2009 has been quite a year for the horror and fantasy film fan, in one aspect we have seen the mainstreaming of the genre once again and depending on how you look at it that's either a good or a bad thing. Inevitably the old school horror fan will be fighting the urge to unleash some inner hidden snobbery at the bile rising from such fare as the endless run of insipid remakes (such as the soulless Friday the 13th) or brashly marketed unscary (not so) shockers such as Paranormal Activity…but on the other hand if you're somewhat more forgiving and were able to switch the brain into lobotomy mode then you would have been able to appreciate the thought that there's nothing more retro-exciting than sitting in a packed multiplex with your 3D glasses on enjoying the witless wonder of three dimensional boobies and gore in My Bloody Valentine 3D where half the fun comes from the reactions of the paying punters around you (perhaps as much 'event cinema' as such similar fare as James Cameron's 'Avatar' I don't doubt).
Whilst, more so in the grip of a financial recession, the wealth and prosperity of horror cinema seems to have done well in 2009 this has led to some welcome (albeit mixed emotion) offshoots - one in particular being the rise of the Horror Film Festival in the UK. In previous years the genre fan could easily have counted the number of horror specific events on one hand, but of late that number has grown dramatically which is very welcome of course but comes with the unfortunate side effect of events (especially around Halloween) racked up side by side competing not only for films to screen but paying customers to attend those events also (leading sadly to poor ticket sales and low attendee numbers). Perhaps a more structured open communication between organisers of the UK Horror Festival network would lead to a more balanced festival calendar throughout the year (and hey, a less aggressive approach to film booking) but sadly until the more PR market led domineering tactics by certain commercially aggressive festivals are replaced by the (sadly dwindling) supportive horror 'community' approach then I can only foresee an unwelcome 'kill or be killed' crushing of the newer genre events, which of course would be tragic.
Two events, thankfully, that continue to actively support and promote independent genre cinema and the 'community' film fan are the long running DEAD BY DAWN Horror Festival and the somewhat more mainstream (but equally independent friendly) EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL. You'd have been hard pushed to miss the fact that 2009 was a big year for Scotland with the high profile celebration of all things Scottish with the Homecoming Scotland campaign, well it's not just haggis hunting and caber tossing but a very wide and diverse cultural celebration of what Scotland has to offer and perhaps not surprisingly when it comes to horror cinema it didn't disappoint either with both festivals this year showcasing some of the finest genre film premieres, cult classics and new filmmaker shorts of 2009 including highlights such as these…TONY
Directed by Gerard Johnson
Have you ever met or known someone that's the veritable loner? Long term unemployed with little to no social skills, surrounded by a society that's moved on whilst their still trapped lost in their forgotten world of yesteryear? Welcome to the world of Tony - a tragic soul who has been signing on at the dole office most of his grown years, living out his lonely life at home watching his old VHS videos of exploitation movies and occasionally reaching out into the outside world of the local community trying feebly to interact with the local drug dealers, prostitutes and low life that inhabit the area. Played with chilling perfection Peter Ferdinando delivers an exemplary fully believable performance as lead loner Tony, a performance that becomes more impressive throughout as poor Tony's character failings in human interaction slide into hellish horror as he finds murder a more comfortable solution to his inadequacies. Directed by Gerard Johnson, 'Tony' is a very gratifying chiller on many levels - for the more direct horror fan there is the dark and violent serial killer aspect (for me, 'Tony' plays very much like a modern Brit version of Joe Spinell's Maniac) whilst psychologically the film also opens you to challenging questions around the lost folk of society, those that the system and ourselves have chosen to forget leaving them with no skills, productively nor social, to have any value in developing themselves. A dark and chilling social shocker.WHITE LIGHTNIN'
Directed by Dominic Murphy
