Another year passes (where has the bloody time gone?) and already it's time again for another long weekend of no sleep, going positively square eyed watching endless reams of genre movies and occasionally (ahem) indulging in some alcohol fuelled liver damage…yes it's time once again for the 'event' that is the 'Dead by Dawn Horror Film Festival' - the annual orgy of genre goodness brought to us by the lovely Adele Hartley at the Film House Cinema in the heart of Edinburgh.
As ever with this event I'm continually astounded (though why I don't really know) by the degree of loyalty shown by the regular attendees of the event. As usual, months before the event begins the show is a virtual sell out and that's even before the line up of films and guests have been announced!
Why do visitors blindly commit their hard earned cash so early and confidently? Well, it must simply be down to the stunning track record that festival director Adele has built up over the years for making sure only the best films are screening (with many exclusive UK premieres) and the cream of genre guests (at a low weekend entry price)…or is it perhaps is it just down to the laid back relaxed atmosphere enjoyed by guests and attendees throughout and the general feeling of camaraderie for fellow genre fans? Who knows, but either way 'Dead by Dawn' is one event that is an essential addition to any genre fans calendar. But in true Al Sex Gore tradition I wholly digress, so here's my thoughts (somewhat belatedly of course and in my usual inimitable honest style) on the festivals proceedings for 2004…
It's Thursday the 22nd of April and this year I've promised myself that attending this years Dead by Dawn Fest will be done in style…yup, no more B&B guest house for me, I'm here in Edinburgh for the duration of the fest so it's hotels this time round…and dammit I'm going 'first class' on the train through too (well, there is that half price offer from ScotRail to take into consideration!) So as I settle into my hotel room (with a great cellar view of well…another hotel room window three feet away from mine) I just have time to freshen up before heading round to the homely Filmhouse Cinema venue for the opening film of this much anticipated weekend…'Switchblade Romance'.
After drifting into the Filmhouse bar and being thrust down with a drink alongside festival guest (the very talented and ever smiling) Claudio Simonetti for the first of many failed attempts of the poor guy trying to understand my hokey West of Scotland dialect (at least Claudio was friendly, less could be said of another so called filmmaker in attendance who was just downright rude at my lack of knowledge of the Spanish language, obnoxious asshole that he was) I head upstairs for this much anticipated screening.
Alexandre Aja's 'Switchblade Romance' makes its UK debut here at this screening so until this point the only word on this one was some glowing response from French critics from where the film hails. A welcome throwback to the slasher movies of the early 80's 'Haute Tension' (as it was originally called in its native France) is a simple plotted but hyper violent shocker that bewilderingly has caused some mixed response amongst the horror community.
On a study break from college young lass Alex is off home to visit her family in rural France with her best buddy Marie in tow. That night as the family tuck themselves into bed for a cosseted nights sleep (or in Maries case a sly wank) a van pulls up outside their door…it's driver, a motley burley man soaked in grease and blood makes his way to the front door…as Alex's father goes to welcome this unexpected guest he meets a brutal and excruciatingly violent demise but for the rest of the family the terror has not even begun!
For my tuppence worth I have to admit that when the end titles rolled at this screening and the well placed Muse track kicked into gear I sat in total astonishment, I felt I had just watched what was perhaps the best horror movie of the year - if not the millennium so far. If you haven't seen it yet (and why not?) then I wont be a bastard and reveal any spoilers (I hate folk that do that) but would like to comment on the split within the genre community on this wee blood filled opus. For many if writer/director Aja had created quite simply another stalk and slash splatter flick most would have been happy, but with a somewhat admittedly at times head scratching 'twist' to the storyline I feel he's added some (albeit minimal) depth to the actual plot and in repeated viewings adds more pleasure to the films experience. Some genre fans also don't quite see the appeal of the movie but I believe over the years we will see this one become a genuine horror classic sleeper…the plot is simple but damn effective, the minimalness of it all is so damn perfect, Aja's direction is solidly impressive throughout and the addition of splatter effects by the great Giannetto de Rossi is the icing on the cake in making this my favourite film of 2004. After leaving the screening (and indulging in some grinning praise of what I had just seen) it was off to bed to prepare for the Friday fun early the next afternoon…
Friday morning and life is good, the sun is shining and the horse tranquillisers I've been pummelling down my throat for my sciatica problems are kicking in just fine…so after some light breakfast and a quick shower to shake off the cobwebs it's off again to the Filmhouse for a welcome big screen viewing of Hitchcock's classic 'Psycho'.
