13 things I learned at the Dead By Dawn horror festival

Now in its 23rd year, Dead by Dawn is one of the world’s most respected horror festivals.

We sent Niki Boyle along to the four-day event at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse cinema, where as well as watching an unhealthy number of films across four days, he picked up a few lessons…

WARNING: Some of the trailers in this article are incredibly spoileriffic. Don’t watch them if you have any interest in seeing the films.

1. Festival organiser Adele Hartley makes the festival what it is

adele hartley at dead by dawn

Whenever you go to a film festival – or any festival for that matter – you have to acknowledge that there’s gonna be a certain hit-to-miss ratio. Thanks to Hartley’s canny and impassioned programming, Dead by Dawn 2016’s ratio was weighted heavily towards the hits. Between screenings (each of which came with a personal introduction), Adele was happy to join audience members shooting the shit in the Filmhouse bar, and got to know many attendees by name through the course of the weekend. Just, er, don’t rustle your sweet wrappers during the film, because…

2. Festival organiser Adele Hartley does not mess about

‘Turn your fucking phone off… please,’ she says before the first screening commences. ‘If your phone comes on after the lights go down, you get to go home early.’ It’s a (completely welcome) no-nonsense policy that arises from her wish to re-establish a trip to the movies as a special occasion. What with the increasing size of TVs at home, she’s concerned that people have started treating cinemas like their own living rooms, robbing the cinema experience of much of its magic. So please, stop chatting, avoid incredibly noisy snacks and, for the love of god, check your Facebook after the film. It can wait.

3. Jeremy Saulnier is nailing his colours to the mast

Following 2013’s excellent and understated revenge drama Blue Ruin, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier has doubled down with second colour-coded thriller Green Room. Dead by Dawn’s opening movie, it’s a grisly, claustrophobic film that pits Anton Yelchin’s punk rock group against Sir Patrick Stewart’s posse of neo-Nazis. Which, if nothing else, gives rise to one of the best soundtrack cuts of the weekend: the Dead Kennedys’ ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off.’

4. The K-Shop filmmakers shouldn’t expect any Christmas cards from the city of Bournemouth

Among Dead by Dawn’s several special guests were Dan Pringle and Adam Merrifield, respectively the writer-director and producer of kebab house murderfest K-Shop. ‘It was about 60-40 real and contrived,’ says Pringle of the late night post-club footage, shot in Bournemouth, with stag and hen parties especially descending into booze, pee and vomit-soaked chaos. It’s a warts-and-all depiction of nights out gone way too far – and that’s before vigilante kebab-carver Salah gets his cleaver out.

5. Short films are great for nurturing burgeoning talent – and letting the pros out to play

While it can be tricky to market short films to a mainstream audience (though personally I’d love it if cinemas started screening shorts ahead of every feature-length screening, à la Pixar), Dead by Dawn’s shorts selection showcased incredible talent from both established professionals and those yet to make their first feature. Ryan Spindell – winner of Dead by Dawn’s Best Short award for The Babysitter Murders – has been creating shorts since 2007 and is currently working on a full-length anthology; at the other end of the industry, the well-established talents of David Cronenberg and author Dave Eggers were highlighted in The Nest and Francis respectively.

6. Horror is a broad church…

In addition to the ghost stories, slashers, thrillers and chillers you might expect from a horror festival, Dead by Dawn featured films from the outskirts of the genre. Yr Ymadawiad (The Passing) is a gorgeously-photographed Welsh-language drama with a foreboding air of folklorish timelessness; Men & Chicken is a Danish black comedy with liberal splashes of slapstick violence; and Astraea is a spare survival drama set in the serene, snowy landscapes of a severely depopulated North America. All have horrific elements to them, sure, but they manage to go beyond what, by the uninitiated at least, might be perceived as the horror genre’s limitations.

7. … and it can still be fiercely political

Scary movies can provoke screams of laughter as well as fear – part of the fun of being part of a horror audience is getting a fright and then laughing it off from the comfort of your cinema seat. Which is all well and good, but it’s worth remembering that horror can also be a rightfully uncomfortable experience. Spanish thriller The Corpse of Anna Fritz shone an unflinching spotlight on the intersection of rape culture and celebrity obsession, while the righteous fury of Larry Kent’s She Who Must Burn took the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church to hideous (yet all-too-believable) extremes.

