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Sometimes, dead is better
A report from the 10th anniversary of the Edinburgh "Dead By Dawn" horror film festival
Simon Wilkinson stayed up all weekend long to get the full scoop on this latest instalment of Edinburgh's ever-entertaining horror fest...
The return of the Dead (By Dawn)
Celebrating its 10th anniversary over the weekend of 25-27 April, 2003, the "Dead By Dawn" Horror Film Festival once again dominated the Edinburgh Filmhouse. In offering up a combination of contemporary classics and groundbreaking fresh features, viewers came well prepared to take on the 13 features and 13 shorts over an intense three-day period. Nicely structured with the Saturday all-nighter sandwiched between insightful Q&A sessions on the Friday and Sunday, the festival provided low-budget horror and fantasy filmmakers from around the world with the opportunity to introduce their films to the very audiences for whom they were made.
Opening 2003's festival with a screening of Wes Craven's 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, guest of honour and genre veteran Robert Englund (aka Freddy Krueger) fondly introduced the film "in the style of William Castle" and provided fans with an all-too-rare opportunity to enjoy the first of the 13 pictures as they were intended to be seen: late at night and with an appreciative crowd on hand. Returning to the stage to take questions from the audience in the movie's wake, Englund candidly discussed the genre, the franchise and the latest Elm Street feature with genuine insight, whilst also providing amusing anecdotes to accompany the first film and later graciously enduring well over two hours of signing autographs, artistry and wooden boards (!) in the bar.
Following the rapturous reception of last year's closing film, Dog Soldiers (2002), Sunday's special guests producer Keith Bell and writer/director Neil Marshall were greeted with a hero's welcome as pioneers of homegrown horror. In detailing the extended five-year pre-production of the film—due in part to a combination of industrial snobbery and accusations of being overly commercial, the filmmakers expressed their shock at the overwhelmingly positive critical reception and also their disappointment at the movie's handling and distribution (read non-theatrical) in the United States. Their affection for the genre remains undisputed, however, as confirmed by their commitment to filming the tentatively titled The Dark later this year—a feature loosely promoted as being about "five women in a cave."
However vague a pitch this must have initially seemed, comparisons could indeed be made here to another genre classic featuring five people in a deserted woodland cabin. Filmed on an impossibly low budget and championed by no less a horror authority than Stephen King, The Evil Dead (1981) sprang forth from the unholy trinity of director Sam Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and rising star Bruce Campbell. Indeed, Campbell was initially approached to be the guest of honour at this year's festival; this original intention on the parts of the organisers was at least partially reflected in the line-up and epitomised by the presence of a toweringly impressive Ash (Campbell) figure that loitered at the back of the cinema throughout the weekend. Presented in its full-screen, uncut glory, Raimi's original foray into Deadite territory has lost none of its power to shock nor any of its ability to impress even the most jaded of viewers.
Graduating to the role of producer on the back of his Evil Dead fame and experience, Campbell actively supported actor, writer and director Michael Kallio's debut Hatred of a Minute (2001), whose title is derived from Poe's poetry, and which features The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's (1974) original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen as an abusive and alcoholic stepfather. Self-indulgent and inaccessible, the film ponders the cyclical nature of domestic violence and attempts to chart one man's descent into madness following the death of his mother and subsequent resurrection as a self-appointed angel of mercy to battered women everywhere. Though ultimately disappointing, Hatred of a Minute does manage to address its subject matter appropriately, and explores the ambivalence of its central character through representative incarnations of good and evil and who apparently encroach upon his ability to exercise free will.
To close this year's Dead By Dawn, Festival Director Adele Hartley was both fortunate and persistent enough to secure a screening of Don (Phantasm ) Coscarelli's Bubba Ho-Tep (2003), starring Ossie Davis as a man convinced he is JFK despite his skin colour, and the one and only Bruce Campbell as a decrepit and incapacitated Elvis Presley. Based on a short story by Joe R Lansdale, the film presents these two retirement-home residents as the only ones capable of rebelling against a predatory "soul-sucking" mummy. Revelling in surreal Americana and fully exploiting the comic potential of such an outlandish concept, this star-studded Cocoon update with a dark side wears its heart on its sleeve and tenderly examines the redemptive value of tackling the dying and undead to full and frequently hilarious effect.
