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Tabula Rasa

A Night of Horror Short Film Festival

Sydney, 23 - 25 March 2007

A review by David Carroll and Kyla Ward

We would like to start by saying Richard Gale is a fine director, and someone to keep an eye on. Hopefully two.

A Night of Horror was actually five sessions, each about 2 hours long, running over three nights. 47 short films were divided up by genre, with entries coming from Australia and across the globe – the USA, UK and even Slovakia and Sweden.

This marathon was organised by two Sydneysiders, Dean Bertram and Lisa Mitchell. Filmmakers, under the aegis of Lovecraft 21C Productions, they are no strangers to the international festival circuit. Their recent short Foresta Rossa won second place at It Came From Lake Michigan, screened at Horror Fest UK, and here out of competition. Says Dean, "we realised there wasn't a horror-specific, short film festival in Australia. So basically, we decided to start one... and it snowballed from there." A Night of Horror is in no way connected with the late-lamented EyeScream competition previously reviewed on this site, which had different organisers and accepted only Australian entrants.

The venue for the first two nights was the Chauvel Cinema in Paddington. We can't claim to have attended these (although we saw the films separately). The Sunday screenings, which we did attend, moved to the Paddington RSL, which turned out to have good facilities and to be surprisingly atmospheric – at least when decorated with props from The Ancient Rite of Corey McGillis and crammed full of people in black. There were several thousand dollars worth of prizes going and judges included media commentator Jack Sargeant and local film and radio hosts Jay Katz and Miss Death, so there was a certain amount of tension in the air. But you have to love a festival that hands out a Best Lovecraft Film award. The initiated could spot not one but two wildly differing adaptations of 'The Statement of Randolph Carter'.

Each set of films was selected thematically and put together with some care. Most started with a humorous entry, such as Death of the Dinosaurs (Leilani Holmes) or the absolutely unforgettable Night of the Hell Hamsters (Paul Campion). The standard was high, although the scale of production ranged widely. Some of the US entries, especially, appeared to have full-on companies with budgets behind them, and one a Buffy actor. Emma Caulfield won Best Performance for her appearance in Hollow (Paul Bickel), but didn't show up to collect. Night Of The Hell Hamsters scored Best Director. The full list of awards and winners is up at the website.

We'll divide the reviews up by session, as it was interesting to see the differing ideas and moods of each.

Love is a Shotgun posterZombie Apocalypse ('When there's no more room in hell... the dead will walk the Chauvel!'): This is perhaps the genre of the moment, which explains why it gets a category to itself – but also means it's tricky to break new ground. The six entries on display certainly showed a range of theme and mood, from the silly but endearing Recently Deceased (Chris McInroy; what do the labels mean?), to Esteban Arguello's chilling Margaret's Son. That follows a couple who try to escape the looming disaster, only to realise their problems may not just be with the dead. Zombie Island (Bill Whirity) is a cheerful romp as a group of friends travel to the titular island with the intention of bagging undead game, Kurt Corpsebain and Old HackDonald among them. Naturally it goes wrong. We're not really into such pastiche, but it is pleasant enough, with a couple of interesting cameos (we didn't spot Mark Borchardt, did spot the glasses). Diametrically opposed is Jim Batt's Love is a Shotgun, which is a sparse and lovely look at the walking dead (I note that Simon Sherry is co-writer, who I am guessing is the same person that illustrates various Aussie comics). It could be argued that this would have worked better had it not been in a group of zombie flicks, which is the whole point of Zombie Island and also Patrick Rea's wicked little Emergency Preparedness. Lastly there was Dalibor Backovic's The Ancient Rite of Corey McGillis which was a longer and perhaps more ambitious tale. Unfortunately, exactly what it was aiming for is somewhat opaque, as there was a lot of set-up that didn't really go anywhere. Still, it had its moments, including some great effects.