To be honest, I've seen 'Psycho' countless times but the fact of the matter is that I love Alfred Hitchcock's movies ('Frenzy' is a much underrated giallo classic) and I would never miss the opportunity of seeing any of his movies on the big screen, especially not this gem. 'Psycho' sees clerical hussy Marion Crane (the lovely Janet Leigh) run off with $40,000 she has (ahem) 'borrowed' from her employer in a misguided attempt to start a new life with her already married lover. En route to her meeting her amour she stops off at the Bates Motel, an off the beaten track motel ran by the somewhat insular and edgy Norman. Her stay at the motel kicks off one of the most important shocker classics from that golden era of cinema.
For those of you uninitiated in the wonders of Alfred Hitchcock and films like Psycho (and I know there are a few of you out there, as evident at this screening) welcome to the golden age of genre cinema. 'Psycho' in particular is a thrilling slice of genre film in many ways, not only is it a shocking premise and contains what for that time was quite brutal tension but for Hitchcock (and his many filmmaking followers) heralded a return to recognition for the low budget genre movie (influencing later low budget auteurs like Romero in his production of Night of the Living Dead).
All that aside, I love this film. I often wonder what it would have been like to have sat watching this in a cinema back in 1960 on release; the impact on the viewer must have been tangible. Watching it again now on the big screen it still stands up well. Sure at times it can be a bit cumbersome with pacing and the pasted on 'round up explanation' ending can irk but the deviant twist finale is exemplary and some of Hitchcock's direction is simply stunning (and cancels outright any need for the ridiculous colour remake that was to insult us all decades later).
Leaving the screening with a reassured grin on my face that Hitch is still The Master after all these years I sloped into the Filmhouse lobby to reflect on the mans work. That was until I spotted a face from my long distant past skulking around a rack of flyers…a diminutive but friendly looking man who I have nothing but great memories of…and also perhaps the most deviant sick bastard author to walk the earth, yup, it's Shaun Hutson.
To put you in the picture, a good twenty years or so back I was in a goth/punk band (Scrapheap) and at the pinnacle of our garage band career we headlined some shows down in London - the last of which (at the Comedy Store on Leicester Square) was attended by then good friend Shaun Hutson (where he ended up doing some impromptu roadying when I tore my hand off a cymbal and threw it across the stage). You see, as a young goth/punk I was a big big fan of Shaun's work after reading his early novel 'The Skull: Blood Lust From Hell' (no sniggering now!) and after some years of writing letters to each other (we had a mutual interest in video nasties and I pummelled Shaun with tapes of our band - so far as to writing/recording a song based on his novel 'Shadows' and in return getting a welcome name check in his tome 'Victims') we became pals of sorts. Sadly, soon after that last show in London the band split and due to other life distractions contact between Shaun and myself dissipated too. An interesting aside for SGM readers (and not many know this) but when I first tried to launch SGM onto the market back in the 80's it was to be a magazine mix of horror movies, splatter fiction and punk/goth porn - Shaun was pretty buzzed for me about this Sex Gore Mutants thing and offered to let me run a serialised uncut version of the banned Chainsaw Terror novel. Sadly, every damn publisher approached flatly turned it down (and amusingly every pre-order got a full refund and a free copy of Razzle to compensate) and SGM disappeared until this somewhat different version appeared many years later online (omitting the smut and fiction sadly!)
