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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.


Brum Legends #2: The Birmingham Vampire


Kurt Barlow

70s vampire: Salem’s Lot’s principle vampire Kurt Barlow

Over the past month, Northampton has been spooked by a grown man dressing as a clown. He seems to be harnessing the image of the scary child-killing monster Pennywise from the Stephen King novel It.

This character keeps a Facebook page and claims not to want to frighten the town’s residents, despite creeping around their streets in the dead of night, knocking on their doors, and staring at folks until they run away. Some think his creepy antics are amusing, others accuse him of exploiting Coulrophobia (yup, there’s a scientific term for the fear of clowns).  People have been worried that he may be disturbed and gathering attention in advance of doing something …worse (a la every serial killer on Luther). He even has his own vigilante. Fun or foe?  Here is a film of him so you can make up your own minds.

The Northampton Clown makes his rounds.

The Northampton Clown makes his rounds.

Anyway, around this time each year, I dig out another Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot to reread while the nights are steadily drawing in. I’d thoroughly recommend it – very atmospheric and scary (the first time I finished it, I had to ring a few people up to make me less frightened – at 4.30 in the morning. You’re welcome). Now it is an autumnal ritual, the same as pumpkin carving, sloe collecting and the Halloween Tree.

Anyway, here’s the vampire bit…

So yeah, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. Salem’s Lot is about vampires – and not the simpering Twilight model-ish, veggie ones. We’re talking back to basics, bad-ass, soulless demonic entities (click here if you dare *). We have so many variations on what a vampire is these days that the air of fear at the prospect of a human acting like an animal and biting us, has pretty much become extinct.

But back in January 2005, it returned for a while in the Birmingham neighbourhoods of Ward End, Saltley, Small Heath and Alum Rock. Reports of a man who attacked a family on Glen Park Road in Alum Rock by biting them on December 19th 2004, apparently led to a police report being filed. In the following weeks many more ‘incidents’ were alleged to have taken place.

The suspect was supposedly a Somalian man in his mid-20s, and each time the incident at Glen Park Road was reported, new embellishments were added; that he’d started his feeding frenzy by a biting a fully grown man before working his way through the family and then biting a chunk out of a female observer, that he was just after the Bangladeshi community, that he was just after women and children.

Suddenly it was in all the local newspapers, then the nationals, the Beeb and Sky News, and even Richard and bloody Judy. Worried parents at local schools plagued the head teachers with phone calls, in case the vampire had rabies and went after the ‘little ’uns’.  Imams and priests were being asked to speak out against the fear engulfing their communities.


Here’s the thing; the police had never had any reports of people being bitten, not one. Neither did any local hospital see any bite victims coming through their doors. Nor were there any reports of nut-cases with biting fetishes on the loose.

Since there were no victims on record, the authorities had no idea what the vamp looked like. But when did that ever stop people making crap up? Lots of forums had fun with this one.  The Birmingham Evening Mail in typical ‘crazy human interest story’ style, dispatched one of their number to the scene of the alleged crimes armed with garlic and a crucifix, to scrounge for more witnesses.

But try as they might, there was nothing to latch onto. Because it was a hoax. At least the people of Northampton have concrete footage of their creepy psycho, not for them the desperation of the urban myth. But as urban myths go, this was quite a good one, just plausible enough to keep people looking behind them on those dark winter nights. And just imaginative enough to fill the yawning gap we have for a little carefully contrived fear in our lives.


 *I actually find the 1970s TV version (directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist fame) quite creepy but you may just find it quaint. Anyway, just try the book, it is properly scary.



Brum Legends #1: The Chocolate Guinness Cake at the 6/8 Kafe.

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Beyond Fabulous: A freshly baked chocolate Guinness cake as photographed by the baker himself. Courtesy of Gavin Page.

Beyond Fabulous: A freshly baked chocolate Guinness cake as photographed by the baker himself. Courtesy of Gavin Page.

It is without a doubt, one of the best desserts I have ever tasted. And if you’ve ever ventured into the 6/8 Kafe near Temple Row, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

The perfect blend of dense and moist yet strangely light chocolate sponge, with the out-of-this-world cream-cheese topping. It almost looks like a short, squat pint of Guinness. But you can eat it and make nom nom sounds in the process. With Guinness, you can only gargle.

Did you ever watch that old TV show Twin Peaks? I love Agent Cooper’s obsession with the cherry pie at the RR Diner and his quote: ‘This must be where pies go when they die’.

Well this is the cake equivalent.

It haunts my dreams sometimes.

I confess, I became quite obsessed with it last summer, just before I became ill (don’t worry, it didn’t contribute).  My sister in law visited from Detroit and we polished off at least three slices between us in one sitting.

Then I bought the entire sample tray at 6/8’s stand at the Taste of Birmingham event and served it at a dinner party. And the legend spread further. ‘What is this morsel of heaven?’ asked my guests.

It’s not just me who has noticed this cake either. It has spawned much discussion on Birmingham forums, and even been featured on a baking documentary.   Enquiring minds really want to know about the cake that is fast gaining legendary coffee-shop status in these parts.

So I determined to find out who makes the chocolate Guinness cake and what makes it so special.

Gavin Page, the creator, runs his business, Tobizzy2bake (FUN FACT: the  name comes from his kids Toby and Izi – aw, sweet) from his home up in Shenstone and gets up every day at 5am to make ciabatta for Anderson & Hill and Brewsmiths, both in Brum. That stuff is awesome too btw.

‘I’m sorry if this is a little ‘dull’, but I’m quite normal, apart from being a middle aged male home baker,’ Gavin tells me, obviously perplexed that some mad woman wants to know all about him and his marvellous creation.

Ah, so modest.

There’s no big secret to the cake (that he’s willing to divulge) and he cooks all his bread and cakes in a standard domestic oven. So no Agas, Wolfs or fairy dust then. Good to know.

Gavin has been making this particular cake for years. It was only after he was made redundant after a 20 year career in motor insurance that he decided to share his talent with the wider world.

Well I for one am glad for Gavin’s career change. I’m always heartened to read stories of people making lemonade from lemons. (Brum lemonade anyone?)

As the legend spreads, so does Gavin’s list of appreciative coffee shops. Indeed, the cake can now be found in Moseley at Cafephilia which opened earlier this month on the Alcester Road.

Long may this fabulous cake continue to be found in our fair city.

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