Jonathan Cowie once more has the difficult task of finding fault with the latest of what has surely become the most well-organised SF convention series in the UK.
Not to beat about the bush, fantastic film buffs had a superb time at this year’s Festival. An excellent range of guests, the usual curate’s egg selection of films (again as usual including some absolute gems), and a reasonable hotel, all combined to make this year’s Festival much like its recent predecessors...
Criticisms? Again the usual - the Fest was decidedly light on early 1990 and 1980s SF. Rocky Horror was put on before party time at 8pm, and not at midnight (as per Eastercon conventions of the late 80s)! The Renaissance Hotel completely botched Sunday breakfast (but otherwise were fine). The Committee (Harry Nadler, Tony Edwards and Gil-Lane Young) seemed to do a 2Kon and keep a low profile... actually that was probably a good thing as one did not have to buy them well-deserved drinks. Little Sarah (aged 10) bullied us a tad too much selling raffle tickets (and raised a record amount!). The lifts did not have trans-warp. There was no time dilation in the bar... Yes, I am struggling to find fault.
Gossip: there was the usual spate of news about forthcoming films and TV series. Criticism of SFX magazine’s bias against the event (failing even to list it in its con diary let alone to attend to pick up on the gossip or interview the stars! (Yes there was genuine amazement at this last (not to mention its unwarranted condemnation of Crusade).)) And... was the Festival going to receive support from the European body for film festivals? A representative from Portugal was sent to check the Fest out! (We will find out next year.)
Of the guests, screenplay writer Brian (The Avengers) Clemens was this reviewer’s favourite. His interview quickly sped through his early CV including the Danger Man pilot at Port Meirion and on Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (the poster of which was created virtually straight after he suggested the concept and before he handed the script in). The film was one of those the Fest screened. Clemens also commented on The Professionals and the New Professionals TV series currently being shot: apparently the New Professionals’ buddy-buddy interaction is not nearly so good as the original, so greater emphasis falls on the agents’ boss played by Edward Woodward. However when it came to the recent Avengers movie, Clemens was most critical. He had not been involved in the film and would have done it differently. For example with regards to style, the evil character supposedly had weather control, so Clemens would have used that whenever that character was in shot. For instance, meetings might be held in heavy rain, except for a patch of dry and sun around the bad guy. Clemens would also have framed the film differently making it a sort of prequel telling of how Steed met Emma Peel and had their torrid affair before settling down to a platonic relationship during subsequent adventures. And the closing shot would have been of a bowler hat landing on the hat stand.
Of the other guests there was genuine amazement at how sprightly writer Val (Quatermas Xperiment) Guest was when, at 90, he leapt up onto the stage. His The Day the Earth Caught Fire and Abominable Snowman were screened. The Spanish director, actor and writer Jorge Grau was one of those who lent an international dimension and his Legend of Blood Castle was shown. So did the Italian director Antonio Margheriti whose interview took place after a screening of his Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eyes. Meanwhile Martine Beswick, Bond girl from Thunderball and From Russia With Love, lent the Fest glamour but her real reason for being invited was as the distaff side in Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde.
Then there were the films. With over 40 features and numerous shorts in three parallel streams there was plenty to see. I managed to catch Death Race 2000 (one of just two of the Fest’s 1970s SF offerings) with its infamous lines given after the driver Frankenstein (David Carradine) informs his navigator that at the prize-giving he plans to blow the President up with a mini-bomb implanted in his palm. "Is that a grenade?" "No, it’s a hand grenade!" Of the very early offerings of note there was Aelita: Queen of Mars. A 1924 Russian movie concerning a trip to Mars and the subsequent revolution on that planet - complete with hammer and sickle: my comment after being, ‘so that is why Mars is known as the Red planet.’ Tony Meadows chose a Tangerine Dream album as the sound track; which worked surprisingly well. However typically it was the independents that provided the surprises. So note, 24 Hours in London is well worth checking out. A dark comedy-thriller, it is set a decade or so in the future when an organ-legging crime marks the beginning of a hostile American take-over of the London operation. In the process the Millennium Dome gets blown up, to a cheer from the audience while a police station come under a Matrix style attack. Again as usual the amateur movie compassion deserved checking out. Spaceman from the US was a humorous portrayal of a previously kidnapped Earth person, subsequently trained as a gladiator, finding himself stranded in a US city with both the FBI - ‘we will dissect him..., and any witnesses just to be sure’ - and the Mafia hot on his trail. However it was ponderous, and as a 90 minute feature it should have been trimmed to an hour. Not so the competition’s winner, the 26 minute Schrödinger’s Cat (US). A physicist moves to a new university leaving behind his obsession with the Schrödinger thought-experiment. Unfortunately he begins to experience what seem at first to be co-incidences that remind him of quantum uncertainty, before more profound events suggest he is actually moving between probabilities. Meanwhile, the Festival’s certificate of merit went to an 8 minute student short animation Run Monkey Run (UK) - definitely slightly weird.
Overall the Fest once more proved to be a well-organised (but remember some of these folks were running Eastercons in the 70s), friendly event and, with its small size of a couple of hundred, remains one of the best kept secrets in fandom. True, many of the films have been shown on TV, but there is nothing like a proper projection, especially when viewed with like-minded buffs. Ironically, the Fest’s significance was summed up at the opening ceremony with the sad announcement that stunt man Eddie Powell had died a couple of weeks earlier. Eddie appeared in virtually every SF and horror movie made in the UK from the 50s to the early 80s but, to him, being shot by a Dalek, or playing the title role of Alien, was just a job. He did not realise buffs would be interested in him and so had never attended a convention until previous Fest guests convinced him that the Festival of Fantastic Films really was great fun. Indeed he enjoyed the 1998 Fest so much that, not only did he return the following year but, he attended other conventions too. Consequently, in the last two years of his life he came to realise what his work actually meant to viewers. Eddie will be missed, but rest assured part of his spirit will live on at next year’s Festival.
The Festival's website is at www.fantastic-films.com
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