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Edinburgh Dead by Dawn Festival 2017 (20-23 April in Filmhouse Cinema) review

It’s Edinburgh’s annual horror film festival, held over a spring weekend in the Filmhouse cinema every year since 1993. It is run by Adele Hartley. Below is my coverage of the festival and reviews of the films in its line-up that I did manage to get to see. As part of the festival there are several runs of shorts, of which I list the highlights.

Thursday

The Evil Within (2017)


Frederick Koehler plays Dennis, a retarded adolescent who lives with an older brother named John (Sean Patrick Flanery), who acts as his custodian. Dennis keeps having horrific dreams where he is haunted by a mysterious, gaunt-looking creature (played by Michael Berryman of The Hills Have Eyes fame). John, who is redecorating the house with a view to selling it, puts a huge mirror in Dennis’s room, despite the latter protesting that mirrors scare him. We soon find out why: when he peers into it he sees a twisted and manipulative alter ego staring right back at him. This alter ego persuades Dennis that the only way to become “normal” again is to kill - firstly animals, and then humans. With the aid of a number of misappropriated tapes on taxidermy, Dennis starts making something in the basement…

The Evil Within’s production history is, to say the least, interesting. It was written and directed by Andrew Getty, grandson of J. Paul, who founded the Getty Oil Company. He started filming in 2002 but the picture wasn’t finished until 2017, two years after he died a bankrupt crystal meth addict. During its final stages it was completed by producer Michael Luceri.

The results are certainly intriguing and often visually imaginative, with highlights including a crazy dream sequence at the beginning and an equally whacked-out stop-motion finale. There are some effective shots involving mirrors, some suspenseful stalk-and-slash sequences and occasional moments of gore. However, the film doesn’t quite come together as a whole. It’s pretty far fetched that John would leave Dennis alone for such extended periods that he could go on a killing spree, one which incidentally he manages to conduct in broad daylight with nobody noticing until near the film’s end. The tone is also pretty uneasy and tasteless in its exploitation of the mentally ill. It’s a very mixed bag, but worth watching for its visual design.

Phenomena (1985)

Jennifer Connelly plays an American named Jennifer Corvino, the daughter of a famous actor, who enrols at the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls in Switzerland. She is a sleepwalker with a very unusual ability to form a psychic link with insects. The combination of both of these manages to get her embroiled in the exploits of a serial killer who is murdering young women in the region, including two at the academy. She also meets and befriends a Scottish entomologist named Prof. John McGregor (Donald Pleasance) who has lost the use of his legs but is aided by a tamed chimpanzee named Inga.

Phenomena is one of a string of six films Dario Argento made, starting with Deep Red in 1975 and ending with Opera in 1987, that represent the apex of his body of work. While it's not the best of the bunch (that would be the 1977 phantasmagoria of primary-coloured baroque visuals that is Suspiria), it is the most batshit and eclectic. Imagine a crazed mix of giallo, heavy metal music video, superhero flick, fairytale and paean for society’s misunderstood and you have Phenomena.

The plot’s far-fetched (to put it mildly) and there are plentiful lapses in logic. Nonetheless, as usual for his films of this period, Argento deploys a distinctive set of audio and visual motifs to craft a series of heartstopping setpieces. The finale is a particularly jolting shock ride as it reels off a rapid succession of unexpected twists and “did I just see that?” moments. A young Jennifer Connelly also makes for one of the director’s most engaging protagonists.

The version presented here is a 4K restoration courtesy of Arrow Video; it looks absolutely superb.

Friday

Without Name (2016)

Lorcan Finnegan’s Irish folk horror-influenced work features Alan McKenna as Eric, a land surveyor tasked with working on a mysterious tract of woodland by a somewhat shady developer. While there he starts to experience a series of psychologically-jarring occurrences. When he visits a local pub he is told that the previous owner of the cottage where he stayed was driven mad by his wanderings through these woods “without name”. He also befriends a mushroom-popping hippie type living in a caravan in the area named Gus (James Browne).

