The penultimate shorts selection of the Dead by Dawn programme, Red in Tooth and Claw concentrates on preternatural side of natural life and – as the title suggests – features nasty surprises in both human and animal form. That’s the thread which runs through the six films on offer, all of which follow very different paths but which present similarly disturbing, shocking and sometimes hilarious takes on human and animal nature.
First up is Oscar’s Bell, a cautionary tale about the perils of camping al fresco with a superb sting in its posterior. Director Chris Cronin is joined by his brother Sam (who also happens to be the cinematographer) and star Paul Bullion on stage before the screening to give some small insight into the making of the film and its backstory, much of which was inspired by true events. It’s a strong start to the programme which builds tension nicely until it’s final pay-off, with some inventive cinematography adding a touch of flair.
Next comes Pleine Campagne (Countryside) from France, which focuses on a remote farm where young women are apparently being lured, abducted and murdered by a bespectacled loner. Of course, this being Dead by Dawn, all is not as it immediately seems and the intelligent story arc is bolstered by more fine camerawork, including some spiralling drone footage, alongside suitably unsettling performances from its cast.
The evening’s weirdest short is up next in the shape of Petul, another French offering following the fate of an unfortunate jerboa who has somehow managed to find himself in the clutches of a particularly brutal family. Cowed by her ruthless father and sadistic brother, the kind-hearted daughter can only look on as the jerboa and countless mice are tortured and killed in front of her eyes… until the rodents strike back. This is a truly imaginative piece of cinema, reminiscent of the grotesqueness of Roald Dahl and the surrealism of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, which contains no shortage of the black humour that was the hallmark of both.
Next is Who’s That at the Back of the Bus, a five-minute ramble down the rabbit hole that nocturnal public transport can sometimes be. As wacky as it is funny, this is a short and sharp sideways glance at the night bus that might just make you think twice about forgoing the cab fare next time you’re out after dark.
Cerdita (Piggy) is the penultimate short of the evening and focuses on Sara, a schoolgirl ridiculed for her physical appearance by her bitchy peers. After bullying Sara mercilessly and stealing her clothes while she is taking a dip, the girls find the tables have turned on them thanks to help from an unlikely ally. Although funny in parts and effective in eliciting empathy for the downtrodden protagonist, the story is a touch too predictable to be really as shocking as it aims.
The final slot in the programme belongs to Dead Birds, which is by far the longest short of the evening and unfortunately, also probably the weakest entry on the list. The story follows an aspiring badminton player never quite able to break out of the shadow of her successful mother, who makes a pact with a sadistic and offbeat Saint to achieve her dreams. With a plenty of nods to the horror canon and a storyline that never takes itself seriously, the film is still good fun – but not quite as edgy or inventive as anything that has come before.
Despite this slight drop-off in quality towards the end of the collection, Red in Tooth and Claw remains an excellent programme of short films which showcase the work of some exciting new filmmakers. In particular, the camerawork in nearly all of the shorts is eye-catching, making the most of small runtimes and budget limitations to create memorable carriages for the stories it presents. Overall, the programme (much like Dead by Dawn in general) makes for an eclectic and entertaining mixture of offbeat horror.