I must admit, I never thought a film about Appalachian mountain dancing would figure high on my genre movies of 2009 but director Dominic Murphy took me completely by surprise with this horrifically psychotic hoedown based very loosely on the life of hillbilly high speed shoe shuffler Jesco White (played here in award winning fashion by Edward Hogg). Basically. The film follows the ever decreasingly troubled life of Jesco as he struggles with his own inner demons (enhanced by parents that truly believe he is inhabited by Satan doesn't help) through a life of solvent, drug and alcohol abuse. Things aren't helped when his father, a local legend for his hillbilly tap skills, is brutally murdered by local hicks and Jesco inherits his fathers shoes and goes on the road with his new found love Cilla (played by the always impressive Carrie Fisher) as his longstanding short fuse of bloody violence soon makes an appearance leading to a mouth watering brutally violent finale. White Lightnin' is a deliriously entertaining film that should appease most fans of darker than thou genre cinema. Backed with a stunning soundtrack and filled with some delightfully black comedy and arterial eye candy White Lightnin' is one of the surprise treats of 2009.BLACK DYNAMITE
Directed by Scott Sanders
Having spent much of my younger informative years digesting hour after hour of trashy kung fu and blaxploitation movies on VHS video back in the early 1980's I often pine for those days of carefree action flicks, when movies didn't know what political correctness was nor had any moral code of what were acceptable levels of absurd violence. Thankfully I'm clearly not alone with that forbidden love as evident with Scott Sanders and Michael Jai White's truly stunning tribute to all things kung fu and blaxploitation 'Black Dynamite'. Set in the 1970's the film follows ex-nam vet renegade vigilante Black Dynamite (played brilliantly by co-writer White) as he seeks retribution for the murder of his little brother by The Man before heading on a campaign of destruction against the drug dealers and criminal warlords who are not only feeding the residents of the local orphanages with hard drugs but plan to (ahem) incapacitate the entire male black community through even more underhand tactics. Cue reams of outrageous kung fu action and wall to wall belly laughs that come so hard and fast you'll possible wet yourself (I know I was in tears laughing so hard throughout). Switch your brain off and enjoy one of the out and out funniest films in years - an essential film for any fans of the blaxploitation genre.PONTYPOOL
Directed by Bruce McDonald
It has to be said, the feeling of late has been that the zombie movie genre has not only been bled dry but has got so tiresome it just doesn't have brains left to be munched upon…that was until director Bruce McDonald teamed up with writer Tony Burgess to revisit his book 'Pontypool'. Bringing a refreshingly exciting new edge to the apocalyptic dead scenario, 'Pontypool' starts with a reassuring warmth with small town DJ Grant Mazzy delivering his early morning radio broadcast to the local community of Pontypool were news doesn't get more intense that a neighbours cat going missing, until today that is. 'Pontypool' revels in its insular slow burning atmosphere as the films direction starts to take a chilling change in pace as all outside the radio station in the local community seems to go darkly awry and as the terror and confusion builds into an apocalyptic finale you as viewer have been brought along on one of the most nerve shredding fear rides of 2009. What makes 'Pontypool' doubly outstanding is not just the faultless performances of the lead cast (Stephen McHattie is at his career best as Grant Mazzy and his female counterparts enhance the atmosphere of terror no end) it is the delicious spin on the zombie genre that the plot takes which, for me, makes 'Pontypool' the most exciting and original zombie film since Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead' - essential viewing.LES DENTS DE LA NUIT
Directed by Stephen Cafiero and Vincent Lobelle
There's no avoiding the fact that vampires are very much back in vogue these days, sadly though their revival is very much in the form of a sterile mainstream populist vampire, the straight faced 'beautiful' vampire marketed to appeal to overtly romantic young goth girls and their older mother types who are trying to relive some form of long lost romanticism of their youth. The vampire these days are the acceptable face of blood sucking thanks to the likes of TV's True Blood and big buck Hollywood heartthrob fare such as the Twilight series so what the vampire movie really needs is for someone to dig their fangs into the genre and make it fun once again. So we have to give thanks to newcomer directors Stephen Cafiero and Vincent Lobelle for producing 'Les Dents de la Nuit' and making the genre entertaining (albeit frothly so) once again. The film follows three party hard young adults (love failure Alice, party animal Sam and work horse Prune) as they manage to cadge their way into one of the most exclusive parties of the year