When Eric’s younger co-worker and mistress, Olivia (Naimh Algar), arrives on the scene, she too experiences a baffling sense of disorientation from this sea of identical-looking trees. Is there some sort of supernatural presence in this place? Is the somewhat strange Gus trying to drive them out of their minds? Or is it simply in their own imaginations?

Without Name looks terrific, with some effective use of shadows and truly ominous tree imagery. The acting is also pretty good. There are some intriguing themes about humankind’s shortsighted encroachment of developed society onto the world of nature, its loss of understanding of the primal forces within, and its terrifying retreat into these forces once this developed society starts to falter. Unfortunately, as a film it never really fleshes its ideas out into a genuinely gripping feature. Eric is a bit of a dullard as a character (both Olivia and Gus are far more interesting), and the risk-filled actions he carries out during the film don’t quite to quite fit in with how he comes across. Not all that much happens either beyond a series of admittedly creepy hallucinations. It’s atmospheric but nothing more.

Lorcan Finnegan’s 2012 short Foxes (shown here before this feature-length film) touches on the same themes and mood equally effectively, but over a fraction of the running time and with hardly any less substance. During the Q & A the director revealed that he is prepping another full-length film; I can only hope he stages something a little more grand in terms of storyline and action next time around.

The Night Watchmen (2017)

A famous clown entertainer gets killed by vampires while on tour in Romania. His body is shipped back to his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland and stored in a warehouse where our main protagonists, a group of night watchmen, are working. While they are (as usual) playing cards, eating donuts, stealing their co-workers’ pizza orders and using their cameras to spy on office hottie Karen (Kara Luiz), their team leader Ken (Ken Arnold) spots some mysterious happenings on their monitors. As he rallies the unenthusiastic troops into action, they soon discover that their colleagues working late have started to catch the vampirism bug.

The Night Watchmen is a rather fun, action-packed horror comedy with likeable characters, plentiful splatter and a good deal of wit. Technically the vampires of the film feel more like a horde of ravenous zombies than the wily, manipulative bloodsuckers that Dracula and company are traditionally portrayed as. It’s also marred a little by some repetitious gags (the fact that these vampires pass wind after they have been staked soon gets old) plus some pretty bad CGI at the end. Even so, this is definitely a livelier and more entertaining film than the previous two new feature-length films exhibited at the festival (The Evil Within and Without Name). It certainly passes by briskly.

The Dead Zone (1983)

This is the first part of a double bill of David Cronenberg-directed films that was shown late on Friday night. I decided to give the second, Scanners, a miss; while a classic, it’s a film that I’ve seen enough times already to give in to the temptation to retire to bed at midnight instead of 2 AM!

The Dead Zone is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel and features Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith, a school teacher who ends up in a coma for five years, having suffered a major car accident. In the time he has been unconscious he has lost both his old job and his old girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams) who has long since given up holding out for him and ended up marrying another man. However, with everything that he has lost he appears to have gained one gift: when he touches the hand of Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom) he has a vivid flashback to an experience that latter had as a young boy during WWII when he was forcibly separated from his mother. Johnny also learns from this flashback that his mother is still alive and well.

As Johnny uses more of his psychic gift, word soon gets around. Amongst those approaching him is Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) who requests his help to locate a serial killer. He also comes into contact with Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), an ambitious politician, and via his “gift” he ends up learning a secret about the man that winds up with him facing a terrifying dilemma.

While directed by David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is one of his least personal films. The coldly distant and clinical style is there, but it isn’t deployed in favour of the director’s usual agenda of human frailties manifesting through gruesome bodily deformations. Instead, it’s more of a straight Stephen King adaptation. The tale has been told in a fairly perfunctory and episodic manner; it feels almost like a TV miniseries trimmed down to a 103-minute cinema release (incidentally, it was remade as an actual TV series almost two decades later). Christopher Walken also seem to be a bit miscast here as he comes across as his usual eccentric, slightly creepy self despite the fact that the character he is playing is, at heart, a very ordinary man getting to grips with very extraordinary powers. Apparently, Bill Murray was Stephen King’s first choice for the role, and would have undoubtedly turned out much stronger in this particular part.

