Rampant and Unleashed - Nostalgia at its Most Dangerous

The 13th Festival of Fantastic Films

Jonathan Cowie

The 29th of August, 2002, saw two of the Concatenation team get together to do the 13th Fest of Fantastic Films.

Unlucky for some, and in 3-D.


To cut to the chase, this year's Fest was, like the rest, a blast; but a blast despite attendance being a quarter down. This last might be put down to the organisers being a tad weak on the promotion front. However in virtually every other department the Fest was as strong as ever. By now the organisers have honed their formula for con running to such a degree that everything almost ran like clockwork. I say 'almost' because there was one disaster. Even so, everyone was having such a good time that we barely noticed. What happened (we understand) was that the 35mm projector failed to arrive a week early providing advance checking out of the equipment, but instead arrived the day before. Yes, you guessed it, it did not work and there was no time for repairs. The Fest missed its four 35mm films which this year were: Last House on the Left, Anguish, Sleepwalker (which was to be introduced by its director) and Company of Wolves. This was a pity as one part of the Fest experience is to be able to enjoy films as they were meant to be seen by an actual 35mm projected screening and not on a tiny, poor resolution TV screen. Indeed, video projection, and even 16mm projection simply cannot do justice to the photography of a film like Company of Wolves. However this one glitch apart everything else seemed to go more or less to plan. Over 30 films were either screened (16mm) or video projected, and then there were the professional and amateur shorts fort the two competitions; the latter some of which, as usual, were of a high standard. In addition there was a showing of all 12 episodes of the 1940 series Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. Of course there were the guest interviews, the horror writer Ramsey Campbell's infamous auction, not to forget the end of Fest dead dog party and Great Fantastic movie quiz. The whole package (save for the dead dogging) being wrapped up in three parallel programme streams to provide choice.

This was the third Fest to be held in the Renaissance Hotel. The hotel's one big plus point is that the Fest itself is held on just one floor. Not only does this make for a more intimate Fest, but it reduces the drink re-fill time. Fest regulars will know that re-fill times are commonly unplanned and precious. For the most part, projector switch-overs at reel changes go well. Consequently you have to wait until something goes wrong and the projectionist has to sort it out at which point it is time for the grand mad dash to the bar. Indeed, being able to see a reel-to-reel screening of a film accompanied by a little of whatever-takes-your-fancy is another Fest plus point. You simply can't do this in cinemas - well it is not encouraged outside of over-priced foyer bars. Having said this, the Renaissance could do with making available three or four more tables in the bar area. This year we got by perfectly well, but only because we were a quarter down on attendance. Renaissance management please note.

Of course the other reasons for going to the Fest are because it offers other fairly unique, or hard to come by SF and horror film experiences. Many of the films span the decades from the 1940s to 1990s and you simply do not see them on the big screen even if only 16mm (and let's face it most vintage ones were not made in 35mm). Even though such offerings are occasionally shown on the small screen, this simply ain't the same. Then there are the independents. Again this provides reasonably rare experiences unless you have an art house cinema near you, you simply aren't going to see these. For instance whatever happened to 24 Hours in London premiered at a pervious Fest? OK so it was far from a classic, but it had an edge to it and a dash of whimsy. I kept an eye out for it but alas it never surfaced. (Can anyone tell us where we can buy the video?) And even if you do have a particularly good art house cinema near you, it is rare that the independent films shown are SF, fantasy or horror. Finally, there are the amateur and professional shorts of which some are definitely worth catching, and nearly all the remainder perfectly watchable; besides which being shorts one can usual stand the 5 to 10 minutes of one of the more duff offerings. One of the amateur short competition winners was simply delightful. Entitled I Am Peter Cushing, it provided a 10 minute documentary of a modern suburban van Helsing. Of course the work has changed dramatically since the original van Helsing days. In the early 21st century the job is now 24 hours a day: such are the disadvantages of sun block. On the other hand the independent short winner was the highly irreverent (indeed sacrilegious) Tommy's Wish (again 10 minutes) in which little Tommy is sent to bed early for not eating his greens and so he prays to heaven to be delivered from his parents. A swish and a couple of thumps later in the other room and Jesus has killed his parents. Regretful of his wish, Tommy and Jesus have to make the best of circumstances and clear up the mess. They then talk and Tommy's secret is finally revealed.