But as I always do, I digress (should be my family motto!)…so now you have a bit of background, there I am grinning over at an old acquaintance I haven't spoken to or seen in god knows how many years…so many so that (well I used to have long hair and no beer belly in those days) I know the poor guy has no idea who I am. After helping take a picture for one of his current day fans (I hope the pic turned out ok?) who stopped to discuss his work I step forward and hand him a copy of the (briefly) reformed 'Scrapheap's promo DVD and as I grin at him I see the light bulb switch on above his head and he looks up in grinning bewilderment at the old geezer version of the guy he once knew standing before him.
Much catching up follows and I'm pleased to report that in the best possible way Shaun Hutson has in no way changed, still the same old straight talking no bullshit Liverpool and Metal loving family man he's always been (ladies shoe fetishes aside) and frustratingly later when Shaun held his 'question and answer' session in one of the screening rooms at the back of the Filmhouse the turnout was less than bustling. But being the top geezer he is Shaun took it in his stride and delivered a charming and often hilarious chat to the gathering of fans in attendance. Me, I loved the opportunity to catch up and here's hoping it's not another 20 years before we're chatting again.
Ji-Woon Kim's 'A Tale of Two Sisters' was the next film screening that day but having been distracted by mingling and chatting with folk up in the Filmhouse bar (and in honesty my patience for 'spooky' Korean movies is wearing very thin these days) I drifted into the sunshine to make the most of what was outside a lovely day!
Early evening in Edinburgh can be lovely if the weather's just right but it was time for the screening of Dario Argento's latest offering 'Il Cartiao' (aka 'The Card Player') and although advance word was less than favourable I wanted to see this one (well I'm forgiving and absolutely love his 'Phantom of the Opera') but headed to the bar for a quick one before the screening to steady my nerves. Whilst chatting to the ever easy distracted erstwhile SGM contributor and full time lecturer Mikel Koven who should pop up (as if my magic as they say) but the grinning friendly face of Harvey Fenton (of FAB Press infamy). The last time I saw Harvey was when he seemed in a perpetual state of panic running his own Flesh and Blood event down in London so it was great to see him up in Edinburgh in relaxed mode (that said, there was the worry of getting that FAB stall up and running, thankfully my reassurances that all would go well came to fruition). So after a light liquid libation, myself, Harvey and Mikel sloped into our seats for the Argento screening…if not for the Simonetti diversions perhaps though we should have stayed at the bar…
As I said, I'm incredibly forgiving when it comes to works by the 'so-called' great masters but with 'Il Cartaio' my patience was somewhat pushed to its limits. Basically, the plot concerns a serial killer who kidnaps his victims then using the internet forces the police to play online poker, each they time they lose another victim bites the dust. The bulk of the film then follows the usual cat and mouse scenario.
Whilst the simple plot set piece 'could' have been used to some effect Argento manages to completely drop the ball and present a limp and derisory movie. None of his trademark directorial flair is present at any point and outwith one or two rare moments of individual humour this film has no soul. In fact if Argento's name was not attached to the credits I don't doubt even his most fevered fans would note any link of his to this halfhearted production (it's like a woefully bad Bruno Mattei movie and even that's saying something). Even gore fans will be vastly disappointed to note the camera cuts or drifts away every time anything of interest looks potentially ready to happen. In fact the air of complete disbelief amongst folk at the screening was only broken when during the final reel an onscreen protagonist shoots a car stereo blaring Simonetti's soundtrack and Claudio cried from the back of the hall 'they shot my music!' which brought a much needed and welcome round of laughter from all present. Indeed all in attendance must thank Simonetti for his saving the day following the films screening with some candid chat and a stunning live set of all his classic movie pieces with the crowd present shouting out film titles only to hear him happily play them all minutes later…a lovely man, a great talent and a very welcome guest at this event.