Despite its issues however The Dead Zone is still a decent film with a worthwhile story and some well-handled sequences, in particular the tense finale. The supporting cast are outstanding, especially horror veteran Herbert Lom, who puts in a relatively restrained performance as Johnny’s doctor (albeit his character never takes the usual sinister, Cronenbergian arc that seems to be the usual scenario for medical professionals in his films), and Martin Sheen as a superficially slick but ultimately rather shady politician. Worth seeing but not one of the director’s best.

Saturday

Madhouse (1974)

Vincent Price plays Paul Toombes, an ageing horror star whose trademark screen persona is a character called Dr. Death. It turns out that someone dressed as this fictional character is going around killing a number of people whom the actor has been in contact with, in manners similar to the deaths of various unfortunates in his movies. This co-production between UK horror movie production house Amicus and, on the other side of the pond, low-budget production company American International Pictures, is similar to Theatre of Blood (1973) which featured Price sending up his hammy onscreen persona by playing a Shakespearean actor who takes revenge on the circle of critics who snub him, by killing them in manners inspired by violent incidents in The Bard’s plays. In turn, Theatre of Blood was a variant of the idea underpinning The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) featuring Price taking revenge on a group of doctors who caused the death of his wife on the operating table, by bumping them off in manners inspired by the 10 Plagues of Egypt.

Madhouse is clearly a cut-price effort as the clips from the various films Price’s onscreen character appears in are reused footage from a number of older AIP vehicles for the star, most of them being the Roger Corman-directed Edgar Allen Poe movies. While it does at least take some steps to distinguish itself from the star’s previous, self-parodic “series of murders based around a specific theme” films, it’s neither as stylish as Dr. Phibes nor as witty as Theatre of Blood. The direction by Jim Clark has the occasional atmospheric moment but is wholly perfunctory, and the all-important death scenes seem a little lacking in pizzazz. A pitchfork through the neck, for instance, yields only a tiny drop of blood instead of the spectacular gush that would have given it real impact. Mind you, the filmmakers undoubtedly wanted to avoid running into trouble with the censors.

Even so, the film’s a fair amount of fun; Price’s enthusiastically droll hamming is never less than a delight to watch even in a lesser effort such as this. There’s a fine supporting cast including Peter Cushing as his best friend and ongoing writer of his films, as well as fun cameos by the amazingly sexy Linda Hayden (Blood on Satan’s Claw) and erstwhile British TV personality Michael Parkinson. There’s also a classic (albeit groan-worthy) closing line and a hilarious appearance by some spiders who are obviously rubber toys dangling on strings.

Always Shine (2016)

Kaitlin FitzGerald plays Beth, an actress who makes a living by being typecast in a number of trashily demeaning slasher movies. She goes on holiday to a remote cabin with her best friend, another aspiring actress named Anna (Mackenzie Davis), despite Beth’s boyfriend describing her as being a bit of a bully. Anna is indeed a somewhat short-tempered and embittered character who fails to win even the frankly demeaning parts that her best friend does. Her increasing sense of anger and bitterness causes Beth to become increasingly intimidated by her presence, ultimately causing their relationship to rupture in a startling fashion.

While it’s a rather basic story in outline, Always Shine works extremely well as a study of aggressive female competitiveness over what are frankly rather pitiful scraps offered by the movie industry. However, its the milieu itself that’s less important than the air of psychological brutality that occurs between the two. Mackenzie Davis playing Anna is a fiery, steely presence who could truly stare down the toughest of opponents - but is unable to see that this pushes others out of their comfort zones, thus keeping her fighting a perpetually losing battle in the end. While she sees herself as a warrior against the perception that women should be “in their place”, the film takes enough distance from her to see that her approach, while given clear motivations, isn’t necessarily right. The meekly accepting Beth is a yang to Anna’s yin, lacking the balls to change the status quo, but so modestly inoffensive that she ends up at least getting somewhere. Kaitlin Fitzgerald is convincing as a soft, mousy woman who goes through life mercilessly crushed into a box, caught between the devil of the awful scripts she is sent and the deep blue sea of her overbearing friend.

