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Shock & Gore 2015, Docu-Shorts and Brum’s Evil Genius

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There is no shortage of film festivals in the town of Ann Arbor but at this time of year I always get a pang of homesickness when I see the schedule for Birmingham’s own Shock & Gore.

Though London’s FrightFest has been recommend to me by horror buffs, film critics and magazine editors over the years, I will always reserve a special love for the bloody brilliant horror fest staged by the Electric Cinema. And this year’s festival is of particular personal interest as there is a documentary on local artist (and evil genius) Tom Ellis of Curious Oddities.

Perhaps you have attended a Shock & Gore film and had the disturbing pleasure of encountering some of Tom’s work, or walked past his chilling window display at the Great Western Arcade.

Voodoo Child: Tom Ellis' mechanical demon baby.

Voodoo Child: Tom Ellis’ mechanical demon baby.

My personal favourite Curious Oddity was the monster baby in a pram left by the upstairs screening room door.  If it didn’t put me off parenthood for an extra couple of years on sight, it definitely gave me the willies when a member of staff pulled a cord on the baby’s back and it started writhing around in the pram and emitting demonic baby laughter!  I kinda want one now.

I love the way the Great Western gave over its vacant window space to artists such as Mr Ellis in the wake of the financial crisis. His collection of curious oddities, such as weird sea creatures, dirty dolls furniture and  yarn eggs – with eyes (!) made me wish the door to the shop front would open and I could go in and see just how dark things got…but then I was afraid of how dark things could get.

I wondered whether to try and interview him for this humble blog – in a public place of course, in case he took me to a cave with malevolent goblins living in the walls. His creatures seemed so lovingly made, detailed and worn-in and I was genuinely intrigued by how he made them. So I walked over to the GWA and the shop front had vanished. And I had lost his card from Shock & Gore, and was due to leave the country soon. I figured it was fate intervening and left it at that.

But now I am curious no longer; Tom’s friend, local filmmaker Andrew Rutter, has made a short documentary about the man and his craft. As I am so far away I caught it on Vimeo but think it will make a fabulous addition to the programme of shorts showing on Wednesday 22nd at 6.15pm at the Electric.

Tom’s sculptures are not the only reason that Shock & Gore continues to be such fun. The organisers think outside the box in terms of pairing films with scary activities. This year, a ghost walk around Birmingham precedes a showing of The Haunting (1963). Other creepy-cool experiences include an edible accompaniment to Shaun of the Dead, and an actual tutorial in how to kill the undead by Jonathan Ferguson who is a curator at the Royal Armory in Leeds and the definitive expert in vampire killing kits.

So if you like being scared, don’t be afraid of rocking up to some of these events laid on by the wizards of Shock & Gore.


In which life becomes even more like The Five Year Engagement

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“Ann anbor wshg st” by Traveler100. Wiki Commons

When you are little and you think that life has all these big plans for you, that in some manner you are special or chosen (oh come on, everyone thinks this. Why do you think Buffy and Harry Potter were so successful?), little do you bargain for the slow, painful line-up of moments that prove this not to be the case. Educational moments, character-forming moments, ridiculously sucky moments.

Yet there have been a few times when my life has resembled a movie, for example:

  • Rock of Ages (2010) I was on holiday in New Orleans when some 80s rock god *cough – Tommy Lee –cough* kept tuning up wherever we went, I like to think he was stalking me. He did actually walk over to me at one point and I ran off squealing like a little girl – soooo mature.

These are pretty terrible films admittedly, but that’s OK. It’s when your life starts resembling an Oscar-worthy movie that you should be worried.

The world gives us so many challenges that are not celebrated despite the heroic way that we deal with them; death, serious illness, chronic illness, redundancy, bankruptcy. So many people take on these troubles with a strength that comes only from knowing that there is no other option. No wonder we crave celluloid escapism.