but on arriving they note that there are two entrances and their curiosity is peaked wondering what's going on through the VIP entrance but that's something that they'll soon wish they didn't want to know as they find themselves and the other partygoers are in fact the main course of the menu at this special blood suckers gathering. As you can imagine, plot intricacies are not at the fore in such a movie as this rather (and welcomingly so) 'Les Dents de la Nuit' has it's fang punctured tongue firmly in its cheek throughout and plays the movie strictly for laughs in this fun loving horror romp. Tragically missed from most horror fans radars in 2009, this old school horror comedy gem is well worth further inspection (though just mind keep some garlic to hand).HOME MOVIE
Directed by Christopher Denham
In the last year or two we have seen a glut of horror movies about evil children, some have worked whilst others have just left viewers cold so it was great to see debut writer/director Christopher Denham approach this particular niche genre with little to no budget, a small ensemble cast and yet deliver one of the scariest films of the year. As per the films title, the film is presented in true home movie style as though shot by the participants themselves - here being the small town family of Lutheran minister David Poe (who will be instantly recognisable by fans of the TV show Heroes as Nathan Petrelli), his wife (and erstwhile psychiatrist) Clare and their 10 year old twin children Emily and Jack. From the outset of the film we see what seems to be any regular healthy small family, playing and getting along with only the occasional sign of misrule by the siblings as would be expected in reality. But as the plot progresses we soon realise that Emily and Jack are not the little darlings their parents thought they should have been, far from it in fact as writer/director Denham swiftly delivers a chilling warning to all parents to keep a closer eye on their little ones in case they too have the potential to become the little horrors that Jack and Emily are soon seen to be. 'Home Movie' does a great turn at pushing the viewers emotions to their highest level, feelings of anger and despair are inevitable in watching the two evil siblings going about their business and along with writer/director Denham's clear filmmaking abilities kudos should also be given to the young leads real life twins Amber and Austin Williams for the stunning delivery in their roles. 'Home Movie' is one of the sleeper terror treats of the year.
Interestingly, it's good to see vintage horror classics are still getting due grace and appreciation from the genre community as was evident at the EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL this year where Roger Corman was guest of honour and big screen outings of many of his Vincent Price/Poe horror classics (House of Usher, Masque of Red Death, Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, Tomb of Ligeia) were all met with universal praise from those attending screenings but for myself perhaps the highlight of my film calendar for 2009 was also the product of some selfish indulgence. You see most years at the DEAD BY DAWN Horror Festival director Adele Hartley (a hero to all), perhaps questionably, indulges in listening to my input for elements of the festival programming. Over the years this has led to some fine indulgent classics hitting the big screen at the event such as Hitchcock's FRENZY and Ealing Studios 1945 classic anthology shocker DEAD OF NIGHT. This year though my persistent nagging won me through with a film by a filmmaker that welcomingly is still amongst the living (sadly Hitchcock is no longer with us or else we would have had him up at the festival by now) so my own film moment of the year has to be the rare big screen appearance of Fred Dekker's horror comedy classic NIGHT OF THE CREEPS…NIGHT OF THE CREEPS
Directed by Fred Dekker
1986. It's Pledge Week and shy dweeb Chris Romero and his wisecracking disabled pal 'J.C.' Hooper are cruising the various frat houses when Chris spots (and instantly falls head over heels for) sorority girl Cindy Cronenberg. In true Animal House nerd-movie-style our hapless geeks reckon the only way to get Chris nearer the girl of his dreams is to try and pledge to the Beta House fraternity. Of course it's home to the hardiest of bullish jocks and when their initiation ceremony plans go horribly wrong (a failed attempt to steal a corpse from the college morgue, "at least we don't have to have sex with a farm animal") the laughs and gore come thick and fast in this comedy splatter zombie gem.
Part 1950's sci-fi B movie, part 1980's teen frat house comedy and homage to all things horror, Fred Dekker's NIGHT OF THE CREEPS is a true sleeper horror comedy classic and one very much deserved of its very welcome recent revival on DVD, Blu-Ray and festival screenings.