Old and new blood
From soul-suckers to bloodsuckers, Dead By Dawn sought to satisfy the appetites of all festivalgoers through its inclusion of vampire films old and new. Wisely spliced together as a complementary double bill, the innovative Chilean independent film Sangre eterna (2002), directed by Jorge Olguín, played prior to a screening of a recently restored print of Kathryn Bigelow's classic Near Dark (1987). Having achieved near-classic status within cinematic vampire lore, Near Dark draws upon such diverse genres as the western, the road movie and elements of tragic romance in its examination of what happens when two altogether different families collide.
Meanwhile, Sangre eterna explores the blurred line between myth and reality through the lifestyles and actions of its central characters. Immersed in both Goth and gaming culture and focusing on these sub-cultures' intense fascination with vampirism, this contemporary take on a well-worn tale of seduction and execution eschews generic convention whilst embracing the rubber reality aesthetic of such pictures as Phantasm and Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street to produce a slightly overlong movie that nevertheless feels remarkably fresh in today's over-exposed marketplace.
Heralding from Germany, the USA and Asia, the following three features are prime examples of the potential extremities inherent within any sub-genre and highlight the way in which they can be adopted and adapted by individual filmmakers to explore particular themes and issues. Although quite unrelated to Heidi the Hippo's balladic number in Meet the Feebles (1989), the unusually titled Garden of Love (2003) does adopt a similar approach in both its fondness for outrageous gore and a plethora of over-the-top performances similar to Peter Jackson's Bad Taste (1987) and Brain Dead (1992). Enmeshed within a familiar and somewhat formulaic tale of conspiracies, comas, killers and cults, German Goremeister Olaf Ittenbach's feature is nevertheless a revelation that, from its opening massacre, never fails to entertain or amuse and left several audience members howling at its absurdity and ability to take its premise and dialogue that one step beyond.
Saturday's opening film, Soft for Digging (2001), on the other hand could not be further removed from the likes of Jackson or Ittenbach in pursuing an alternative approach to pacing, performance and the presentation of its own naturalistic horrors through sound, editing and attention to detail. Produced as an undergraduate thesis film for USD 6000, and naturally evoking comparisons with such films as The Blair Witch Project (1999) because of its deserted woodland setting, Soft for Digging shrewdly concentrates on atmosphere and expectation whilst eliciting audience identification with its elderly protagonist. Through the use of definitive chapter breaks and structured storytelling, this eerie tale of isolation, investigation and intrigue was a worthy addition to the festival programme and marked writer/director JT Petty as one to watch in the future.
The final of the three supernatural tales on offer was the appropriately titled Asian anthology Thr3e (2002), in which such distinctive directors as Ji-Woon Kim, Nonzee Nimibutr and Peter Chan each explore the superstitions, traditions and contemporary turmoils of their disparate societies through the microcosm of the family. Invested with a predisposition towards the afterlife and the culturally cinematic possibilities that the medium affords, this trilogy scales the shocking heights of Memories (whose opening moments delivered one of the most successful jolts of the festival), explores the indescribable boundaries of true love and tragedy in Going Home and exploits our universal fascination and fear of supposedly inanimate puppets in The Wheel.
When there's no more room in Hell...
From the Chilean chills of Sangre eterna to the gore-soaked Garden of Love, the murderous motifs of blood, gore and gratuitous violence continue to transcend each and every horror film sub-genre, perhaps none more so than in the case of the zombie movie. Arguably the dominant form of generic expression at this year's festival, the zombie film, in all its various incarnations, has once again resurrected itself within the international horror marketplace and certainly in the minds of filmmakers. Perhaps inspired and supported by the relatively recent mainstream success of such apocalyptic horrors as Resident Evil and 28 Days Later (both 2002), this latest slew of international low-budget creature features not only hearkens back to Romero's classic trilogy but also calls to mind aspects of John Russo's uneven Romero spin-off, Return of the Living Dead (1984).