Over the past year, my married life has resembled a movie which in Michigan terms has proved divisive, The Five-Year Engagement. Overly long (like this post), moderately funny, and in our case so very true, the film sees an Anglo-American couple move to Michigan for career reasons only to see one partner succeed while the other flounders. I am the flounderer in our case. Just like Jason Segel, I have yet to find my career niche over here, find my homeland instantly preferable and retreat sulkily into my knitting. Home brewing is one Michigan step too far though.

To compound matters, we have just moved to the town where the movie is set, Ann Arbor. Home to the University of Michigan, a thriving restaurant and brewing scene, a liberal outlook and most importantly a successful infrastructure (no small thing after seeing the lack of it in Detroit and its suburbs)!

I think The Five-Year Engagement gives Ann Arbor a raw deal. Yes, Michigan is bleak and cold during the brutal Midwest winters, but the idea of a chef not being able to find work in AA is pretty laughable. Segel’s character eventually gets a job at Zingermann’s which is a deservedly lauded foodie empire (there is nothing at that deli which isn’t made from scratch and agonised over in terms of ingredients and food trends). As a chef, his character should be impressed.

Gone to seed stitch: some seriously bad knitting in The Five Year Engagement

Gone to seed stitch: some seriously bad knitting in The Five Year Engagement

He goes all back-woodsy, which doesn’t scream AA to me. He does start to brew which is definitely a Michigan pastime but in case you haven’t noticed it has become the American pastime too. Even in the UK, micro-brewing is taking off.  He starts knitting (without using a tailor’s dummy, or blocking, or apparently using anything but mohair). I haven’t seen any really great yarn shops in AA yet (maybe the Metro-D has AA beaten on that account) but am open to suggestions. Segel’s character uses all the distractions he can think of to avoid taking a long hard look at himself and what would make him happier.

I like to think that Mr Segel wrote the story about any town that isn’t San Francisco/New York/ LA and then taking advantage of the Michigan Film Initiative, had to slot Ann Arbor in to that generic non-cosmopolitan role. Does he sometimes lie awake at night, wondering briefly if he gave AA a bad rap before plumping his money-filled pillow and sleeping like a baby? OK, that’s harsh. My brother-in-law actually met him during filming and said he came across as very decent.

The point is, maybe I, like Jason Segel in The Five Year Engagement, need to alter my outlook. We shouldn’t rely on places or people to save us, but harness what stands out where we are, and use it to drive us forward to a self-made happily ever after. Here goes…

How to throw an America-proof Halloween Party

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photo 1

‘You’ll have to step up your game over here. Americans have pretty much seen it all at Halloween.’

This was the response I received when I put forward the idea of throwing a Halloween party to some friends over dinner.

If you have ever read Brummed Out before, you’ll know that I’m rather giddy for Halloween, and consistently disappointed at the lack of Halloween spirit in the UK. Not so in Michigan folks.  Just on my street this week, we’ve had industrial amounts of spider webbing, entire front lawn cemeteries, headless mannequins and a 10ft Wicker Man. All of which were cruelly denied their moment of gory glory by the last minute gales, rain and even a snow flurry that kept Trick or Treaters indoors on Halloween night.

Planning a Halloween party that won’t bore Americans is another beast entirely though.  BUT, we might just have done it on Saturday.  Americans love animatronics. We had no such budget. I was just one girl armed with a roll of garbage bags and a sick imagination. Here is how we threw Little Haunted House on the Prairie…

  1. The Dollar Store/ 99p Shop is your best friend.

photo 9

Ravens, skeletons on string, spider webs, spooky holographic pictures, candles, dolls. All can be purchased here and used as the basis for kick-ass Halloween displays. I wired my raven to a twig and perched it in an old lantern, Edgar Allan Poe-style, the holographs were put in normal photo frames to form a spooky picture gallery. The dolls were painted spooky white and their eyes were painted black. Cheap, cheerful, weird wonderful.

  1. Hack your LACK                                                               photo 2                                                                                   Ouija boards are freaky, fact. I used a printable one, some white acrylic paint, and THIS program to trace and paint one onto our cheap IKEA LACK coffee table. It washed off really easily the day afterwards and made people feel all dangerous/ nostalgic (in a 13 year old’s slumber party kinda way) while they were sitting around it.
  1. Copy and Paste

Food labels, apothecary labels, vintage Halloween graphics, invitations. Ideas are all over the internet. Be inspired and print out you faves to use.

