by Marc Lissenburg
Back in 2006, producer Courtney Solomon created a monster in the world of Horror, with his "8 Films to Die For - After Dark Horrorfest" concept. 8 independently made horror movies were showcased over a weekend in simulated screenings across the USA. The popularity of the yearly cinematic feast was such that it has now spawned the "AFTER DARK ORIGINALS HORRORFEST". (The 'Originals' in the title refers to the fact that After Dark have created and developed these films from totally original scripts, as oppose to distributing movies already made.) The weekend of March 4th - 6th 2011 witnessed After Dark Original's UK debut in 6 cinemas nationwide.
DAY 1 - FRIDAY
As I cruised along the A1, gradually trading the bright Yorkshire sunshine for the opaque silhouette of the Angel of the North, beautifully draped in dusk, I could only be heading toward one place - Newcastle - The Empire Cinema in Newcastle to be precise. And it would soon be After Dark....
The Empire Cinema is situated at the top level Newcastle's lively venue, 'The Gate' beneath which subsist a few restaurants, trendy bars and even a casino. With happy hour in full swing, I ascended away from the boozy revellers of the Toon toward the darkness of screen 7.
First up was Brett Simmons's HUSK. The movie begins with a quintet of friends being forced to abandon their crashed car after a bizarre incident in which a mass of dead crows obliterate the windscreen. Their only hope appears to be a decrepit farmhouse, located within the isolated cornfield near the scene of the accident. Believing the refuge of the house will allow them to make a simple phone call to solve their predicament, they venture toward it. But as the balmy sunshine slopes away, the eeriness of their day transcends into the sheer terror of night...
HUSK was a solid start to the weekend's feast of terror. Considering the festivals appellation, it was, ironically, some of the scenes in broad daylight that proved particularly unnerving. The inventive use of sound within the movie has to take plaudits for this. For example, a real sense of disorientation was achieved as the rustle of corn branches flitted around the auditorium making full use of the Empires surround sound technology. Don't get me wrong, I adore my gothic horror and truly appreciate the magic of vintage atmospheric movies. But this is a modern horror festival in a modern setting, and the skill in the sonic execution was outstanding in the way it added an extra stratum to the tension.
The film also featured some delightfully nasty gore, such as a character or two renovating their own hands into lethal weapons by means of hammering 5 inch nails into each finger. The story also had an adequate if not spectacular plot. My only real criticism was the rather convenient, not to mention unexplained, flashback sequences to Ryan which enabled him to understand the menace the group were up against. The movie deserved a more intelligent climax but was a satisfying start to the weekend all the same.
Due to being the designated driver for the evening, (ok I was on my own!!) I couldn't indulge in the boozy antics that were now in full swing below the cinemas carpeted foyer. Instead, I settled for colossal cup of Americano and settled in for Tim Tori and Patrik Syverson's PROWL.
The tale pivots around Amber, a girl from the small town Fanfield, who dreams of life in the big city. When Amber's alcoholic mother discloses to her that she was in fact adopted, it proves to be the final straw. This revelation, coupled with discovering an ideal city apartment, makes up Ambers mind that she has to take the plunge and make a new life for herself. But the landlord has had another offer for the accommodation meaning the only way Amber can secure this apartment is by physically delivering the cash deposit the next morning. The resulting road trip that Amber and her small group of friends embark upon turns into a nightmare. Their vehicle breaks down and leaves them with a solitary option: to take up the generous offer of Bernard, a roadside assistant, to get them to Chicago in his lorry. Although the group are a little weary of Bernard, he agrees to the group's rules (one member to ride up front, and photo of their chauffer to be sent via cell phones to their friends). Bernard has one rule of his own: don't touch the cardboard boxed cargo in the back. With the risk seemingly eliminated, the group board the lorry. When the lorry shunts, and they can't get in touch with their friend up front, they investigate the cargo to discover sealed packets of blood. But their sinister driver is only the start of their ghastly fate…
Again, PROWL was an excellent cinema experience especially in the audio department. From delicate ambient music and whispered gurgling oozing from the rear of the auditorium, to beastly shrieks and the cold clatter of steel in the mobile prison, a menacing anxiousness was steadily fostered.
But it wasn't simply dazzling aural stimulation that made this movie so enjoyable. Special mention has to go to the portrayal of some plausible characters in an equally authentic setting. The supporting cast all helped galvanize the tale, but it was Courtney Hope as Amber who really shone. A truly significant layer to her portrayal of Amber was staying true to the character. How many times have you watched a movie that a credible character is somehow transformed into a superhero by the end of the tale? Amber retained her distinct personality, vulnerabilities and all, regardless of the crisis and revelations that beset her. It was fortifying for director, Patrik Syverson, to trust the intelligence of potential viewers instead of simply resorting to clichéd splatter.
By that last comment I don't mean the movie was bereft of blood. Splashes of crimson graced the picture in a wonderfully artistic manner. One particular drenching of a small teddy hanging from a vehicles rear view mirror, in a fundamentally important scene, epitomised the notion of innocence lost and seamlessly moved the narrative forward.