A sequel to Plaga zombie, the 1997 Argentinean cult movie by Pablo Parés and Hernán Sáez, Plaga zombie: Zona mutante (2001) was made by the same directors for double the budget (an alleged jump from USD 500 to 1000!) and sees the three heroes from the first film take on an isolated town full of FBI-tested zombies. Played out akin to the average Resident Evil computer game, in which the focus is the search for a map that will provide the only realistic means for escape, Plaga zombie: Zona mutante, like many independent low-budget features, strives to succeed on the basis of both imitation of theme and originality in execution, emphasising all the time its sheer energy and innovation. Firmly situated within the graveyard shift of the festival's infamous all-nighter, the film succeeded in grabbing the audience's attention—at one point even resorting to an irresistibly catchy, impromptu musical number placed amidst the relentless action.
Dead By Dawn's second sequel of the weekend occupied the much-coveted witching hour and signalled the long overdue return of HP Lovecraft's Herbert West: Re-Animator in the eagerly anticipated third film instalment, Beyond Re-Animator (2003). Proving that the devil does indeed have all the best lines, Jeffrey Coombs reprises his role as West and by all accounts steals the show; he even manages to outshine the impressively outrageous special make-up effects by Society's (1989) Screaming Mad George.
This being Re-animator producer/director Brian Yuzna's second stab at the franchise following 1990's Bride of Re-Animator, the direction, tone and content here is much more assured (perhaps a result of the director's increased experience and ability to deviate a little bit more from the established formula of the first film). By offering audiences a successful combination of generic convention and innovation, Yuzna develops the themes of his other third instalment, Return of the Living Dead Part 3 (1993), whilst also revitalising this sequel in terms of its style, structure and transparently Spanish relocation and cast for contemporary audiences.
As one of the Fantastic Factory's flagship features, Beyond Re-Animator incorporates elements from such diverse films as Street Trash (1986), Natural Born Killers (1994) and Braindead (1992), whilst referencing previous instalments and such classics as The Exorcist (1973) before setting itself up for still another sequel. Never afraid to say goodbye on a tragic high, the franchise firmly establishes a new nemesis and a fall guy for West and his increasingly convoluted experiments. However, in order to fully appreciate the lengths to which Yuzna has gone in scaling new heights of horror/comedy I must recommend remaining in your seats for the end-credits sequence, in which you will witness a horror grudge match as compelling as that found in Freddy vs Jason (2003).
With a title that pretty much sets the tone, Mucha sangre (2002)—which translates to A Lot of Blood—is pure exploitation in its preoccupation with blood, bodily fluids and buggery as the only means by which Paul Naschy can transmit his men-only virus. With good taste, political correctness and plot coherence dispatched without delay, director Pepe de las Heras piles on the comedy and carnage at an alarming rate until audiences are invariably swept away by the sheer energy and audaciousness of the material, thereby begging the question How far is too far? With Mucha sangre screened as the successful finale to the festival's all-nighter, that very question was to be answered later that day.
The Wizards of Oz
Touted by many as the most worthy successor to Romero's Dead trilogy and kept under wraps until closing night, the final zombie feature Undead (2002) was the ambitious result of writer, producer, director brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, and emerged as one of the biggest hits of the festival. Incorporating classic horror, sci-fi, action and western splatter set pieces with sparkling dialogue and raw characterisation, Undead takes the misconceptions and misunderstandings of the characters and audiences in its stride. Indeed, this only serves to produce a third act that shatters any expectations or attitudes we—or they—might have, instead presenting some truly outstanding twists and turns without ever betraying its inspiration and source material.