4. Get your glow on

photo 8                                                                                               We had a scary unfinished basement and not enough space for the amount of people we invited. Scary basement seemed like a good overflow space but how to get the guests to venture down there?… Aha! Beer + Blacklight. We stashed the kegs downstairs and purchased a big ole 48” blacklight from Spencer’s. We hung blacklight bats from the joists, positioned scary dolls and horror books on the shelves, and used blacklight paint to write quotes from scary movies on the walls (on paper of course – your landlord will not appreciate having to re-rent a permanent murder basement), stuff like THIS and THIS. We also put some dry ice in styofoam coolers (like ‘em? They were pretty fun to make) to seep out eerily in the glow. It didn’t work that well – maybe we’ll add a fog machine next year.

  1. A tree is not just for Christmas

photo 7Black Christmas trees are brilliant. So sophisticated at Christmas, so scary at Halloween. This is decorated purely with rings, tinsel and creatures from Birmingham’s 99p Store (Yup, even the witch at the top – she cackles too!)

  1. Include Obscure Movie References
photo 5

I made these ‘devil’s nests’ from True Detective, with twigs, thread and some florist’s moss. The husband made me lock them away because they creeped him out. Mission accomplished.

                                                                                               Chances are, you’ll have one or two movie buffs at the party. They will appreciate a few well placed references, even if the majority of your guests do not. Apart from the quotes in the basement, we displayed my Evil Dead Necronomecon, and I made a sign for the basement, based on the haunted forest from The Wizard of Oz. I included a Black Candle in the bathroom ‘only to be lit by virgins at midnight’ – who didn’t love watching Scary Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus?

  1. ALWAYS do the bathrooms

photo 6                                                                                                As certain as the toilet getting clogged is the fact that your guests will root around in your bathroom cupboards. Give them what they want (no, not the Valium), make some apothecary bottles – a cheap one is sweetcorn and black tea in a jar labelled ‘Old People’s Teeth’. Fill them with different coloured water and there are lots of printable labels on t’internet. A scary holographic picture and lots of cobwebs help. Do clean the shitter though –that’s just good manners.

  1. Include one good scare

photo 3                                                                                                As I just wrote, people get nosy at house parties; they want to know how clean you are. You can exploit this by putting a fake body in the bathtub! If you draw the shower curtain straight across, they will suspect you are hiding something – and you are. The beauty of this is that some people will come out ready to tell everyone about it, and some will make a great effort not to – but the faces always give it away. Either way, you save hundreds on animatronics and you find out who’s a nosy parker!

  1. Make gross-looking food, offer it around –and be prepared to eat it yourself!
Split Cockroaches: dates stuffed with honey and walnuts - for that gooey but crunchy feel.

Split Cockroaches: dates stuffed with honey and walnuts – for that gooey but crunchy feel.

This year, I plumped for making Used Q-Tips, a Dirty Ashtray, Split Cockroaches and Jello Worms. The worms looked so real that people wouldn’t eat them so Mr D and myself downed a fair few just for the disgusting factor. It’s always good to circulate with these dishes as it makes people feel looked after – or victimised: tomato-tomato.

10. Don’t scrimp on the alcohol

Jello-shots turn up in the weirdest places.

Jello-shots turn up in the weirdest places.

Halloween is the perfect time to wash a latex glove, fill it with water, freeze it, then empty it into some brightly coloured spiked punch, try to make some non-alcoholic punch for the kids too – they appreciate doing what the grown-ups do. If you’ve ever wanted to try pumpkin ale, now is the time. Jelly-shots, and Bombay Bad Bears (gummies soaked in gin) are also good adult Treats. Just be prepared for the consequences. I’ve only just finished clearing up and it’s three days later…

Oh, and the garbage bags…?

Well, apart from clearing up the debris (those jelly-shots got everywhere),  they make pretty awesome decorations – and fake corpses. Thank you Martha Stewart (yikes, can’t believe that just happened).

I’m being dumped – by Scotland

Dignity-of-Being-Dumped-photoToday finds me up in the attic room of our house, sipping on strong black coffee, listening to Carole King’s Tapestry (click here if you’d like to listen along too), and typing away pensively.

Tapestry is the ultimate break up album, by turns soulful, melancholy, angry, sassy and warm. A friend when there doesn’t seem to be one nearby. Even the cover (Carole, barefoot on her window seat, covered in cats and smiling wisely) is downright comforting. And I need her right now – because as it turns out, breaking up is very hard to do.

Don’t worry, Mr D and I are very much together, but it seems that I’m being dumped. By Scotland. I feel like the needy ex-girlfriend, who’s increasingly undignified in her efforts to make the Scottish stay. Like the child of divorce, and even if ‘mummy and daddy’ do decide to stay together for old times’ sake, there will forever be a current of resentment, mistrust and animosity running under even the simplest exchanges.

‘Now you look so unhappy, and I feel like a fool’ (Carole King, It’s Too Late)

I’ve been noticing it for years. Not just from Scotland. My Irish grandmother’s family settled in the Northeast and even as a child, I was subject to snide remarks from grown men about how I was a ‘bloody Tory’ just because I happened to be from the Midlands (which northerners tend to classify as ‘down south’) – I was eight years old! Once, my great aunt and uncle came to tea on their way to a Cornish holiday and proceeded to shout at my father for not being a Labour supporter (he never did say who he had voted for) after they asked him.

I learned that the closer you live to London, the more you are deemed responsible for governmental policies. Having said this, I love the north of England (where I have studied) and Scotland (where I have holidayed) and have met fantastic, open-minded people from both. I don’t want to think that the media scaremongering about mutual antipathy is true.

But mostly I’m just sad and resigned to this fate. Even a vote tomorrow to sustain our union will probably result in another referendum sooner, rather than later, until Independence for Scotland is reached. I’m in dire need of chocolate.

‘So far away, doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?’ (Carole King, So Far Away)

It doesn’t help that from 3000 miles away, I can’t ascertain the actual mood surrounding the debate. I read various British newspapers that all seem to be focusing on the alleged nastiness that has punctuated the Yes and No campaigns, and the accompanying comments that don’t seem to paint many people in the best of lights.

‘You can’t talk to a man with a shot gun in his hand’ (Carole King, Smackwater Jack)    

Can I even believe the stories of violence and intimidation that are zipping around the internet? I was disgusted by one tale of a pregnant woman being kicked in the stomach at a No rally, but have not found it reported in any paper – is it in fact a myth created by cybernats?

I have a Scottish neighbour. He plays his bagpipes loudly every Saturday afternoon, and from what I hear, has been over here for about thirty years. I almost encountered him yesterday when I got caught up in the leashes of our local friendly dog walkers, with whom he was chatting. Slightly terrified, I did what I always do if I don’t want to deal with the British thing; I put on an American accent.

 And so it transpires I have never actually talked to him, and do wonder if any exchange might contain some frostiness (I do so hope not), and if he has very strong feelings on the independence issue. But then, do either of us have a right to feel strongly about an issue neither of us can vote on, having left our shared native shores?

I have registered to vote in the UK by proxy, which in itself is an act of trust but may do more good than a tardy postal vote. I wouldn’t get a vote in the Scottish independence referendum even if I was still living in England, then again nor do any Scottish servicemen/women stationed abroad. We expats already feel slightly dubious about our ability to help decide the government of a county we chose to leave willingly.

So I’m going to sit up here, drinking my coffee, looking out on to these foreign rooftops, accept the outcome and hope we can still be friends.

 ‘There’ll be good times again for me and you
But we just can’t stay together, don’t you feel it too?
Still I’m glad for what we had’ (Carole King, It’s Too late)


Tailgating & Tom Petty

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

I don’t know about you, but during my childhood, eating before an outdoor event involved a cheese and pickle sandwich, munched on in near silence inside the family car with unrelenting rain cascading down the windows.