Well at this point in a convention review I usually report on the guests. Bit of a review problem on this front this year folks as I was side-tracked several times during the Fest. The consequence was that I never had substantive time with any of the guests. However John Scott did join our table just as I was winding up on toast and marmalade one hung-over breakfast. A charming chap. Gentleman is the word. John pens film scores for a living. His credits are numerous and include: A Study in Terror, Doctor in Clover, Berzerk, Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon, Outback, Trog, Anthony and Cleopatra, Doom Watch, Symptoms, That Lucky Touch, Satan's Slave, The People That Time Forgot, The Final Countdown, Inseminoid, Greystoke The Legend of Tarzan, King Kong Lives, Man on Fire, Shoot to Kill, The Deceivers, Winter People, Dog Tags Shergar, etc. What more can one say. Well, he is not a loud and raucous celebrity and so a decidedly welcome encounter when fragile the morning after. Then there was Mel Wells. An old, larger than life character who reminded me a bit of 'pa' out of The Dukes of Hazard. I did manage to catch a screening of the original Little Shop of Horrors (1960) in which Mel played the flower shop owner. Apparently at the Fest were the screen writer Frederick Smith as well as director, producer, writer John Hough. It was with one of these last (I am embarrassed to say I don't know which) with whom I shared a ten minute taxi ride after the Fest back to the station. (Sorry, synaptic function isn't so hot after 4 days of almost solid partying.) However I can report that all the guests publicly declared their desire to return to the Fest next year as normal attendees, so joining Richard Gordon, Norman Warren and other pros of whom it is a pleasure to encounter most years. Indeed it was good to see from the programme book that actress Janina Faye and director Saxon Logan attend.

Alright, I admit that I have let you down on the celebrity reports. I hang my head in shame. My pathetic excuse is this four days of partying. Of course I burn the candle at both ends at the few conventions I go to. It is after all time away from fronting Brit bioscience. 'But four days?' I hear you cry. Yes, four days despite a two and a half day Fest. You see fellow Concatenation team member Graham Connor and Donna and I came up a full day early to meet some old friends from Warwick SF (1977/8), Hatfield PSFIA - more recently Hertfordshire University Science Fiction (1978-82) and Manchester and District SF (1982/3) days. There was much reminiscing, talking about mutual friends and catching up to do. And we also took the time outside of the Festival to check out the latest film technology among other things Manchester offers (including the 3-D IMAX). Click here if you are interested.

The Fest was sandwiched between opening and closing ceremonies chaired by the novelist and screenwriter Stephen Gallagher (who also interviewed the guests over the weekend). He led a tribute to Harry Nadler, the Fest's father, who was an active SF fan of both film and books and who tragically died earlier in the year. Harry's influence subliminally, and on occasion (as with the Fest) openly, permeated UK SF fandom. (He was even part of the Concatenation team and with Chuck Partington printed its first issue in 1987.) At the opening ceremony Stephen Gallagher introduced a short video montage of Harry to the opening track from the Rocky Horror Show 'Science Fiction'. Afterwards Stephen pointed out to those present who did not know Harry not to feel excluded by the fact that it was likely Harry's name would crop up in many conversations over the weekend. Harry would have hated the thought of anyone being put off from enjoying the Fest and was very much an inclusion person. Then at the Festival's end, following the competition prize giving, Stephen pointed out that wherever Harry was he undoubtedly would have approved of the 13th Festival. Indeed, we all knew where Harry was: he had been with us throughout the weekend.

This brings us on to the future of the Festival. We are not sure if the Fest will return to the Renaissance Hotel as the new managers, having been fired by the 2002 Commonwealth Games feel that they can dispense with the Fest unless there is a substantive price hike. Whether this somewhat myopic view will persist we do not currently know. (SF conventions are not business clients and do tend to take place at weekends when business clients are thin on the ground hence usually valued.) So in which venue the next Fest will take place remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Gil Lane-Young told me that Harry, Tony Edwards, and he had contemplated doing 15 Festivals before calling it a day. Indeed the intention was announced to run a 14th. However the Fest has in it more longevity than that and I sincerely hope that the organisers regularly advertise in all their future progress reports the need for new, younger blood on the committee who might ultimately continue things. I also sincerely hope that those who have been reading these Fest reviews and who have been half tempted, to be fully tempted by a weekend of golden oldies - we are talking about SF and horror movies here and not just the guest directors and actors - and some more recent material, as well as the independent and amateur shorts. I fear we may only have a couple of more years of such an experience. However the Fest is special. Having been to between one and four conventions a year for the past quarter century from regional local events through to Worldcons, I can assure you that the Fest is the friendliest and best run of all. Yes, I have been to grander gatherings, I have had a wilder time elsewhere, been to bigger SF functions as well as more smaller affairs, but the Festival of Fantastic Films is something else. If you love SF and/or horror movies from many decades then the Fest stands alone as the gathering. I am willing to bet you, once you have been once, the only thing you will regret is in not having found out about the Fest earlier.

Spread the word.

Jonathan Cowie

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