Abertoir Horror Festival – Part 1: An Overview

I’ve enjoyed horror films and stories over the years but I wouldn’t really have described myself as a fan.  A random post by ‘Royal’ on the Geek Syndicate Forums however prompted me to check out the Abertoir festival this weekend, and boy am I’m glad I did!

A few years ago the event was hastily pulled together by cinema manager Gareth Bailey when he heard that Robin Hardy – director of legendary film The Wicker Man – was coming to Aberystwyth to promote his new book, Cowboys For Christ.  Fast-forward five years and the film adaptation of that book  is in post-production.  Robin Hardy is back in Aber with a 12 minute preview of The Wicker Tree for our eager consumption and Gareth’s little festival is playing hosting to a World film premiere (sexy thriller Siren) and three UK premieres (Exorcismus, Fired, Wake).

Not bad, eh?

The festival also gave forum to some exciting new talent in the form of a two day short film competition (which I’ll go into in more detail in my next post) as well as showcasing a wide selection of 2010’s horror movies from all around the world.  For those who like their horror a little old fashioned there were also showings of William Castle’s The House On Haunted Hill (complete with flying inflatable skeleton), Hammer’s Countess Dracula, and a beautifully restored print of the classic silent thriller The Cat and The Canary (with piano accompaniament written and performed by Paul Shallcross especially for the festival).

Far, far more variety than I could have hoped to expect from a little backwater like my beloved Aberystwyth, but they didn’t stop there.  Oh no.

There was a truly magnificent live performace of two of MR James best-loved ghost stories, a screen-writing masterclass held by Nicholas David Lean, a tongue in cheek tour through the history of vampire hunting hosted by author and broadcaster Gavin Baddeley and then after hours legendary punk band The Damned tore the house down.

So much for the content, now for the experience.  Firstly I think I should say that the Arts Centre is a great venue.  It’s at the top of town on the University campus, so there’s no fighting the traffic and plenty of on-site parking.  The building is nice and spacious, there’s decent hot food available (a little pricey perhaps, but good quality) and a gorgeous view streching all the way down to the sea.  There’s a large bookshop, a shop selling kooky nick-nacks, an art gallery downstairs and (due to the time of year) the christmas market is on too.  For the film presentation they have a very comfortable cinema.  It’s not multiplex by any standards but the screen size is decent enough, the sound quality was pretty good and the layout is such that heads in front are not usually a problem.  It’s also set up for 3D projection, which for the next couple of years at least will be increasingly important.  For talks and live productions there is a well appointed theatre upstairs, again with well laid-out chairs, decent lighting, good acoustics and a sense of comfortable intimacy.

Numbers attending were not vast, but the presentations I attended were satisfyingly full and the atmosphere was wholly good-natured.  The attendees and guests mingled quite happilly and everyone seemed to be having a great time throughout.  The staff were all very friendly, calm and helpful throughout.  They clearly shared Gareth’s enthusiasm for the event and displayed a real team spirit that larger events sometimes lack.  I didn’t see any cos-play going on, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if future years see the development of this aspect of fandom here.

Highlights for me were the MR James production – candlelit, quiet and very chilling, Finnish film Rare Exports – Santa, but not as you know him, and the Wicker Tree preview – partly because Robin Hardy’s interview afterwards was so illuminating and interesting, and partly because the film looks to be every bit as funny, sexy and darkly harrowing as it’s predecessor.

Was there anything I was disappointed in?  No, I thought the event itself was fantastic.  As a hard working man with not much in the way of disposable income I had neither the time nor the money to get around the whole thing.  I was quite content with this at first, but having had a taster I was gutted that I couldn’t get more involved.  I would have loved to have seen a lot more of the films (particularly the Grindhouse segment where the audience is encouraged to pour derision on the terrible terrible movie being shown) and would have had an absolute ball if I’d had a friend or two along for the ride, but…. such is the tragedy of my life.  (Maybe next year, eh Phil? eh Mattie? Hint. Hint.)

Can I see room for improvement?  Not a huge amount, I have to say.  Gareth has a great taste in films, obviously knows how to organise things and is more interested in putting on a great festival than in raking in the cash.  Incidentally, the price point was fantastic considering the amount of entertainment available.  Aberystwyth isn’t the easiest place in the world to get to, but for a five day event it’s definitely worth the trip.  (And you can visit me!)

Far from the grim and furtive gathering of gorehounds that I’d envisaged, this was a very inclusive, warm-hearted and above all fun event bringing together the best that horror has to offer in all its gleeful facets for fans (old and new) to celebrate.

I can’t wait for the next one.

Reviewed by Dion Winton-Polak

Look for Part 2: The Short Film Competition, soon.

Find out How It Worked, My Pick of The Bunch (with synopses/reviews), Overall Winners and How To Enter (You know… for next year).

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