On paper, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS could very well look to be a catalogue of groan-worthy plagiaristic stereotypical 1980's Z-Grade fodder. Sure, writer/director Dekker named most of the lead characters, as a wink to genre fans, after many of the fields favourite directors - Landis, Raimi, Romero but that doesn't justify why the film was often overlooked on its original release. Happily on closer inspection (some 23 years on) you'll soon find that NIGHT OF THE CREEPS is in fact a loving and well crafted tribute to our beloved genre that pleases no end.
Fred Dekker's script is both enthralling and fun with some great character development; geek double team Romero and Hooper's dialogue is up there with the best of John 'Breakfast Club' Hughes work pre-dating the whole 'bromance' concept by some years but it's Tom Atkins performance as embittered angry cop Detective Ray Cameron that truly steals the show. Every time he opens his mouth another piece of verbal cinematic gold is thrown onto the screen.
Essentially though, and perhaps most importantly for all die-hard horror fans, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS delivers from the word go with pure genre entertainment and enough blood, gore and chuckles to keep even the most hardened of horror fans sated (and keep a close eye onscreen as even genre legend Dick Miller makes a cameo appearance). As Detective Cameron would say, "thrill me." And as a welcome personal aside, I'd just like to note that Fred is one of the nicest down to earth filmmakers (and passionate film fans) I've had the pleasure of chewing the fat with.Short Shocks/The Future Stars of Horror
So, all said and done, I've looked at some of the highlights of my own year of horror but what of the years ahead, what and who should we be keeping a close eye on for our future frights? Well, a good way of gauging just that doesn't in fact need the use of a crystal ball rather a respectful look at the short films of tomorrow's fear filmmakers. Some of the incoming shining stars include…
Liz Adams - writer/director of the brutal 'Side Effect'. A terrifying trip into the darker side of drugs and babysitting that will horrify and shock even the hardiest of horror fans. Adams is a genuine talent that is definitely worth keeping an eye out for.
Sky Soleil - writer/director of the sumptuous retro horror treat 'How My Dad Killed Dracula' in which four trick or treaters argue over their disbelief that one of their dad's actually killed Dracula and buried him in their backyard…until dad picks up a spade to prove it…
Andres and Diego Meza-Valdes - the incredibly talented sibling writer/directors of the brutal shocker 'The Room', a chilling highly original spin on the werewolf genre that adds new levels of fear that films like Ginger Snaps et all failed to deliver. With the Meza-Valdes Brothers the future of horror is in safe hands.
Steve Callen - newcomer writer/director of the hilariously dark shocker 'You Better Watch Out' where poor old Santa Claus gets more than he bargained for from two disgruntled kidnappers who decide to repay him for years of disappointment over the festive season. Callen is a great scriptwriter with a keen eye to delivering quality dark entertainment.
Joe Avella - director of spoof movie showreel 'Wheelchair Werewolf', which relentlessly hits all the funny buttons (well come on, it's about a wheelchair bound werewolf dammit) and in turn displays a filmmaker who knows how to connect with his audience and can deliver short sharp chuckles with fine pacing.
Richard Gale - writer/director of shorts 'Criticized' and 'The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon'. After a mixed response to his early career debut full length features, Gale is back in fine form with two very differing short films; the chillingly violent warning to all film critics 'Criticized' and the painfully torturously funny 'The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon' making him yet another filmmaker to keep an eye (and spoon) out for.
Ryan Spindell - writer/director of the stunning shocker 'Kirksdale'. Set in 1960's deep south America, this shock classic opens with a tragic young teenage girl being forced into the local sanatorium Kirksdale but on arrival it's apparent that in fact the inhabitant lunatics are the ones running the asylum and not all of them are friendly. A real gem of a horror movie, 'Kirksdale' is one of the standout films of recent years and is the perfect calling card for writer/director Spindell's future prospects.
Thanks to all for making 2009 a good one and here's to even bloodier and fear filled 2010!
Very special thanks to Adele at DEAD BY DAWN and all the hard working team at the EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL.