The Festival of Fantastic Films 2004

...saw a venue change but retained its atmosphere and position as an international celebration of fantastic film past and present.

No one would have believed, in the last years of the 20th century, that the Festival would survive into the next millennium but it has. 2004 showed that the Fest shows no signs of dying and, despite attendance dropping to a little over 100, there were independent film makers from several European countries with some attendees from further afield who gathered for a varied programme of fantastic film past and present.

Indeed, surprisingly (for many) the fest survived its move from being hotel-based to Manchester's more formal university conference centre. The principal down side was that the bar area was a bit small, but just right for the smaller attendance. However this could become a hassle if the venue is used in the future and attendance once more picks up. This, though is a problem for the future. The other problem was for those who smoke, including one of the committee, as the running of the conference centre was taken over just before the event by a firm who turned the majority of bedrooms into no smoking. These quickly ran out during registration. Paltry hiccoughs aside, the venue was a decided success and, another definite plus, was it being very close to Manchester's Piccadilly Station with its connections to London, the North and Manchester International Airport.

Guests included: Tudor Gates, the writer of horror classics such as Twins of Evil, The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire as well as writing credits for the SF classics Barbarella and Diabolik; the actor Jeremy Bullock who is probably best known as the bounty hunter Boba Fett in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and as Smithers, Q's assistant, in a number of the 1970s James Bond films; the actress Madeline Smith who starred in The Vampire Lovers and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell; and the French actress Yvonne Moniaur whose appearances include Brides of Dracula and The Terror of the Tongs and for whom Gil Lane-Young provided translation in her programme items. Unfortunately Peter Graham Scott was due to attend but tragically his son died just prior to the event.

The convention's opening ceremony was a bit of a surprise for us Concatenation folk (Graham was with me). Gil invited Jim Walker onto the stage who then promptly called for me to join him. He had just come from this year's SF Eurocon in Bulgaria and presented Concatenation with a European SF Society Eurocon Award. It was appropriate that this be done at the Festival as the Fest has always been supportive of Concatenation's international SF cultural exchange activities with Eastern Europe (see Antuza Genescu's report of her 1999 Fest visit) and that the late Harry Nadler who founded the Fest also printed (with Charles Partington) Concatenation's first edition in 1987 back when we were a print semi-prozine. (Charles latter dropped in on the convention.) After this the opening ceremony turned to various house-keeping matters to do with the new venue.

The Amateur Film competition again had a good following with over a score of entries. These continued the trend of being international with, in addition from the UK, films from the US, Spain, France and Australia. Again, the trend of their average standard increasing year-on-year was maintained. As the judges commented, it is very rare now that they receive a single entry that is unwatchable, unlike the Fest's early days in the late 1980s when there were more than a few. One film though was disqualified for being clearly professional (as demonstrated by the credits). Why, oh why do some producers and directors (fortunately very few) think that they can get away with this ploy, let alone that their film will be viewed with any favour with such underhand behaviour. As for the Independent Film competition, again the standards were high and again there were entries from a number of nations. These, in addition to the UK, included, Canada, Eire, Spain, Germany and Italy.

It has to be said that the entries to both these competitions are often well worth checking out. That a number are shorts (10-20 mins), in addition to the longer productions, means that you can easily get to see a variety of unusual, whimsical and sometimes thought-provoking offerings that you simply would not otherwise be able to do unless you regularly frequented art-house cinemas. It should be mentioned many of the foreign films are now dubbed into English which helps late at night after Fest partying when subtitles can be a little trying. These competitions alone make it worthwhile to attend the Fest and get one's near-annual fix of quality cinematic SF.

Of course the other reason for attending the Fest is for the really old (1930s-50s) SF, fantasy and horror movies which are hardly ever broadcast on TV these days. And besides, these were made for the big screen.

I really cannot emphasise this point of unique, or rare, experience too much. I find it so frustrating when I ask Worldcon, or Eastercon, conrunners why their film programme is - let's be blunt - so dull, focussing, as they invariably do, on Hollywood movies of the past couple of decades, only to be told that that is what registrants want. Then, when I point out to the frequently low attendance at the Worldcon film programme and ask for an explanation, I am told that it is because the rise of home cinema has killed off interest in films at SF conventions! When will Eastercons and Worldcons realise that there are numerous literate cinematic SF productions out there awaiting an audience, it is just a question of digging them up. Getting someone who knows about films on their organising committees would help, as opposed to a bod who thinks that seeing half of Blockbusters DVD/video SF/fantasy stock makes them some sort of an expert... Then there is the social side of seeing films and discussing them in the bar after which you don't get at home. Anyway, enough of the gripe. We all know why fandom has fragmented so there's no point going over it again (even though that was one of the reasons why Tony, Graham and I started Concat' in the first place), you just have to accept that these days you go to one event for books, another for films, another for comics and so on. Perish the thought that people are interested in SF and/or fantasy as a genre that straddles more than one medium, or that a focussed enthusiast might occasionally like to dip into, or at least ascertain the current state of play, a genre in another format. Anyway, at least the Fest is one of the few places you really can get to indulge in fantastic cinema, and long may such refugia (to use an ecological term) exist.

Meanwhile, back at this year's Fest. One perennial problem is that with three quality parallel streams, not to mention the socialising, it is difficult to see more than a fraction of what one might. This year, I have to confess, what with there being a somewhat of a reunion with a number of those involved with, or friends of, Concatenation in its early days, there was a fair bit of socialising (OK, full-blown partying) going on in our corner. However I did get to see ('just' as it was on as I finished registering) La Decima Vittima [The Tenth Victim] based on Bob Sheckley's story The Seventh Victim. It has to be said that this is a somewhat turgid and pretentious Italian production, however Sheckley's humour (and some of his plot's bones) occasionally shone through. It is about a near future when people hunt each other for sport and a television audience that is sponsored by advertising. Nice ending though. I was also pleased to see Return of the Vampire a 1943 movie in which a Transylvanian vampire (is there any other sort?) stalks a Luftwaffe blitzed London. Very dated (naturally) and interesting for it. Apparently (you would not guess it now) but censors of the day affected what could and could not be seen of the vampire's death, but it is all very tame now. There was also a session re-showing past Fest amateur film competition winners. The Fest has been going long enough that there are plenty to show (and why not some runner's up too, eh?). These are simply a delight and really do deserve a far wider audience.

As for the films I missed... Well, quite frankly I would have loved to see all the Independent Competition entries and a few of the amateur entries. Of the 'commercial' films shown I would have enjoyed Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947) with one Boris Karloff and which is claimed to be one of the better Dick Tracy adventures. Then there was World Without End (1955) with a returning space mission finding the Earth destroyed. Yes, I know it's a standard plot, but I love 'em. In this one the sets and props were recycled from other movies so it would have been fun to spot what was from where. While on the horror front I could have coped (being a behind-the-settee-when-the-Daleks-are-on child) with Darkness (2002) which from its write up was very atmospheric, being low on gore and high on atmosphere. A family moves into a house that proves to be alarmingly haunted even before a solar eclipse brings an unwelcome anniversary. This film has hardly ever been shown in the UK.

To sum up. I deeply regret that my Fest reviews are getting repetitious. The event was: interesting, friendly, informative, social, entertaining, and fun. Manchester remains a great venue. No, actually I do not regret this. The Festival continues to be an undiscovered gem. Undiscovered because the organisers barely promote the event not because of any lack of quality: the reverse in fact, nearly all the organization is brilliant. Nonetheless the committee, it has to be said, are getting on. However a hope is that they are beginning to hand over the reins and Adrian James joins the team on the publication front. The Committee really need to continue this and bring someone on to shadow film and someone else for GoH and film procurement as well as, importantly, promotion (which is just one of the things the aforementioned Harry did so well). If the organisers can do this over then next few years then the Fest will not only retain its core values but also gain a new lease of life standing on the shoulders of giants; well, perhaps the shoulders of seasoned buffs. What a future that would be. Meanwhile set your browser on http://fantastic-films.com and see what's being planned.

Jonathan Cowie


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