However, while the film seems to be going down a “former friend turns out to be a psycho” route, it ultimately turns out to be something much more complex as character perceptions are turned on their head in the manner of Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Under the Skin (2013). While the two actresses are the main thing here, the direction manages a few creative touches within the confines of the film’s scale and budget. For instance, two identical shots against a plain white background - one introducing Beth at an audition, the other introducing Anna comprehensively chewing up an apologetic car mechanic for trying to scam her into paying for extra repairs - seek to visually level the playing field in comparing and contrasting these two women.

It’s a fine and original work even if it does get a little too self-consciously bizarre at times, and one of the highlights of this festival.

House (1985)

No, it’s not the acclaimed Hugh Laurie-starring TV series, nor the insane 1977 Japanese psychedelic horror. It’s the 1985 horror comedy directed by Steve Miner and written by Fred Dekker. It’s the first part of Saturday evening’s “Double Dekker” double bill, with The Monster Squad (1987) as its accompanying second feature. I remember enjoying the latter during my younger days but was too tired out by the rest of today’s screenings to stick around to rewatch it.

Roger Cobb (William Katt) is a former Vietnam vet turned writer who moves into a grand old house he inherited from his aunt. Unfortunately he discovers that it is haunted by various spectral apparitions, including that of his aunt - who perished by committing suicide within its walls. He teams up with neighbour Harold (George Wendt) to figure out exactly what’s going on.

House is an example of a milder, more lighthearted strain of horror that came out of America shortly after Joe Dante’s Gremlins was a huge success in 1984, having tapped into a younger adolescent market that would not have been allowed into screenings of the more graphically extreme likes of Friday the 13th or The Burning. It’s really a bit of a mix of The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist and The Evil Dead as it functions as a showcase for a series of creative prosthetics, process effects, stop motion and more representing various otherworldly happenings and undead creatures within the titular house’s four walls. As a horror comedy it’s not terribly funny and not terribly scary. It got a 15 rating from the BBFC back in the British censorship body’s notoriously strict 1980s era, so there’s hardly anything in the way of gore beyond the gruesome appearance of the various creatures Roger encounters.

On the other hand it’s somewhat entertaining in an unpretentious sort of way. It never sits still for any appreciable length of time, even making Roger’s backstory exposition more interesting than expected as it shows some violent flashbacks to his Vietnam days. The creature effects are a bit rubbery at times, but are still enthusiastically macabre enough. The house backdrop itself is a major star as it features some truly eerie-looking artworks. There’s just enough here to keep it interesting, but ultimately it’s more of a comfortingly cheesy nostalgia trip than some multilayered cult classic.

Sunday

Dig Two Graves (2014)

This period horror-drama (written and directed by Hunter Adams) flits back and forth between two different timelines. In the first, taking place in 1947, two law officers, Sheriff Proctor (Danny Goldring) and his deputy Waterhouse (Ted Levine) take a pair of bodies to dump them in a flooded quarry. However the latter, evidently in disagreement with his superior over the course of action leading up to this event, turns the gun on him and tells him “you ain’t the Sheriff no more”. Proctor resigns himself to his fate and hands over his badge. Flash-forward to the second timeline in 1977 and Jacqueline Mather (Samantha Isler) is brought to the edge of the same quarry by her brother Sean, who dares her to dive from a great height into the water below. Sean persuades her to do it by agreeing to hold her hand so that they both jump together. However, when he dashes towards the precipice she lets go of his hand and watches as he drops in. He never resurfaces.