The New Life posterSupernatural Terror from Beyond: As previously said, the overall standard of the films was high, but this session featured outstanding production values overall; even or perhaps especially noticeable behind the possessed rodents. On the heels of that came Hollow, which not only featured Emma Caulfield but some spectacular, eerie cinematography and editing. A child's nightmare seemed to be the overall theme, but it looked more like a good pre-credit sequence than a complete product. Nightmarish too was And the Woods Fell Silent Again (Rania Ajami), not simply in what it presented but in the manner of presentation. A man's narration to camera, over the bodies of two mutilated girls, turns into a dialogue with – something. It might well be us, the viewers. Very effective. The New Life (Daniel Giambruno) plays with levels of reality in a way which, again, left us somewhat bemused. Still, no matter who is actually imagining who, the performance of Kaja Trøa, who won the Scream Queen Award, provides a riveting focus. The session ended with two comparatively lengthy pieces. Penny Dreadful (Bryan Norton) is a classic haunted house story with a twist. It is set in New York and the location work is incredible, on top of writing, acting and cinematography all of the first water. Of Darkness (David Curzon) may not go quite so deep. There is a cellar and something comes out of it when Grandpa's old chest is disturbed, but that's it plot-wise. The joy lies in the absolutely spectacular seek and destroy sequence, which turns an ordinary suburban house into a place of terror equal to Penny's mouldering brownstone.

From BeyondClassic Horror Tales and Animated Spookiness: These fourteen films included adaptations of authors like Poe, King and Lovecraft, some almost surprising in their effectiveness, given the widely acknowledged difficulty of filming such works (indeed, one production company was 'Unfilmable'). Claymation turned out to be inspiration, winning From Beyond (Michael Granberry) the coveted Best Lovecraft Film award. Its grating soundtrack and appalling, half-seen forms provide a truly chilling experience. Another animated piece, black and white and absolutely gorgeous, is an adaptation of the Dreamlands tale "The Other Gods". The conceit that it is a recently discovered work from the 1920s is well-carried, although Peter Rhodes deserves contemporary recognition. March the 13th, 1941 (Robert P. Olsson) and The Statement of Randolph Carter (Jane Rose) are the other direct Lovecraft adaptations. In our opinion, the former comes out ahead by sticking to the basic story and not involving digital effects. But for atmosphere, both were outdone by Call of Tutu (Aaron Vanek), an original story consisting of the ramblings of an initially charming old man. As the rant proceeds and the pieces fall together, a real unease sets in. An effective short by any standards, although it requires familiarity with the Mythos to really appreciate. The Veil (Mike Jackson) is also original, drawing on Lovecraft more to ground the dreamlike imagery, by turns beautiful and hideous, than for specific references. Is that a flaw in Read Me A Story (Bret Mix & Craig Mullins) and Innsmouth Legacy (Edward Martin III)? Both draw on Lovecraft much more directly, but neither approach the same heights of otherworldly dread. Legacy does get points for romantic pathos. Just to confuse things, the erstwhile Stephen King adaptation is entitled Lovecraft's Pillow (Mark Steensland). It is based on a story idea King had – he loved the idea that the pillow used by the earlier writer might have absorbed his nightmares – but he realised he couldn't do it justice. The cinematic version seems to confirm the dangers involved, with a pedestrian effort. Poe is represented by The Tell Tale Heart (Raul Garcia), a dramatic, monochrome animation set to a recording of the story made by Bela Lugosi – not his only appearance that night!

The other entries in this session were all animations. Nazdravicko! (Ivana Zajacova) adapts a Slovakian folktale and is a technically astonishing piece of stop motion (if rather long). Dear, Sweet Emma (John Cernak) demonstrates just how funny the mutilation of digital characters can be, and it is not denigrating Death of the Dinosaurs to describe it as a one-joke film.