Once all the mixed feelings had been excised in debate (at the bar of course) it was back into the main hall for the screening of 'King of the Ants'. Directed by the great Stuart Gordon and based on the novel by Charlie Higson, this is one that on paper should be a classic. A surreal hyper violent tale of a man brutally beaten and maltreated beyond any comprehension as to why this is happening (nee Korea's later 'OldBoy', which in turn has a hint of ITC's The Prisoner; damn has no one got a bone of originality these days!) But there was something about this movie that just felt flat. So much so that I didn't even make it to the end and opted to head back to my digs for a good nights sleep. I do note though that the film has already plummeted straight to sell through DVD and at a budget price no less so perhaps soon I'll give this one another opportunity.
It's Saturday morning in Edinburgh and there's always an air of excitement around 'Dead by Dawn' come Saturday…you see this is when the screenings get pretty much non stop till the wee hours of Monday morning so the air of anxious anticipation spreads amongst the folk in attendance…who will stay awake for it all…who will pass out after three movies…who will get stupid drink and miss everything (hey, stop saying Al Sex Gore!)…yup Saturday's when it all kicks in! Saturday's also when my good friend John Cook arrives to spend the next 24 hours savouring every damn movie (good, bad or incredible) and keep me sane from all the frantic hoo ha that generally ensues.
First film of the day is Martin Murphy's 'Lost Things', an incredibly creepy shocker amazingly set entirely around a sunny beach in Australia…yup, whoever would have guessed someone could make a film as creepy as fuck in such a setting but director Martin Murphy delivers in spades. The premise being that two hapless young lads have persuaded two less than keen females to accompany them to a secluded beach…the lads think they might get some action (of the 'horizontal mambo on the rocks' kind) whilst the girls are not going to be so easy. So far you may reckon where's the scares in this? Well things soon start getting very scary indeed as the sunny calmness of the beach soon takes on a terrifying new perspective as both the youngsters onscreen and we as viewers get slowly unsettled by some truly unsettling moments. 'Lost Things' like its title will sadly no doubt get lost in the sea of splatter and remakes that are filling our screens of late, which is a great shame as it is also one of the finer genuine spooky movies to hit the screen in some time. If you get the opportunity, make sure to check it out.
Next this afternoon is the always much anticipated 'Cutting Edge' short film competition. Always a major highlight of any Dead by Dawn festival, the Cutting Edge section always delivers a great selection of the good, the great and the stunning of new short genre movies by upcoming filmmakers. This year is no different and amongst the highlights are: 'Descent' - Jay Holben's cracking student slasher, 'Buried' - Tim Bullock's blackly humorous yarn of body disposal (which won the best Cutting Edge award) and 'The Shine' - David Uloth's short but sweet tribute to The Shining which is downright hilarious! To be honest, out of all the shorts screening there was little that didn't deliver and it's refreshing to see so many upcoming filmmakers are out there getting ready to launch their careers (hopefully) onto the genre scene.
Following the short films screening myself and pal John head down to the Filmhouse bar to charge our glasses (as we say around these parts) and get introduced by the lovely Adele to the latest guests to the festival, director Matthew Leutwyler and actor Erik Palladino who are here to present their comedy splatter opus 'Dead & Breakfast' later this evening. Both very nice guys indeed, though my confusion as to why Erik's ever wired entertainer mode is made understandable when I'm informed he played some doctor or something on TV show ER but never having seen it I was at a loss. But both guys seemed ready to party and being newcomers to Scotland myself and John weren't about to let these guys think we Scots didn't know how to have any fun.
As it happens, the films screening that Saturday evening were Tony Scott's (Bowie/Deneuve goth wankfest) 'The Hunger' and Joel Schumaker's (vamps with big hair extravaganza) 'The Lost Boys' - now there's nothing wrong as such with either movie but to be honest the thought of spending my Saturday night watching a couple of 80's retro trips that screen on a regular basis on TV left me pretty cold, well we're not talking the Hitchcock big screen experience here are we? And (ahem) there was a little matter of a triple bill live ska show that was on not far down the road in the Liquid Room. All good and well apart from a few things…going to a ska gig on a Saturday night usually involves copious amounts of alcohol…and perhaps when they had a premiere to present at midnight that evening it wasn't the best idea to invite Matthew and Erik (of 'Dead & Breakfast' fame) along!