In this 1977 timeline Jacqueline is a friend of Proctor’s son Willie (Gabriel Cain), and protects him from the school bullies. However, one time when she walks home she is accosted in a tunnel by Wyeth (Troy Ruptash), a gypsy leader who tells her that she can bring her brother back if she does one thing: she kills Willie by bringing him to the quarry and pushing him in. She reveals to her grandfather - the now-Sheriff Waterhouse - about the gypsies, resulting in him mounting an investigation. The rest of the film flashes back and forth between 1947 and 1977 as it reveals further details on the background of this story, and explores how the naive Jacqueline wrestles with her dilemma.

Dig Two Graves is a fascinating and unusual film that feels like a more brutal Manchester By The Sea. The evocations of the respective small town 1947 and 1977 settings are finely detailed, sombrely autumnal and atmospheric. Ted Levine gives a fine, seasoned performance a la Kurt Russell in Bone Tomahawk, while Samantha Isler is up to the task of making her character sympathetic even when she is falling for a ruse that, when looked at from outside of her shattered childhood, would seem rather crazy. There’s a kind of mystical feeling imbued in the presence of Wyeth and the gypsy clan that touches on the otherworldly. The story is rewarding when the details fall into place, and for my money this one probably stands as the best feature-length entry in the festival line-up.

Dry Blood (2017)

Brian Barnes (played by Clint Carney, who also wrote the script), a drug addict who tries to deal with his issues by moving to a remote mountain cabin. While there, he starts to experience a range of bizarre and frightening visions.

His situation is complicated further when a local cop (played by Kelton Jones, who also directs) starts to breathe down his neck. When Brian’s well-meaning girlfriend Anna (Jaymie Valentine) visits, he discovers the cop’s sunglasses in the house, and begins to suspect that the latter’s unwelcome snooping is tipping over into outright harassment.

Unfortunately Dry Blood has to be my pick for the weakest of the films I’ve seen at this festival (although some friends have told me that Accidental Exorcist, which I didn’t catch, was worse). The problem is the film’s hallucination-based approach. For this approach to work the various random experiences have to build somewhere worthwhile and be filmed in a manner that draws the viewer in visually. However, neither of these is the case. There’s very little underlying story here, while the cinematography lacks visual artistry and looks all too much like an amateur home camcorder movie.

It’s all slightly redeemed by some surprisingly effective, convincingly nauseating gore near the end. These scenes are actually rather disturbing and would have been better served by being placed into a more compelling overall framework. The final revelations about Brian’s character are shocking, but fail as any kind of dramatic payoff since, up to then, we learn very little of substance about him that might point towards his motivations. Repulsion (1965) did this kind of movie right. This one, however, doesn’t.

The Void (2016)

This Canadian horror, written and directed by the duo of Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, centres on a hospital at night which is surrounded by a group of cultists wearing white robes with black triangular visors, trapping a small group of medical staff and patients, along with a tough security guard named Daniel (Aaron Poole), within. What’s more, a series of gruesome medical experiments are taking place in the facility, resulting in a variety of horrific creatures picking off the confined group one by one.

The Void feels like a “best of” compilation of 1970s and 1980s horror movies. In particular, the feeling of John Carpenter movies such as Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing and Prince of Darkness is evoked, along with the Alien movies, Phantasm, Halloween III and some of fellow Canadian David Cronenberg’s bodily horror classics. However, it’s mostly derivative in a good way as it does recapture a lot of what made those films so memorable in the first place.

The first third focuses mainly on building atmospheric capital from the huge group of white-robed, triangle-faced antagonists who form a frighteningly faceless swarm peering from the verge of darkness outside the confined hospital, and from the various primary-coloured light sources that bathe the building’s interiors. It works rather well, as does the gore-splattered full-on rollercoaster that takes up the later sections of the film. It’s a gruesome audiovisual feast, and one that seems to rely far more on practical FX work than CGI for its myriad of gruesome beings and splattery deaths.