PROWL was a thoroughly enjoyable character driven picture, with an ending that, although gratifying, begs for a sequel!!
DAY 2 SATURDAY
Unfortunately it was 'football grounds' not Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson's FERTILE GROUND that provided the horror for Saturday afternoon! Newcastle United playing at St James Park meant the sluggish A1 eventually ground to a halt before I could enter Newcastle town centre. Gierasch and Anderson's tale will have to wait for its DVD release to gain an honest review, but from what I did see it was a corker. The story involving a haunted house, ghosts and possession had some petrifying episodes as the movie crept toward its climax. Those of a delicate disposition may want to keep the lights on after watching this one alone!
And so it was onto director Alex Orwell's THE TASK that marked the midpoint of the weekend's fest as well as Saturday's triple bill.
The movie starts with a bold kidnap sequence in which Dixon (Texas Battle) is bundled into the back of a van in broad daylight. Both captors and their kidnapped victims are wearing eerie pig and clown masks. It proves to be the first of a red herring marathon within the movie, as one by one the abductees are unmasked and reminded of the 'Reality Tv' show they applied to be on a few months back. There is nothing like a good ole 'Reality Tv show' in which to throw a bunch abhorrent folk together and, to be fair, the eccentric blend of media hungry individuals probably would fit very well on any such prime time TV programme. I will let you make your own minds up as to whether or not that should be deemed as engrossing entertainment!
The 'Task' in the title refers to what the contestants must endure to win a moot sum of $20, 000. As the characters are introduced, their initial interview for the show is played back, complete with the rather ridiculous question, "What is your biggest fear?" The competitors rather implausibly divulge this with absolute honesty! They are then led to an abandoned prison which has, we later learn, been mysteriously accountable for the murder of 20 homeless people and is alleged to be haunted by a wicked warden who used to run the place back in the 1930's. What follows is a host of cul-de-sacs and surprise twists in the plot in which even the TV executives start to doubt what they are seeing. Bar a couple of edgy sequences (the claustrophobic suspension in a tub of urine and faeces or perhaps having to recite the Lords prayer backwards in the eerily deserted chapel), the movie was a bit silly really. The coiling of the plot was so overdone it was burnt! When the final 'surprise' did eventually arrive, it had little impact due to the profusion of the preceding dead-end meanderings. Others may find this romp highly entertaining but as you will see, this was the runt of the after Dark Originals litter!
Normal malevolent service was resumed with the somewhat macabre SECONDS APART. A morose opening scene, showing a teenage suicide pact feebly masqueraded as Russian roulette, seized the viewer's attention and refused to liberate it until the credits rolled at the end.
Detective Lampkin (Orlando Jones), who investigates the uncanny ritual, is introduced with an enchantingly morbid dream sequence, complete with flowers burning at a graveside. His enquiries lead to some bizarre disclosures from students at the victim's school regarding identical twins Jonah and Seth Trimble (played by real life twins Gary and Edmund Entin). The movie rapidly implicates the twins have potent psychic powers which enable them to control the minds, and hence actions, of those around them. A disturbing atmosphere gradually builds as Lampkin investigations threaten to undermine his sanity.
As the narrative develops, the extent of the twin's wickedness is brutally revealed through some imaginatively vicious flashbacks through their history. But the pair's camaraderie becomes progressively fragile when Jonah falls for Eve, played by the delectable Samantha Droke.
This was a very innovative movie with an array of solid characters and a highly explicable and credible plot. It had some truly unsettling set pieces that meant an ominous tone was upheld throughout the 90 minute running time. Interestingly enough, those 'good folk' at the BBFC awarded the flick a relatively innocuous '15' certificate. I mention this simply to illustrate the fact that it's incredibly encouraging to see adept film makers create eerie motion pictures that don't risk the censor's scissors yet still are more then capable of providing a chilling experience.
SECONDS APART provided a suitably creepy end to Saturday's revelry and had me pondering whether I had just witnessed the highlight of the AFTER DARK ORIGINALS HORRORFEST...
As the night air soothed my caffeine induced high, I took in the wonderful sights and not so wonderful sounds of a Saturday night in Newcastle. The gorgeous ladies of the Tyne were out in force, which was only spoiled by the poptastic din blasting from the bars they flocked to. Inspired by Gavin Baddeley's rather superb book, 'Goths, Vamps and Dandies', my headphones luckily contained the perfect soundtrack. Siouxsie and her Banshees not only provided an appropriately mischievous soundtrack for the alluring party-goers in the form of 'PEEK-A-BOO', they also reminded me of tomorrow nights final two movies - 51 and SCREAM OF THE BANSHEE… Sometimes life is just astonishingly weird isn't it….?
