organic waste. It becomes farcical and hilarious.
WHAT HAPPENED TO HER is a documentary about actresses who play corpses in films and tv shows, their experiences and audience and industry expectations. It's surprisingly uncomfortable to watch and made me feel complicit in some misogynistic crime. Very interesting and thought-provoking.
GREENER GRASS is a highly stylised and surreal satire on the transience of human interaction when all we want to do is impress others. If you have nothing worth showing off on social media is your life worth anything? Camp and colourful and funny.
In DER SIMULANT an actor specialises in playing corpses and takes his job very seriously. Brief and entertaining.
FOXES/ WITHOUT NAME. A double bill of thematically related films from the same Irish director, and a festival highlight for me. In the short FOXES, an abandoned housing estate is being gradually reclaimed by nature, while the couple who are its sole inhabitants struggle to keep their lives together. Then it gets crazy and brilliant.
WITHOUT NAME is an absolutely gorgeous film about a surveyor sent to measure some woodland in rural Ireland for potential development, but the beauty and atmosphere of the place possess him. Everything about this film is wonderful, but it's worth watching just for the lingering shots of natural light on water, or woodland, or lichen. The director and the DP have a photographer's eye for beauty in the natural world. It's a stunning antidote to the action packed drivel we are fed at the multiplexes. I want to see this again.
HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE. Another short film programme.
SPOOKED. A rather silly take inversion on horror tropes, played entirely for laughs, including a demonic chase sequence in the style of Benny Hill. It's not really my kind of thing but it got laughs from the audience and it managed to mock both the USA and France. Kudos for spotting national stereotypes and exploiting them for comic value.
THE CALL OF CHARLIE. A Lovecraftian elder god comes to a dinner party, and his pal from work has set him up with a date. It goes where you expect but it's funny and I'm a sucker for a good tentacle.
FUCING BUNNIES is a comic, sex-filled romp about heavy metal, Satan worship, sex cults, carrot flavoured protein shakes and squash. It's also an exploration of liberal values and the potential we all have for prejudice. It deals with serious issues with a few laughs. Great stuff.
CHILDER. A single mother cleans obsessively, difficult when there's a small boy in the house, and made more difficult by the feral children in the woods. It had some nice ideas and a good central character but seemed kind of pointless. Or maybe I just didn't get it.
My Friday night finished with THE NIGHT WATCHMEN. An evil clown is back from the dead and spreading vampirism through Baltimore, and all that stands in his way is a rather motley band of security guards from a newspaper office. This is just the kind of film I don't like - an homage to older exploitation movies complete with lashings of gore and gratuitous bare tits, but it's well meaning and funny enough to get away with being this trashy. Silly, undemanding and very enjoyable.
Saturday began with another short programme: THE END IS NIGH.
In LAST CALL LENNY, an entrepreneur runs two businesses, a suicide consultancy and a second hand furniture business, which feed into each other. It’s a light-hearted and ultimately optimistic fable.
In AUGUST HEAT, it’s so hot that James is hardly aware of what he’s drawing, so he goes out for a walk and finds someone else working in the heat and it seems that fate has brought them together. Nice and creepy.
CRESWICK is about an aging furniture maker whose designs go awry as he faces his own mortality. Stylish if a little depressing.
In TOO DARK a girl is running is screaming and running through the woods, pursued by a hooded figure with a butchers’ knife, but it’s not what it seems. Very funny.
TUOLLA PUOLEN is a sweet fantasy about empathy and forgiveness. A young girl helps people in their darkest hour and one day she has to help her brother.
ALWAYS SHINE. Two actresses are best friends but also rivals: Beth is in demand but perhaps only because she is willing to go nude in low budget horror movies: Anna is outspoken and difficult and struggles to find work. Beth is jealous of Anna’s talent and Anna resents Beth’s success but they go for a weekend in the country together to rekindle the friendship. What follows is a complex and layered study of relationships and femininity, with the implication that when a woman becomes dangerously crazy it’s because of male expectations. This is a clever film that many men might find uncomfortable to watch, which of course makes it worth watching.
The next set of shorts was called NOW WASH YOUR HANDS, and features all the yuckiest bits.
LA VOCE is a strange, surreal and gruesome tale about an abattoir worker who gets through the horror of each day through a love of opera and his stripper girlfriend. When his love life collapses something odd happens to his voice and it becomes wonderful and quite uplifting. Lovely.
I WANT YOU INSIDE ME. Early sexual encounters can be intimidating and scary, but not as scary as this. A girl loses her virginity and the boy is never seen again. So she tries another boy…
WHEN SUSSURUS STIRS is one of the most revolting things I’ve ever seen on a movie screen, but is also quite charming and humorous. A man has a symbiotic relationship with an unusual parasite. Not for the squeamish.
