My favorite component of any given film festival should be pretty obvious by now. Sundance calls it Park City After Midnight. Toronto calls it Midnight Madness. Over at SXSW, the program's known as 'Round Midnight, and here in the beautiful city of Philadelphia, our local film festival calls it Danger After Dark. No matter what you call the program and no matter what city you happen to be in, any half-decent film festival will always offer a colorful variety of horror flicks, cult-type comedies, and genre fare that's not easily classifiable, but will undoubtedly appeal to the more intrepid movie geeks out there.

So while the Philadelphia Film Festival is obviously not on the same playing field as a Toronto or a Sundance, that doesn't prevent Danger After Dark programmer Travis Crawford from cobbling together one heck of a genre display, year after year. And while it seems unlikely that a professional festival-goer would call the Philly Fest "the finest in the country," there's little denying that the Danger After Dark program gets more exciting (and more popular) with each passing year. Basically what I'm saying is: The festival as a whole is a darn good time, but if genre fare is what you're after, make sure you get down to Philadelphia next April! (We're one of those shiny spots right near New York, Baltimore, and Atlantic City.)

My first Philly Fest was in 2003, and while I was psyched enough to see all the "regular" movies, my eyeballs kept focusing on the Danger After Dark lineup, which back then included titles like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Dark Water, Eternal Blood, Love Object, Mimic: Sentinel, and Beyond Re-Animator. Nothing too staggering, but I got a good introduction to Chan-wook Park and Hideo Nakata, and a few DTV Dimension titles that, despite common sense, I always get a little psyched for.  
 
2004's Danger After Dark lineup was even better: I was treated to imports like Azumi, Acacia, Dragonhead, High Tension, The Legend of Evil Lake, Moon Child, and The Park, and home-grown horrors like King of the Ants, The Last Horror Film, and Tobe Hooper's remake of Toolbox Murders. Never before has the meaning of the phrase "kid in a candy store" been clearer.

2005 was kind of a mixed bag where the D.A.D. flicks were concerned, but with titles like Kontroll, Izo, Karaoke Terror, Survive Style 5 , One Missed Call, Oldboy, R-Point, and Marebito ... I sure wasn't bored.

And now with the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival winding to a close, I was inspired to put together a tribute to Crawford's handiwork and remind the movie-geek world that there's a great place to see a bunch of movies on the East Coast -- and it ain't Tribeca I'm talking about! This year's Danger After Dark lineup is the most impressive one yet. Have a look:

The Descent -- Yes, the Brit horror flick that everyone and their grandmother has been talking about for the past eleven months. I've seen the UK version. I've seen the US version. And, regardless of which one you get to see, this is one blisteringly bad-ass monster movie. No spoilers here (Lionsgate plans to release The Descent stateside later this summer) but it's about a group of six women who decide to do some "extreme spelunking," and end up on the receiving end of serious terror. Frankly I think it's one of the best horror flicks of the past ten years, and you can quote me on that. (Please do, actually.) World-renowned Canadian movie geek James Rocchi says "The Descent is a great reminder of why horror's so memorable and fun when it sincerely works -- full of jumps and jolts, with people screaming at the screen in surprise and rooting for likable characters to avoid disgusting ends."

District 13 -- An amazingly slick, speedy, and refreshing action flick from France, it's about a pair of super-slippery futuristic anti-heroes who aim to invade a walled-in ghetto so they can rescue a beautiful girl and save France from a bomb attack. At 85 minutes in length, District doesn't waste a lot of time on emotional character development or huge dollops of plot exposition, and the result is a movie that absolutely flies by without breaking a sweat. Plus it's got two or three action scenes that are just ... wild.

Evil Aliens -- From across the pond comes a splatter-heavy sci-fi horror comedy that's filled to bursting with slimy tentacles, outlandish violence, broad humor, and more anal probes than one movie should ever contain. Clearly aiming for an early Peter Jackson-ish combo of monstrous mayhem and dismembered-tongue-in-rotting-cheek personality, director Jake West keeps the aliens invadin', the survivors splatterin', and the gore goopy. I had a ball with this one.

Isolation -- Don't really see a whole lot of horror flicks coming out of Ireland these days, but between this flick and the adorably low budget Dead Meat from a few months back, it seems the Emerald Isle has been catching up on their spooky cinema. Director Billy O'Brien takes a potentially goofball premise (an isolated farm is under attack from a bovine-born mutant monster) and douses it in grungy goo, icky intensity, and claustrophobic creepiness. The result is a disturbing little import that's a darkly amusing as it is visually virulent. Like all the ones mentioned so far, Isolation will most certainly find its way into my DVD collection.

...and the splats just keep on coming: From Scotland comes a low-budget werewolf chiller called Wild Country; from Greece comes that country's very first zombie movie, Evil; there's also a Thai experiment that takes place almost entirely in Hell; Chan-wook Park's Lady Vengeance; a Japanese tale of Reincarnation (from the director of all the Grudge flicks); and a proudly nauseating Aussie indie called Feed (which is the only movie here that I've seen and actively disliked; can't win 'em all).

So while it's probably too late to hop a train into Philly, because the festival only has a few more days to run, please do consider this fair warning for next year: If imported cinematic insanity with a distinctly horrific vibe is your cup of tea, and you happen to live, say, less than 100 miles from the City of Brotherly Love, keep your schedule for next April wide open. The Philly Film Festival's Danger After Dark lineup has gotten exponentially better over each of the last four years ... which, obviously, has me pretty darn geeked for the 2007 titles.