This year's festival was held over two weekends in Southend, in the Park Inn by Radisson Palace Hotel. Friday 20 January's standout movie was 'Savageland' (directors: Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert and David Whelan, 2015, US). A prisoner is convicted to die by lethal injection after he is accused of going on a killing spree in his one-horse town. As he's the town loner, the survivors are keen to see him executed. Cinema verite interviews of the local sheriff and other town worthies add uncomfortable realism, as talking heads say there may be no direct motive for the murders but there's also a lot of local hate.
The trio of directors effortlessly blend American ghost-town wild footage with creepy black and white still camera film found at the scene. This was apparently shot by the condemned man during the shooting; but all that is visible is dark forms chasing townspeople across deserted streets.
But what really happened on that one day that left most of the townsfolk dead, and what does the accused mean when he mumbles that "they" can't get him now he's safely in jail? And what does the last blurred picture really show, of a terrified young girl surrounded by shadowy figures?
"Circus of the Dead" (dir: Billy "Bloody Bill" Pon, 2015, US) could make a coulrophobic of the toughest horrorhound. Behind the circus curtains, the clowns follow their victims home to engage in carjacking, extracting teeth, and replacing victims' heads with their mobile phones.
The terrifying clown leader, Papa Corn, kidnaps and tortures various circus visitors with creepy warnings along the lines of: "You have a very....delicious family" with a creepy line in baby talk ("Come to Papa...") as an "Inbred"-style ringmaster, all glittery jacket and crowd-pleasing charm.
With disturbing scenes of sexual sadism, "Saw"-style use of staplers on heads, and schoolgirl torture, there were a few screening walkouts. As Papa Corn sums up with commendable self-insight: "I may be a psychopathic rapist whose day job is being a clown...but at least I'm not a liar."
"The Barn" (dir: Justin M. Seaman, 2016, US) was a loving John Carpenter pastiche, involving two small town heroes with uncool jobs ("the gardeners from hell"), whose hometown is overtaken by Halloween killers. Complete with pounding 80s synth soundtrack and a character carrying a walkman the size of a brick, our heroes fling back their floppy blond streaks and take on their pumpkin nemesis, with "Heathers"-style dialogue ("What's your damage?"). Brighton-shot short "Bohemian Spirit" was much better, featuring a haunted Brighton theatre being put to good use.
"First Bite" (dir: Eileen Daly, 2016, UK) was introduced by Daly, playing one of a team of ghostbusters arriving at a B&B to sort out a paranormal sighting. Their efforts to stop the evil spirits are thwarted by a "zombie sex pest" resident as they take on whatever evil being is on the house. It featured shaky camera work, entertaining "Scooby Doo" style dances in graveyards, and plastic poo sight gags, and while not in the slightest bit scary was entertainingly off-the-wall.
Good shorts included "Titan", a science fiction drama rather than horror; "Visor", strange Arabic black and white tale of murder in a public bathhouse, as well as "B is for Bath" an Elizabeth Báthory tale of bathing of the blood of virgins, or rather of middle aged chubby men.
Spanish short "Peasanta" concerns an elderly woman whose niece comes to stay to look after her, shortly before the former's death. The younger woman unwisely removes her aunt's collection of crucifixes from her bedroom wall, without even wondering why they are there, or why her late aunt's lawyer is being quite so friendly to her. As an unwelcome visitor crawls into her bedroom at night, but it's not quite who she expected.
"Consumption" (dir: Brandon Scullion, 2016, US) centres on two couples holidaying in a snowbound hotel in the Utah Mountains. The hotel is also home to two creepy caretakers who like Boris Karloff, one axe-wielding janitor, and some creepy VHS tapes featuring the guests' dead parents - the perfect relaxing surroundings. But none of this "Shining"-esque strangeness should get in the way of an enjoyable holiday, so the four guests proceed to drink and argue until the creepy janitors reappear, wearing possibly some of the least convincing ghost costumes in horror history. Scullion did seem to make some serious points on the evils of self-harm and alcoholism, but his dialogue was so laughable it got in the way; a character returns from outside saying: "I couldn't find your hand. I'm so sorry."
"Video Killer" (director: Richard Mansfield, 2016, UK) introduced his selfie-generation shocker featuring everygirl Amy receiving VHS tapes through her letterbox every morning at exactly the same time, and finds on YouTube that other people are getting them as well. This is not quite as surprising than the fact all of the 30somethings actually own a working VHS player. Instead of promptly recycling the tapes, the victims watch what seems to be a low-fi kids' cartoon involving gory death, a bit like a horror version of "South Park", and occasionally genuinely disturbing.
Shot mainly on IPhones as the victims film themselves in as many deserted locations as possible (remote forests, deserted garages, abandoned alleyways), "Video Killer" is a surprisingly effective UK lo-budget shocker.
"The Legend of the Mad Axeman" (dir: Russ Gomm and Philip Mearns, 2016, UK) featured Brighton horror stalwart Billy Chainsaw, who also appeared one of its accompanying Brighton-shot shorts "U Never Listen".