DAY 3 - Sunday
Sunday had a slightly worrying start - a technical hitch delaying proceedings by 20 minutes or so. The excellent staff at the Empire resolved the problem very efficiently, though I did have to giggle at the murmurings of "have you rebooted it?" Gone are the days of simply prodding the projectionist into action it would seem!
The penultimate movie of the fest was Jason Connery's Sci -Fi Horror romp - 51. Claire Fallon (Vanessa Branch), who has the no. 1 independent news blog is the USA, is granted partial admission to the top secret AREA 51. Driven by her quest for "deliver truth to the American people" she eagerly accepts. (Imagine David Icke in the body of a Nordic goddess and you'll get a taste of her character…!) An inevitable calamity ensues when one of the captives (an alien named Patient Zero, with the uncanny ability to imitate any living thing it touches) takes advantage of the compromised security. PZ then circuitously frees the other vile alien prisoners meaning, ultimately, Planet Earth is now in real danger of being overrun by the extra terrestrial beings. There is nothing like a good ole fashioned time bomb count down to instigate the climax, something which 51 exploited with aplomb!
There were some terrific set pieces in this movie that involved nifty camera work and special effects. The hideous moist, veined skin of Patient Zero in its natural state is a vision that churned my stomach a little. (Or maybe it was just my staple diet of fried chicken and black coffee that caused this!). Like the preceding movies in the Horrorfest, some quality players helped bring the tale to life along with some repulsive alien fiends, each with a unique supernatural power.
The story could be construed as a conspiracy theorists wet dream in many ways! The notion of the alien prisoners being micro-chipped, drugged and then given state of the art technology to pacify them was an ingenious touch. There was some undeniable deference paid to classic Sci-Fi Horror's like The Thing and Alien. Some scenes in particular could have been executed a little more shrewdly perhaps. But overall this was a highly unusual movie, complete with regular splashes of gore, which was far more astute then your average beast on the loose yarn. Clever, bloodthirsty and highly entertaining stuff!
Call me shallow, but sometimes the mere title of a movie has me lusting to view it! This was exactly the case for the Horrorfest's final offering, SCREAM OF THE BANSHEE. My expectancy was fuelled further with a sumptuously gothic title sequence that opened the movie.
The story itself begins with an exquisitely primordial scene set in Ireland back in 1188 AD. Amid the wintery forests of the Emerald Isle, a battle ends when a demon is banished to a baroque metal box. There it stays until the present day when Professor Whelan (Lauren Holly) discovers the box secreted behind a false wall of her University. The Irish Templar emblems that adorn the box are intriguingly similar to that on an ancient metal glove that has recently been acquired by the University. Curiosity causes one of Whelen's students to unlock the box with the glove. When the deathlike scream of the incarcerated banshee reverberates through the College, it incites some antiquate Gaelic lore - for all who hear the scream, are cursed for eternity.....
SOTB was a stalwart end to the After Dark festivities. The crisis experienced by the characters was roused further by some convincing clashes of personalities. A particularly poignant moment was when the mother and daughter relationship of Dr Whelen and Shayla collapsed halfway through the film. But ultimately this was a horror movie and a quality one at that. From the peculiar effect of a shrieking head in the box, to scenes literally drenched in blood, there really was an abundance of horrific set pieces throughout the movie. The final film was further proof that the future of After Dark is, in actual fact, very bright indeed.
So, just as The Gate's contemporary taverns were incredibly filling up for a Sunday nights partying, 2011's After Dark Originals Horrorfest had drawn to a close. It had sincerely been one Hell of a weekend's viewing!
As you can hopefully gather from my diminutive reviews, the films that made up the fest were, predominantly, of a high standard. They had good production values, solid acting and, above all, by the very nature of the festival, were ORIGINAL. The only concern I have is the lack of support ADO got in Newcastle. I understand the Leicester Square event in London had a great turn out and even had a few patrons in the requested fancy dress. But screen 7 on the Tyne was largely empty. It's a great shame as films of this calibre really ought to generate more interest.
If I could make a radical change to 2012's After Dark weekend in the UK it would be this: Why not show ALL the movies on one day? (I told you it was radical!!) A 10am start with a midnight finish would accommodate 7 movies. Those with a genuine high constitution for the entire programme could maybe be rewarded with a Ltd Edition shirt / mask and a discount of the DVD/ Blu Ray discs when they are released. It would save in journey costs and could mean that more people are willing to travel to far flung places as oppose to making an unlikely trek for a double bill. A discounted all-day ticket could also put a few more bums on seats. How realistic that scenario might be is clearly up for debate, but I seriously would hate to see this festival fade away. And did I mention that Newcastle had the odd bar or two for a possible after party...?
All the movies featured will be released onto DVD and Blu Ray throughout the year, with an alleged box set containing 8 films (Mike Hurst's "RE-KILL" was omitted from the UK ADO for some reason) planned for Halloween 2011. I certainly know what I will be watching while indulging in a piece of pumpkin pie on October 31st….
Special thanks to After Dark Films, G2 Pictures and the team at Organic