In the States, it’s very different. They have actual long hot summers, the jammy sods! Last week, I experienced my first American tailgate at a Tom Petty show.

Forget baseball games. The tailgate is the quintessential American experience. It’s a sort of makeshift camp involving parking along side friends, lighting up barbecues and imbibing pre-event beer. A very convivial atmosphere abounds that shows American friendliness off to its best advantage. Don’t have a beer? – have one of ours. Hey man, you like TP, I like TP – come and eat some brats.

BBQ at our tailgate.

BBQ at our tailgate.

 Although the tailgate is a staple of America’s summer culture, it has remained dormant in the foreign consciousness. For unknown reasons, it hasn’t crept into Hollywood films until fairly recently. But Silver Linings Playbook and How I Met Your Mother have included tailgate scenes if you want to get a visual.

We ended up tailgating with the head brewer at Short’s Microbrewery: a brewer in the vicinity is guaranteed to be the most popular man in the room around here – next to Tom Petty.

I don’t think Tom Petty is as big a deal back in the UK but over here he is revered, retaining a cross generational appeal. Just look at this clip from the 2008 Superbowl.

Quite strange really; mention TP to an American guy, and they either go ‘F*%$ Yeah, Tom Petty!’ (young men), or a fond smile steeped in nostalgia sweeps across their faces (baby boomer men), and at one point during the concert, a young woman leaned over to me and said ‘I know he’s really old, but I’d still totally tap that!’ Disagree on whatever you wish but Tom Petty is probably America’s best bet at achieving world peace. I suspect it has something to do with weed.

As we pulled into the car park at Pine Knob ski hill, the air was thick with the stuff. The irony of our location was not lost as we drove past countless fifty/sixty-somethings cranking up the car stereos and partaking of the ’erb (somewhere, a 20-something graduate is going without a house down payment). As the designated driver, I could tell this was going to be a long night.

Ugh: Tall people.

Ugh: Tall people.

 It seemed our group had enjoyed the tailgate a little too much. By the time we had climbed the steep steps to the top of the hill it was packed. We set our rugs down right at the top of the hill and the warm up act, Steve Winwood (yes, he of the ‘Valerieeeeeeeeee – call me’ dirty aerobics video that was always playing at Pure Gym on Broad Street) was a minute spec at the bottom, our view blocked by a shifting array of tall people and their Amazonian girlfriends who never pass up the opportunity to sit on their boyfriends’ shoulders.

Galling! The sound wasn’t up to much from our alpine perch, and eventually half of us descended the hill in search of better acoustics (and beer). The difference was immediate; suddenly Tom Petty was at least a centimetre bigger and I could hear the lyrics – something about Mary Jane? Ahhhhhh. We took advantage of this position until the penultimate song, scrambling up the hill to be reunited for ‘American Girl.’

Ah, that's better: closer to the music.

Ah, that’s better: closer to the music.

 The Aftermath: I was keen to vomit – the contact buzz from thousands of politely shared joints was finally overwhelming me. Rubbish littered the site like a last minute Glastonbury. Last night (Kiss) was sold out too – how do the staff clean up so quickly? The stairs were rammed – a bottleneck caused by someone vomiting down the steps. A boy on crutches decided to bypass this by swinging himself down the ski hill. The inevitable happened – crash, bang, thud – looked like the good leg caught it this time. It turns out that no matter what country you’re in, binge drinking will turn us into arseholes.

I started driving back to settle my stomach. My husband reclined, dozily in the passenger seat.

‘Now that baby,’ he slurred, complete with nostalgic smile, ‘was the real America!’

Heads Up! Shock & Gore 2014 Schedule Released

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Oh how I love the Shock & Gore horror festival at the Electric Cinema. And oh how gutted I am that I’m stuck on t’other side of the pond for this year’s fourth celebration of the weird and wonderful side of cinema.