By Appointment Only posterVampires and Slashers: Unfortunately this was the most disappointing of the sessions. Perhaps it was because the slasher flicks weren't intense enough to be 'elevated' to the grindhouse category, and vampires are always hard to film. Still, there were some good films herein. We especially liked Under My Skin (Stanley Ray) and By Appointment Only (John Faust). The first follows a plumber who gets infected through a particularly nasty job, and includes a 'mysterious hooded figure' that works really well. The second was a leisurely and puzzling tale of two lovers and a stranger in town. It's hard to explain succinctly, but it all comes together in the end. 4U (Ehren Koepf) and Puppeteer (Guido Tölke) were both stylishly made, even though we think the final result of each somewhat underwhelming. Les Drujes (Izabel Grondin) was similar – this was the most effective of the vampire subset, though the atmosphere tipped over from mysterious to murky. It follows two women crashing a Christmas party; though filmed in French the title refers to Persian demons, as far as we can tell. The other vampires on display were Wok (Mark Alston), which was enthusiastic and bloody but too stilted to be effective, and Raven Gets a Life (Devi Snively). Although perhaps not as charming as it hopes, this tale of a young vampire trying to work out what to do with her death (with some hints from Bela Lugosi on the way) is a good attempt at undead whimsy.

The best feature of Ed Lyons' Can I Call You? was probably the acting, as a particularly unsuccessful date goes from bad to worse. David Curzon's Overboard is opaque but interesting nonetheless. Kasting (Alyosha Saari) was a quick and punchy piece about a girl auditioning for a film role. Although not really surprising, it is exactly the right length to make an effective short – something which can not be said for Kelly Marcott's A Dark and Lonely Knife, which follows its horror-shop-owner-in-peril for far too long. To round off the summary we have a couple of other quick ones: I Was a Teenage Satan (Shane K and family), which was charming enough for a couple of kids dressed up as angel and demon; The Butcher Baker & Nightmare Maker (Steffan Schulz) which was fun; and by no means least, the trippy 13 Ways to Die at Home (Lee Lanier). It doesn't really lead up to anything, but its use of CGI over old film footage produced some very funny things (one of the thirteen was the name of an old magazine of ours, which may not earn extra points, but we liked it).

Addiction is Murder posterGrindhouse Exploitation: As might be expected, this was the bloodiest session of the five. Although it is a truism that gore does not equate to atmosphere, it's also true that the effort in presenting realistic trauma can up the bar across the board. So here we have Richard Gale's Criticized, in which a critic pays dearly for failing to appreciate 'talent'. It was both the squirmiest experience of the festival, and boasted two fine performances. Happy Birthday 2 You (David Alcalde), a Spanish film about a child care worker investigating possible abuse, was both explicit and creepy, and included one of the most successful surreal shots of the festival. Pal (Simon Dewar) had a simpler premise of a home invasion gone wrong, but worked really well, helped by its effective score. Addiction is Murder (Adam Brooks) in which a self-help group is visited by a man with an unusual problem, possibly went a little long, but had both cheerful mayhem and a good ending. The strangest entry, perhaps of the whole event, was Cullen Carr's Golden Age. It was a period piece, evoking the 80s video-nasty in loving fashion, with retro film-work and some intense visuals, plus a commentary on the audience. Unfortunately the mix was more bemusing than effective (it was a bit hard to tell if the stiltedness was deliberate or not) but it was an interesting experiment. The Incredible Falling Apart Man (Kenneth Hurd), following the downfall of Walt Brundle (spot the reference), was fun but slight. And finally there was Daniel Knight's The Morning After which is indescribable and wonderful.

We might also mention that Foresta Rossa is a beautiful piece of cinema with a nice, mythological twist.

Overall the event was well-organised and the tone professional, extending to the full-colour programs and T-shirts. We were also impressed by the list of sponsors, which are often difficult to wrangle locally. The sheer variety and length of each session justified the ticket prices, and the division into themes meant you could pick and choose. It is hard to imagine how else we in Sydney would see these films, especially arranged so neatly. It is as important for Australians to keep an eye on what's happening overseas as it is to get our own films into those arenas. Dean and Lisa say they want to continue next year – they're certainly off to a great start.

Might want to keep an eye on them too.


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