8. Wes Craven was a master of the craft

Having sadly passed away in August last year, horror maestro Wes Craven was the subject of a double-bill that celebrated the depth of his talent and ambition. New Nightmare is far more than just the seventh instalment in the Freddy Krueger/Elm Street series – it’s a post-modern, boundary-breaking examination of how horror affects its makers as well as its audience (and it set the self-referential template Craven would further explore in his following movie, Scream). The Hills Have Eyes, meanwhile, is a short, sharp and thoroughly nasty piece of work that functions as a masterclass in lean, economical storytelling: not a second of its 89 minutes goes to waste, and the final body has barely hit the ground when Craven rolls the credits.

9. If you’re gonna watch a movie at 3am, make it a video nasty

The fest’s marathon 17-hour Saturday stretch culminated in a screening of once-banned 80s horror Dead & Buried – a movie which, thanks to a loud and steady stream of screams, scares and gunfire, never lets you fall asleep for too long. In fact, each jolt is immediately followed by an important piece of plot development, so you can nod off every now and again without fear of losing any appreciation of the movie’s (still incredibly effective) twist ending.

10. The awards were well-deserved

In addition to Ryan Spindell’s aforementioned winner The Babysitter Murders, there was also recognition for David Romero’s animated short Other Lily (which, if you liked Coraline and The Babadook, you should love – watch it above, if you dare) and Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton’s We Go On. If you get the chance, you should definitely see the latter: it’s a near-perfect exploration of the afterlife that deserves to be the biggest horror crossover hit since The Sixth Sense.

11. Some films are just made for the love of it

antibirth (1)

Having shot a rain-soaked, glacially-paced movie entirely in the Welsh language, director Gareth Bryn is under no illusions about Yr Ymadawiad’s likelihood of mainstream success. And that’s just fine by him.

‘The way this was funded, we were kind of left to make the film the way it was written, which is why we’ve got this strange sort of crossbreed between genres. It was a bit of a labour of love. There was no big money man at the top saying, “it’s got to make this much money back” – we just want people to see it, for it to go to festivals and have a life.’

Similarly, Danny Perez’s Antibirth may star some recognisable names and faces – such as Natasha Lyonne from Orange is the New Black, with support from Chloe Sevigny – but given that Adele’s go-to word for the hallucinatory body horror was ‘bugfuck’, it’s unlikely to invade a multiplex near you any time soon.

‘It’s a feature debut – and a really odd way to announce yourself as a filmmaker,’ says Hartley. ‘I don’t see anyone battering Danny’s door down to get him to do corporate videos after this.’

Which is its own form of endorsement, in a way.

12. There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark

The fest ended with a double-bill of deeply different (and deeply disturbing) Danish movies. The aforementioned Men & Chicken stars Casino Royale’s Mads Mikkelson as one half of a dysfunctional sibling duo on the hunt for their long-lost father. The other, Sorgenfri (What We Become), is probably best described as an ‘infection procedural’. With ever-increasing tension, writer-director Bo Mikkelsen gives us a ground-level look at the process by which a suburban community becomes quarantined when an unknown virus breaks out.

13. The Dead by Dawn audience is a beautiful place to be

freddy krueger dummy

The Q&As were intelligent and enthusiastic, the post-film bar chat was buzzy and welcoming and, in spite of (or as a result of) Adele’s remonstrances, people generally showed sterling cinema etiquette. (One couple who were scolded for chatting offered a heartfelt apology afterwards – ‘we’re really sorry, we just got so into it we forgot where we were’). Dead by Dawn brings together a group of disparate people under one unifying thread – a love of horror – and, for all the dismemberment and discomfort on-screen, the atmosphere in the auditorium was one of community and celebration throughout. Here’s looking forward to next year, albeit from behind the sofa.

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Main photo: Yr Ymadawiad (The Passing)