To fully understand how much I love Shock & Gore, click HERE and HERE.

Yup it’s that good.

So what would I be going to see this year? Well I have never quite gotten over Twin Peaks, even though David Lynch abandoned the show in it’s second season leading to a sharp decline in quality and the damn network insisted that Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed early on when it was never meant to be a solved case at all and then it got cancelled on a reaaaallly infuriating cliffhanger…OK Breathe, it was 25 years ago dammit.

Horror meets Americana: Twin Peaks

Horror meets Americana: Twin Peaks


Anyway the fact remains that for a while, Twin Peaks captured our imaginations rather like Game of Thrones does these days. It remains one of the greatest TV series of all time. And in view of this, S&G are having a David Lynch night on Friday July 25th. There will be a showing of the strange and compelling Mulholland Drive, followed by some sort of Twin Peaks-related viewing. I have no idea what form this will take; could be a Log Lady riddle, could be Red Room dream sequence. The only thing for certain is that coffee and damn fine cherry pie will be available at the bar.

Cronos: Guillermo del Toro breathes new life into M.R. James' old 'enchanted object' plot.

Cronos: Guillermo del Toro breathes new life into M.R. James’ old ‘enchanted object’ plot.


For those of you who couldn’t care less about Twin Peaks (do I really owe you anything?) here are some other S&G offerings…

  • Classic spine-tingler in the form of The Innocents (Friday 25th – Thursday 31st)
  • Movie buff -worthy screening of Alien: The Director’s Cut (Saturday 26th)
  • Obligatory vampire quota is served by Cronos (Friday 25th) and the Lost Boys (Part of the All-nighter on Saturday 26th).
  • Morbid curiosity satiated by the intriguing sounding Death Cafe at the Victoria on Sunday 27th
  • Utter terrifying and all too real misery in Threads (Wednesday 30th) with a live score to bring the nuclear apocalypse even closer to home.
  • Queer Eye for the Dead Guy: Michael Blyth from the BFI delivers a lecture on gay presence in horror films from the 1930s to the present day. I expect this will be a lot like The Celluloid Closet stuff that Vito Russo wrote about and could be good fun.

So whatever keeps you awake at night, make sure you indulge it next month at Shock & Gore. And tell us how it went!

What happens in your mind when you watch Threads.

What happens in your mind when you watch Threads.

Heads Up! Sushi Passion Expands Into Great Western Arcade

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Sushi Passion: I took this photo when it was still a very new business but it has since taken off (hooray).

Promised I’d keep an eye on the place, didn’t I?

There was a very heartening post on the Facebook feed this afternoon. One of the best foodie destinations in Birmingham is expanding.

Sushi Passion has been a big hit since it set up a tiny bar among the fish mongers of the Bullring’s Indoor Market.

It was a plucky, bold move for Adam the owner, who as mentioned in previous posts, was always the best chef at Yo Sushi’s former Brindley Place location. Adam struck out on his own, making amazingly presented, high quality sushi with a true foodie sensibility.

He received Facebook flack for setting up in the market and answered back valiantly.  Were they kidding? This is the best place to be, surrounded by ingredients at their freshest. Half the fun of shopping at London’s Borough Market is visiting the food stalls inside.

Thankfully  lots of us saw that this was a good thing and Sushi Passion had regular lunch queues and loyal customers. Customers who are about to be very happy with the news that Sushi Passion is setting up shop in the Great Western Arcade.

From August, Unit 31 will be open for sushi galore. There will be the familiar bar up front as well as low traditional tables and instructions on how to eat and what to order from the staff.

Adam is a very inventive chef so expect lots of specials.

This is good news for the Great Western Arcade, situated in an area that unlike Grand Central or the Mailbox, is not seeing an influx of city investment.

But with Sushi Passion joining the ranks of the Loki Wine Tasting House,  the Whisky Shop, Anderson & Hill and The Bread Collection, the Arcade is fast becoming a viable foodie destination in Brum.

And best of all, Adam assures me that the Bullring sushi bar is going nowhere. Bonus foodie points.





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