Cold cuts

Antiviral, Dead Sushi, American Mary and more - an Abertoir diary.

by Max Crawford

The Abertoir Skull
The Abertoir Skull Photo: Max Crawford
There's a reason Madness have never written a song called Night Bus To Birmingham. Well, several reasons. When you tell people you're going to spend seven hours stuck on a cramped National Express coach in order to reach England's second city—home of Aston Villa and the Bullring Shopping Centre, historic birthplace of Dame Barbara Cartland—the general reaction is one of shocked disbelief. This doesn't change when you explain that actually you're only using Brum as a convenient stepping-stone to Aberystwyth, where there is a horror festival.

More fool them. This particular bus is full of happy Celtic supporters heading back home to Manchester, flushed with victory over Barcelona, arguably the best team in the world. The atmosphere is one of garrulous bonhomie. The pointless, deafening safety announcements broadcast down the length of the bus and into the world beyond after every stop make it impossible to sleep, but surely this won't be a problem. I am hardcore.

So it is that I emerge bleary-eyed from Birmingham bus station in time to catch the sunrise. It's glorious. Perhaps Birmingham—the city that gave us Dexy's Midnight Runners and Duran Duran—isn't as bad as I had been led to believe. Also born here: Oscar Deutsch, founder of Odeon cinemas.

“Are you ready for a New Street Station?” I sing under my breath, to the tune of INXS's New Sensation. I've had this stuck in my head for 20 minutes and the novelty has long worn off. Said station is, along with every other part of England and Wales I have ever had to travel to, under construction, with a proposed extension resembling nothing so much as the spaceship from out of Flight Of The Navigator. I'm carrying more baggage than one of Woody Allen's protagonists, but an unsympathetic British Rail employee still demands to see my ticket before allowing me to descend to the platform. Compliance. An uneventful train journey to Telford awaits. Oh, before I forget: it is impossible to buy paneer anywhere in Birmingham. Perfectly serviceable steak and mushroom pies, yes. Indian soft cheese, no. Sort yourself out, Birmingham.

Rocky Horror at Abertoir
Rocky Horror at Abertoir Photo: Max Crawford
From Telford, it's still a good two hour drive to Aberystwyth. Lindis picks me up from the station—it's under construction—and off we set in Mungo, her trusty Renault Twingo. We make short work of the Welsh valleys, only to be turned back because the last stretch of the road we're on has gone missing. Honestly. The man in charge of diverting everyone helpfully points out the scenic route. He is not wrong.

Night has fallen by the time we reach Aberystwyth and meet Lindis' sister Lara, who has generously agreed to accommodate us for the next few days. Small student digs, but perfectly pleasant, and about a minute's walk from Aberystwyth Arts Centre, where Abertoir is held. We are delighted to discover from safety information notices that the Welsh name for a microwave oven is a popty ping. After dinner it strikes me that I have been awake since I found out that Obama had won his second term, and the force of 36 waking hours hits me all at once. I surrender to sleep, leaving Lindis to tackle Dead Sushi without me.

This turns out to have been a mistake, if Lindis' raving the next day is anything to go by. Oh well. “At least I'll be fresh for the afternoon screening of The Barrens”, I think, casually preparing some of the greatest omelettes known to human science. This is also a mistake, as watching The Barrens turns out to be an experience not all that dissimilar to sleep. Ho hum. Live and learn, etc. It's still several hours till the Rocky Horror party, but people are already getting pretty excited. The man sitting in front of me proudly displays the leather jacket he's customised as part of his Eddie costume. He then produces a toy saxophone and proceeds to play the Star Wars theme. This bodes well.

There's still Antiviral to get through, though, which is no small undertaking. Lindis joins me, having wisely ducked The Barrens, and we're treated to the best directorial debut I've seen since Moon. Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral indisputably owes a great deal to his father's oeuvre, but it's as slick and polished as the glittering hypodermic needles it's littered with. We leave the cinema feeling distinctly queasy.

Perhaps it's more than just the film. No sooner have I sat down to my cornish pasty than I have to get up to vomit. I seem to have some sort of plague. I am not impressed. Still, I'm not going to let it come between me and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I told you I was hardcore.

Properly attired as unconventional conventionists, we return to the Arts Centre in plenty of time. It would appear that we've arrived on a rather special night. I've attended my fair share of RHPS events, even performed at a couple, and this is easily the best crowd I've seen. The 300-capacity theatre is packed to the rafters with riff-raff, Riff-Raffs, Magentas, Columbias, and even the occasional Rocky braving the cold in tiny gold shorts. There is a frenzy of rice and confetti, “asshole”s and “slut”s, cards for sorrow, cards for pain. After the show there are themed cocktails (Lindis obtains something green and terrifying, which I assume must be a Frank 'N' Furter), and a stage is set up for Cardiff psychobilly outfit Doctor Caligari. It's a lovely party, but my stomach's still in no fit state to be bounced around or filled with alcohol, and I realise I'm going home.

Aberystwyth Arts Centre
Aberystwyth Arts Centre Photo: Max Crawford
The next morning we're faced with even more shorts, though thankfully this time of the film variety. Opening effort M-29 is a bit of stinker, evidently shot on no budget and without the ideas or talent to take up the slack. Its shortcomings are further highlighted by The White Lady, which starts with a similar man-picks-up-hitchhiker-on-lonely-road-at-night premise but with much higher production values, and, more importantly, something to actually say. Baby Monitor—a clunky translation of original title Babyphone—makes the most of its limitations, packing a lot of story into three rooms and as many actors. Dutch short Noise goes one better, spinning an engaging tale of everyday horror with only two rooms and a single couple, most of the action happening offscreen. Extracorpus is pleasingly creepy but otherwise unremarkable, and saccharin storybook tale The Hallowe'en Kid falls flat by telling too much and showing too little. The outstanding Love Bug pitches its balance of comedy and horror just right, recalling the humour of In Bruges and the edge-of-your-seat terror of Herbie Goes Bananas. Lot 254 is three minutes of condensed brilliance, simple but effective and easily the most beautiful film on show. Fan favourite Nostalgic Z deserves its audience award, a strong central performance tying together an original take on both zombie survival and the faux-documentary format. The programme is rounded off by the excellent Attack Of The Brainsucker, which carries a rather more serious message than its title would suggest and delivers it with style. All in, an excellent hit-to-miss ratio, with some outstanding shorts that will hopefully see a wider release.

Ten films down and we've still got American Mary to go. It's another stunner, rising above standard revenge movie fare with a smart script and a fair dash of body horror. Hopefully it'll pave the way for more horror written and directed by women, with powerful female central performances. The queasy feeling in my guts this time has nothing to do with the plague that my white blood cells are cheerfuly battering into submission. Back at the digs Lara has invited friends round and they have brought cake. Also she has made cake and there was already cake left over from previous cake-based events. We eat a lot of cake.

Replete, I return to film the Q&A following Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut (“It's still not a film camera!”, Russell Cherrington gleefully declares of my Frankensteinesque DSLR rig), then bid a fond farewell to the festival. I have no doubt that we'll be back.

Many thanks to Gaz, Nia, Rhys and all at Abertoir for putting on such a stonking festival, to Lara for putting up such a honking houseguest, and Lindis for putting up with such a plonking navigator.

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