Needless to say the ska gig went down a storm…youngsters 'AC Rid' played a blinder mix of modern upbeat ska and Rezillosesque punk, 'The Big Hand' may have been a small band but had a big sense of style and grooved like there was no tomorrow whilst headliners 'Bombskare' played a tight big band ska wall of glorious noise…and indeed the booze flowed (did I forget to mention the beer garden fun pre-show!)
Frustratingly on our return to the Filmhouse we had missed the bulk of the world premiere screening of 'Shallow Ground' and although I personally had a fantastic time at the ska show I to this day kick myself for missing the screening of Sheldon Wilson's movie; thankfully when I mentioned this to Sheldon whilst he waited nervously for the film to finish screening (you see these folk do worry about what you folk think of their movies!) he reckoned he would have went to the ska show also if he had the chance - and welcomingly when the film finished Sheldon's worries were swiftly eradicated as the assured applause came from the screening hall filtered through…and later still the film won the Audience Award for Best Feature (leading me to kick myself just one more time in frustration!)
It was fast approaching the midnight hour and time for the screening of Matt's movie 'Dead & Breakfast'…the only problem being that after lead Erik had been found (having been posted missing in action following the ska gig when last seen skanking away with pal John) was now being introduced to the wonders of fine malt whisky by my good self who admittedly also by now (as they say) was three sheets to the wind (ahem). What follows is a mixed bag of blurred memories and good reason as to why malt whisky, beer and ska shows are not the best way to warm up for an all night horror movie session.
What I do remember though (amongst other things) is…threatening in the friendliest possible manner to shove director Matt's video camera where the sun doesn't shine (well it was right up in my bloated drunken face) in the Filmhouse elevator en route to him presenting his movie…Erik standing on stage at the Film House hopelessly trying (and failing gloriously) to communicate to the waiting audience whilst clutching his latest malt…consuming even more whisky with Erik in the upstairs lobby of the main hall whilst we peer in the hatch window Erik slurs 'shouldn't we be watching mah movie…ah get killed here'…and for all of this I would very publicly apologise to the very lovely and ever put upon festival director Adele Hartley for my own part on the wonkiness of all involved. I'm very very sorry…though hopefully the funny side will be seen by now (gulp!)
As for the film itself? Well to be honest I'm fucked if I know what happened in it…there where some young folk, a weird bed & breakfast establishment, plenty of zombies and gore with some musical numbers thrown in for good measure…I am told though by the sober folk in attendance that it was another winner and given my life long for both zombie movies and musicals I have this top of my list to see…when I'm sober of course!
Straight after the films screening the all-night session went on in full flow with screenings of Michael Davis' 'Monster Man' (an amusing teen horror flick throwback to the fun loving horror movies of the 80's with some serious quite literal monster truck action), some more lovely shocker shorts and Miguel Angel Lamata's 'Una De Zombis' (a hit and miss Spanish undead opus with the much loved Santiago Segura on show) but too be honest I was either sleeping or outside on the street hanging out and chatting with folk (a big 'hi' to buddys Frazer and Joseph from Robber Baron, Rough Cut Eddie and his better half, SGM regular Stephen and all the other folk I met up with) during the bulk of these screenings (slowly sobering up in the overnight fresh air watching the human debris of the early Sunday morning). Then I nipped back to my hotel for a quick shower ahead of the early hours screening of the greatness that is 'Bubba Ho Tep' - now I know this had screened last year at the festival and indeed I had already seen it…but that still wasn't going to stop me from indulging once again in this delightful little genre gem. The UK Anchor Bay DVD special edition will be out anytime now so make sure to pick it up!