Most of my friends who attended the screening loved this one, proclaiming it to be the highlight of the festival. While I did enjoy it a lot, I do have some reservations. It’s partially because of the blatant derivativeness (even if it is well executed), and partially because it fails in an area where most of the aforementioned films succeeded: characterisation. The characters here are rather bland, lacking in back story and not especially likeable. It’s hard to be overly invested in their fates, and as a result the film is a fun but decidedly shallow barrage of creepy and gory images.

Short Highlights

The Sub (2016)

This one follows a substitute teacher (Carrie Wampler) brought in to take a Spanish class at her local high school. While she is there she discovers that both students and teachers have an obsession with following "The Curriculum". A light comedy horror in the mould of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, The Sub is great fun. It also includes the classic mantra "All Hail The Curriculum”, plus a brief cameo by A Nightmare on Elm Street star Heather Langenkamp.

Foxes (2012)

While Irish director Lorcan Finnegan’s feature-length Without Name felt overstretched, the accompanying short Foxes was close to perfect. It features Marie Ruane and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as a couple struggling with the aftermath of the financial crash as they try desperately to sell their house, a property located in one of the country’s numerous “ghost estates” filled with deserted homes where nature has started to reclaim the gardens. Ellen, the female photographer who brings in the household’s sole income, becomes increasingly fixated with the numerous foxes who roam the estate. It’s atmospheric, chilling, and speaks with a stark honesty about the modern capitalist world.

The Call of Charlie (2016)

A couple who arrange a dinner date for a work colleague named Charlie are dropped in on by two old college friends who haven’t spoken to them for many years. The occasion proves especially awkward since Charlie is a hideous tentacle-faced creature, and when he eats it isn’t pretty. A rather amusing mix of Lovecraft Cthulhu homage and social comedy.

Tuolla Puolen aka Reunion (2015)

Selma af Schulten plays Anja, a deceased adolescent girl whose job is to help other newly-dead people come to terms with her predicament by comforting them. Her brother (played by Janne Reinikainen, who also co-wrote and co-directed with Iddo Soskolne) is the latest. This Finnish tale of the afterlife is hilarious and touching.

Mad God Parts I & II (2014 & 2015)

These two CGI animated shorts, which effectively form one complete story together, were directed by Phil Tippett, an FX artist responsible for working on a number of films directed by the likes of George Lucas and Paul Verhoeven including Star Wars, Robocop and Starship Troopers. It features a soldier navigating a huge, steampunk-influenced world filled with all sorts of bizarre, dystopian industrial nightmare creations. The two-part film’s unusual artistry and atmosphere made it a highlight.

Resistance (2017)

This French CGI animation, a collaborative effort between no less than six directors, isn’t even listed in IMDB yet. It features a group of insects who dine in a restaurant, and end up meeting some rather gruesome fates at the hands of the chef. It’s a dark and well-realised short with some impressive visual design.

Garden Party (2017)

Another French CGI short, with another six credited directors, this time listed in IMDB. A group of frogs in the garden of a wealthy household venture indoors, resulting in a number of hilarious mini-adventures. The animation is beautiful and naturalistic, in many ways rivalling PIxar’s work.

Pickle (2016)

A documentary about Tom and Debbie a pair of rural animal lovers, created by their daughter Amy Nicholson. They recall the tragic deaths of many of the creatures they adopted, as well as experiences taking care of Pickle, a fish who can’t swim - who survives by being encased in a sponge at the bottom of a tank. It’s surprisingly funny (courtesy of some charmingly simple, hand-drawn animated interludes) and in possession of a genuine warmth, making it arguably the best of the shorts.

Movie Ratings

The Evil Within: ☆☆1/2

Phenomena: ☆☆☆☆

Without Name: ☆☆1/2

The Night Watchmen: ☆☆☆

The Dead Zone: ☆☆☆

Madhouse: ☆☆☆

Always Shine: ☆☆☆☆

House: ☆☆☆

Dig Two Graves: ☆☆☆☆

Dry Blood: ☆1/2

The Void: ☆☆☆1/2


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