Received to sporadic rounds of applause, laughter and cheers in admiration and appreciation throughout, Undead is just one film among the many on display at the festival that truly deserves a decent (once again read: theatrical) release. If afforded such an opportunity, Undead would no doubt serve to eclipse the half-hearted genre efforts currently bestowed upon us by the major studios and perhaps even inspire them to abandon (at least somewhat) the mediocrity of current mainstream releases.
A friend in need...
For many attendees, though—myself included—the real gem of this year's festival was Lucky McKee's May (2002), in which Tim Burton collides with Tobe Hooper and John Waters to produce a startlingly sentimental successor to Edward Scissorhands (1990). Bolstered by outstanding performances from lead Angela Bettis and such supporting players as Jeremy Sisto and Anna Faris, this genuinely touching and tragic horror movie takes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein myth to suburbia in a more affectionate and appealing way than Frank Henenlotter's camp classic Frankenhooker (1990), offering a portrait of one young woman's wish to overcome her isolation and inexperience. As the film progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that May's (Bettis) intense shyness and inability to interact with those around her on an equal footing will play an integral part in her inevitable retreat into darkness.
Only after enduring their slings and arrows, and repeatedly facing rejection and recriminations from those she implicitly trusts, does May embark upon a dramatic course of action that she believes will finally see her dream fulfilled. It is May's desire to be noticed, to be seen, and hopefully understood that is taken to its logical extreme and ultimately epitomised by both her unflinching commitment to the cause and tragic final sacrifice. As with Undead, to deny this original, inventive and even amusing film a worthy release would be detrimental to the mainstream audiences who are only now beginning to discover such similar classics as Donnie Darko (2001) since May's honest and confrontational depiction of fear, friendship and dismemberment is one that is at once universally recognisable and hopefully understood.
As had happened with the combining of impressive short zombie-themed animations of Gone Bad Parts I and II with Undead, May was appropriately paired with the Burton-esque short film Evelyn: The Cutest Evil Dead Girl (2002). Exploring similar themes to May and serving as an excellent precursor to it, Evelyn is another social outcast who desperately craves interaction and acceptance despite being met with laughter, rejection and finally horror from the local clique.
Similarities to Michael Lehman's classic black comedy/social commentary Heathers (1988) are undeniable but Peyton's eight minute short adopts a more fantastic approach with a Vincent Price-esque voice-over to heighten the fairly tale aspects of a story which sees Evelyn finally united with her soul (less) mate Devin with whom she can collude to torment the trio of teenage girls who had treated them both so badly. The third short screened out of competition over the weekend was Steven Shiel's Cry (2002) which, with its Evil Dead overtones and harrowing depiction of one woman's survival in a locked room, is one of the many shorts screened at the festival that would be deserving of being developed to feature length.
The cutting edge
None of the additional ten shorts playing as part of the Cutting Edge competition were without merit, and many proved deserving of their initial selection on the basis of their effectiveness, imagery and ability to shock, scare or even amuse. Despite the success of such satiric anti-American black comedies as Dialing the Devil and the American Bickman Burger and the nightmarish scenarios of The Entombed, Red Lines (with Doug Bradley) and Repossessed (with Jo Beth Williams and Juliet Landau), audiences ultimately favoured the more outrageously comedic shorts (Eduardo Rodriguez's Daughter was the only truly fear-based short to make it into the audience's top three). And so, whilst the indescribable Paradisiaque with its unexpectedly amusing conclusion took second place, it was Ireland's James Cotter who finally came out on top with the hilariously self-referential zombie parody Strangers in the Night.
After ten years of murder, mayhem and many a sleepless night, this year's Dead By Dawn festival once again built upon its previous success by not only nurturing new fans but also welcoming back those who had been a part of it from the start. As a benchmark of where the horror film genre might be heading, Dead By Dawn's prime conspirators drew a range cinematic trends and influences from zombie films and monster movies to such established directors as Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, David Cronenberg and Sam Raimi—without whom many of these features would never have made it to the screen.
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