Comedy-horror hybrids came in various forms. The best laugh of the festival was Matthias Dinter’s German film Night of the Living Dorks (2004) about three hapless losers who buy the ashes of a real Haitian zombie via Ebay in the hope of performing a love spell. Instead, they crash their car and wake up in the morgue, but they feel reenergised and continue going to school where they rapidly ascend to dizzying heights of cool-dom; if body parts start to fall off, you can always staple them back on. The acting is superb and the plot is enhanced by the love story at its core as the misfits have to come up with ever ingenious methods to disguise their condition. Funny, well paced and slick the film is far more assured than its geeky title suggests.

Of course, it’s fine to mix elements of sex and death as long as it’s all romantic talk, but Tim Sullivan’s 2001 Maniacs (/2005) wickedly mixes the two in his homage to the 1964 Herschell Gordon Lewis film. When some teenagers end up in Pleasant Valley, a remote village where everyone is apparently in costume in preparation for its Guts and Glory Jubilee, they discover too late that they are destined to become the main ingredients of the feast. Every time the visitors try to get some nooky they end up being killed instead. Although the film is outrageous in its tone, racist jokes (we’re back in the time period of the civil war) and some of the plot (one woman gets her arms and legs pulled off), the camera could have done with lingering a little longer on the ensuing gore splatter to make the most of its SFX. The focus is firmly on the Pleasant Valley’s mad characters, played faultlessly by Robert Englund and Lin Shaye. It is notable here that the sex is all implied and the gore fleeting, probably to avoid upsetting the censors!

The most audacious of the comedy crop was John Roecker’s animated musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2004) on the antics of the Charlie Manson cult. This is social satire at its deepest, with puppet pornography, and the characters’ sex lives, and just about everything, is ridiculed to the nth degree – so much so that many film festivals have ducked out of showing this film. It’s brilliantly done, although sometimes it pushes the envelope a bit too far. It’s hard to watch its depiction of Sharon ‘Hate’, somehow it’s just not quite funny seeing a vicious parody take on a murder victim. As a satire it’s brilliantly written and wildly imaginative, although a little too heartless with it. It’s notable that this film pushes the sex and death envelope the furthest, and the reason why it can get away with this is because they’re ‘only’ working with puppets.

It’s hard to place the comic elements at work in The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Rob Zombie’s sequel to House of a 1000 Corpses, which played to a suitably psyched-up, sold-out crowd. Although many critics have slated the film for its violent content, actually, compared to some of the visceral 70s movies it taps into the spirit of, it’s pretty amiable; it’s actually the sex and death connection American audiences find so hard to stomach. This time instead of don’t-go-into-the-house tactics, it’s a road movie after the Firefly clan are forced to go on the run after a shoot out back at the house with Sheriff Wydell. The main point of incomprehension regards their motives. As they kill people they come across by chance in various ingenious ways, you find yourself asking just one question. Why? The sardonic humour is also hard to place; the killers seem to have no aim beyond their next kill, and the particularly vengeful cop who tracks them down is too mean himself for us to empathise with him. Stylistically it’s beautiful in a gritty, retro Texas sort of way, and Sheri Moon gives an excellent performance; whether you will see it as a brilliant genre homage or an over inflated rock video, it’s a must see for horror fans if only to debate its merits.

A more subtle comedy, but one that was elegantly crafted and ingeniously infused with Lovecraftian elements was Eugenio Mira’s The Birthday (2004). Set in 1987, in real time, it depicts Norman (Corey Feldman) on the big night when he is introduced to his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. He is perpetually awkward and dithering, and for most of the film behaves like a mouse in front of his rich and beautiful girlfriend Alison and her family. Right from the start come the clues come that something is not quite right about the hotel where the festivities are set, but Mira takes his time and slowly shows Norman’s despair as he is rebuffed by the formidable patriarch and the whole family. Like After Hours (1985), Norman’s despair seems to push him into an alternative reality, and at first it’s hard to believe the waiter who claims the party is actually a front for a cult seeking the rebirth of their god which will mean the end of the world. Ditsy Norman becomes an unlikely hero, and the film manages to turn progressively weirder but avoids any obvious tricks like showing something with tentacles. Instead Mira opts for the highly original approach of using sound design and unusual camera angles to freak out the audience and literally recreates Norman’s perception of events as they unfold. A faultlessly executed debut.

Film festivals are great for bringing up those little gems that otherwise you’d miss. One of the best movies that stood out was extremely low budget and experimental, proving that good ideas and resourceful acting count most. Zero Day (2003) the debut feature from Ben Coccio, was shot on DV to get inside the minds and hearts of two adolescents planning to kill as many of their fellow students (and themselves) as possible on ‘zero day’. Based on the Columbine High School Massacre, it takes a while to get into, but leads Andre Keuck and Calvin Robertson act so convincingly, you get sucked in. The DV format actually helps to bring the story across because we become voyeurs on their private movies and fantasies. Unlike other films which have explored the same theme, such as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), there’s no sense of inherent evil, the boys seem wide-eyed innocents who just happen to have nihilistic plans. It’s hard not to empathise with them, even though you already know what’s going to happen, and herein lies the film’s resonance.

Horror films are getting more intelligent. An exceptionally clever thriller that also won the Audience Award for best film (with Antibodies) was the Belgian film Trouble (2005), directed by Harry Cleven. It plays with the premise of identity as happily married Matyas (Benoit Magimel) discovers that his mother (who he thought was long dead) only recently died and has left him something in her will. At the lawyer’s office further surprises are in store as he finds he has a twin brother, Thomas, and thus begins the mystery of why he was given to the orphanage and the discovery of the ‘terrible’ thing he did at the age of six. When their respective wives get involved, the plot gets deeper and like a Dario Argento film everything only makes sense at the end. Although low budget, it is beautifully photographed, and every shot has some significance, even the opening scenes with Matya’s son poking his mother’s heavily pregnant belly only serves to warn us of the very real threat of sibling rivalry. This tense, cleverly written thriller was slated by French critics, but is bound to become a cult film elsewhere.

Likewise, Christian Alvart’s Antibodies, aka Antikörper(2005), was astonishing. German cinema is traditionally not so strong on action, but right from the opening shots we’re treated to a bloody confrontation as the police try to apprehend paedophile serial killer Gabriel. It’s tense stuff, but when the killer is safely behind bars he admits to all unsolved murders except for one, a young girl called Lucia. Enter mild-mannered Michael (Wotan Wilke Moehring) a part-time farmer/policeman who comes from the village where Lucia lived. Like the unwitting village policeman lured to investigate in The Wicker Man, Michael will be duped. Michael makes amazing progress with the serial killer and is ordered to interview him at length in order to break him down. Gabriel’s inherent evil rubs off on him and Michael’s personality changes, a fact that the killer has already foreseen as he sets him up for an explosive family confrontation. Brilliantly acted, with lots of different changes of pace and mood, this one has the makings of a modern classic and signals positive signs for German cinema.

Although not all the films programmed lived up to their promise, the breadth of films on offer offered something for everyone, and non-American representation was particularly strong. The prime criteria the audience seemed to warm to was imagination, originality and a strong story, and none of these require a multi-million dollar budget. Hollywood beware…