The best part of Sunday's proceedings was never going to be a goer for me from the offset…the films screening that afternoon were described with such terms as 'dreamlike' and 'hallucinatory'…words that usually say 'sleep' and subliminally act like an instruction to me so I spent the bulk of Sunday resting and recuperating ahead of the final evenings proceedings.
Not a good start was the short journey up to the Filmhouse from my hotel when two passing local pissed up neds decided they wanted to 'square up' with me, needless to say I wasn't about to entertain their advances and showed them that a sober guy can move quicker than a couple of pissed idiots clutching at their chips (and not just the one on their shoulders)…ahh the lighter fun side of big city living! I did thankfully make it into the Filmhouse in one piece for the screening of Takashi Miike's latest inevitable headfuck…just time to be reassured (as ever at the bar) that I had not missed anything monumental at the earlier screenings and indulge in some lively discussion with Harvey and Mikel on the merits of Miike's output then it was up into the main theatre to kick back with 'Gozu'.
Takashi Miike is a man that like his Manga comic contemparies doesn't know the meaning of the word excessive and has a work rate that exceeds the wildest dreams of the Hollywood machine. This is a man who could easily churn out a dozen or so movies a year and still maintain a level of quality and creativeness that surpass what any contempary could dream of.
The problem though I find with his work after seeing so many of his movies over such a short period of time is that you start to see a repetitiveness in his works and notice that the mix of good and bad comes in waves. For every five amiable but low key straight yakuza flicks (Ley Lines, Rainy Dog et al) there comes a small number of films with a fucked edge (Visitor Q, Ichi and Katakuris) that keeps you grinning in perverted glee, 'Gozu' though is an example of a film that lies somewhere in the middle. Following the usual yakuza template (warped gangsters, hot babes and dark black humour) 'Gozu' makes for solid viewing that has some moments of prime deranged pleasure (including some fun that Brian Yuzna would be amused by) making for some fine Sunday night viewing and most definitely not for those with a weak stomach or level headed sensibilities.
The final film of the festival was Tobe Hooper's 'Toolbox Murders' and to be honest I was more than wary of any remake of a movie that I felt was a cinematic sleeping pill in the first place (and my feelings about remakes in general are less than favourable as often the case should be 'if its not broken then don't go try fix it'). Thankfully, this film is a remake in name only and Hooper's 'vision' of the Toolbox Murders is a completely different horror beast altogether!
Angela Betis (who you will remember from the excellent 'May' which screened at the festival last year) stars as Nell, who is having problems settling into her lovely new deco apartment home. Are her feelings of foreboding misguided or is there a dark and horrifying secret behind the walls of her new abode? I love Hooper's 'Toolbox Murders', more so as it shattered any negative preconceptions I had before seeing the movie. Rather than the hokum stalk and slash flick remake I expected I found 'Toolbox Murders' to be a sharp and exciting genre movie very much reminiscent of the sort of film that the Italian greats made back in the 70's and 80's. In fact, 'Toolbox Murders' is everything Argento's 'Il Cartiao' wasn't and some…Argento take note (this could easily have been so easily modified to become a Three Mothers spin off…and a damn good one at that!) A solid and thoroughly entertaining horror movie and a great way to round off another truly excellent 'Dead by Dawn' festival.
And with the small hours of Monday morning fast approaching rather than party with the masses till the sun came up I opted to grab some scampi from a local eaterie and kick back in bed with some painkillers (the sciatica was kicking in again) so the early train journey home a few hours later would be a pleasant one.
As for the festival weekend as a whole? It's still one of the best value events around and festival director Adele can be proud of the exemplary work she does bringing the event together each year for us all (and lest we forget to give thanks also to associate director James and all the hard working team at the Filmhouse throughout the festival too with a big hello to top geezers Adam and Charlie up on loan from Leeds; stars one and all) - for suffering and entertaining us we thank you…and see you next year!
Photos by Frazer Lee, John Cook and individual holders.