THE RIVER. A silly song about a normal physiological function is turned into a funny and mildly icky video. It made the audience laugh and I’m still singing it now.
My Saturday ended with ACCIDENTAL EXORCIST. It was getting late by now, and I’d been drinking beer most of the day, so if I struggled to stay awake during this it might not be the film’s fault. Richard is a professional exorcist, but the exorcism industry exploits its workers just like any other. Richard only ever speaks to his bosses on a strange phone, which may be a hotline to God or to another faceless bureaucrat. And his own alcoholism is the demon he cannot vanquish. Some of the images were interesting and it seemed interesting but if there were more layers of subtext I missed them.
It’s Sunday now, and we’re all tired and hungover, so let’s watch some cartoons. 2D AND DERANGED is a group of animated shorts, a festival staple.
MOTHER shows us a sinister conversation between a young man and his mother, somewhat in the Psycho mould. Not much actual animation, just lighting and framing a still scene, but a creepy little piece.
DOWN TO THE WIRE is a 3D animation of metallic stick figures, so the story is told without facial expressions or dialogue. Inventive and well executed, it manages to tell a noir-ish tale of murder and revenge.
MAD GOD I AND II is a lost project from the late Phil Tippet, and some of his surviving team are now completing the animation with his miniatures and storyboards. It’s so detailed that the twenty-seven minutes we see here is six years work. Parts III and IV are still in production. There are some amazing images and it’s a reminder of what old fashioned model making and stop motion can do, but there isn’t much story. Definitely worth a watch.
RESISTANCE. Every restaurant in the world has to work constantly to keep cockroaches and other pests out, but what must it seem like from the insects’ point of view? The filmmakers take this idea and make it bigger in every way. Excellent animation and good characters, no matter how many legs they have.
In GARDEN PARTY, which won the best animation award, a deserted mansion is explored by assorted frogs and toads, and it gradually becomes clear that there has been a terrible act of violence. Seen through the amphibians’ eyes though, all of man’s petty squabbles are insignificant: bullet holes are doorways into a food-filled house, and a floating corpse is just another thing to jump on and rest in the sun. Very entertaining and with a subtle message oddly similar to Without Name.
DIG TWO GRAVES won the best feature award, and was probably my second favourite of the festival. After a tragic death, the dead boy’s sister Jake is offered the chance to bring him back, if she’s willing to do something terrible. Meanwhile her grandfather has secrets in his past related to Jake’s predicament, and they’re coming back to get him.
This is a great film, beautifully designed and filmed, well-acted and expertly paced. It barely fits the horror genre but that’s not a bad thing – we’re a broad church.
The last of seven short film programmes was IT’S OVER, ROVER, and as you might surmise features unfortunate animals.
A kindly old couple recount tales of the wild assortment of animals they’ve kept over the years in PICKLE. They concentrate mainly on the deaths and somehow make this film uproariously funny.
MADAM BLACK, which won the best short award, somehow makes an uplifting comedy from a lonely man, a sad little girl and a dead cat. Very funny.
In THE DOG, a little girl witnesses the death of a dog and goes to tell the neighbour, initiating an increasingly violent and comic sequence of events. Funny and I award it extra marks for the stunning Norwegian backdrop.
THE MAN WHO CAUGHT A MERMAID features an eccentric old man who dreams of catching a mermaid and finally does. It all goes swimmingly until his wife finds out. Excellent make up and effects and a dark little story.
It’s getting late now on the last day and the audience is ready for some uber violence, so DRY BLOOD. An unreliable narrator is always a good basis for a horror movie, so when Brian decides to go clean at last and the hallucinations kick in, he can no longer tell what’s real, and neither can we. It builds from creepy goings on to mayhem and carnage in the final reel. Perhaps not a great film but a good horror movie, if that makes sense.
Finally, midnight on the last night, we are offered THE VOID. The local hospital has had a fire so only a skeleton staff remains when the sheriff brings in an injured drunk. But a sect has been up to mischief opening a portal to another dimension or something. Cue blood and tentacles. Silly but fun and occasionally scary.
I have relatively little experience of horror festivals, but Dead by Dawn has become my favourite. In fact I didn’t bother going to Frightfest this year. The quality and diversity of the programming is outstanding and, while not every film can be to everyone’s taste, I never feel I have sat through dross as I have elsewhere.
The content is lovingly curated and structured so that it never feels repetitive or predictable, even in the themed short programmes.
The audience includes a lot of people who’ve come alone, including some women, because it’s a very safe environment and horror fans are the loveliest and least threatening people you can imagine. Some people chat to each other or to DBD or Filmhouse staff but many of us keep to ourselves and are not pestered at all.
The café/bar is great and DBD ticket holders get a discount.
This is a festival that deserved to be bigger. I will continue to support it by buying my ticket and writing these reviews, and next year I’ll try to persuade more people to come along.
You should try it.