Convention Review

The 17th Festival of Fantastic Films

After a gap of a couple of years -- well the 2005 Worldcon got in the way -- Jonathan
once again bathes in the flickering cinematic light fantastique
between homages to Poe and Lovecraft.


Held 1st - 3rd September 2006 in Manchester the Festival attracted around 120 plus a further few score or so who attended the Fest's dealers' day. The Fest is a two and a half day gathering of fantastic film enthusiasts to interact and see golden oldies as well as new independents. (Recent Hollywood blockbuster are not shown due to ready availability and expense.) Fantastic films, of course, cover science fiction, horror, fantasy or anything for that matter that has a speculative fiction genre edge. Naturally not everyone that is into SF is into horror (though there are overlap films such as Alien), or equally not all of those into horror also enjoying say ancient-world sword and sorcery, but the Fest gets around this dimensionality of interest by having three parallel streams of programmes for choice, and there is also a bar area for socialising.

The Fest still provides a service against a backdrop of many UK cons shunning film
The good news is that 17 years on the Fest is still going! It still provides in the UK a counter to that unfortunately strong school of thought among some SF convention runners that showing films at cons is redundant for a variety of reasons including:-
          - the present-day ready availability of home cinema
          - the ready availability of film on DVD
          - that films are just eye-candy

Such thought is not confined to many UK conventions. Don't believe me, well when was the last time you went to a Worldcon that had a decent, properly scheduled in the programme timetable booklet? In Europe you have to go back as far as maybe to the 1990 Worldcon in the Hague, though the 1987 Worldcon in Brighton, England, was much better. In North America I cannot say but the past few years the draft programme on the internet has had barely a mention if anything on film showings, and the 2003 Worldcon in Toronto was extremely disappointing. (Though of course seeing the film Hugo shortlist is welcome.) Thank goodness then, here in the UK there is the Festival of Fantastic Film and its far larger (but non-residential) cousin Sci-Fi London, not to mention the Bradford and Leicester events.

But before getting on with this year's fest, why do they run this sort of a con? So let us quickly knock the afore arguments against film at cons on the head.   First, having home cinema does not provide the same communal experience as a real big-screen experience for both social and visual reasons. At home you cannot go into a bar after a screening and strike up a conversation with a stranger about the film you have both just seen. SF film viewing is a shared fan experience! Second, the ready availability of film on DVD is a myth. Your local shop only tends to stock Hollywood and/or Bollywood blockbusters. Yes, there are loads of independent film sites on the internet but you have to know of the film, its title whatever, to find them in the first space, or have some site point to them. Many sites, including this one, only point to a few offerings and even if you do find a good site you may or may not be able to purchase the DVD and even if you can you will not be having the aforementioned cinematic experience.   The third argument that SF films are just eye-candy is simply specious. While, of course, some SF films are special-effects heavy and plot and acting light, this is simply not true of all films, just as its not true that all SF novels are of the rocket and ray gun persuasion (or even that absolutely all rocket and ray gun novels are poor quality). In short there is a place for (especially 'hard-to-get-to-see') fantastic films at an SF convention, and if the mainstream SF conventions are not going to show them then fine, but do not be surprised if attendance drops off (for example as happened in the 1990s with the British Eastercon).

(Info-slot. The UK national SF convention for example has dropped in numbers from regularly being over 1,000 for much of the 1980s to the early 1990s to around 500 - 600 for most years since then. Some of these have migrated to conventions that focus on TV shows, and others go to film fests. No wonder Sci-Fi-London found a semi-commercial (yes, note the 'commercial') niche!)

And so we come to the latest Festival of Fantastic Films which was again held in rainy Manchester. A great venue being in the middle of the country so evening out the travel ease/hassle getting to the venue city and also providing a post-modern cosmopolitan back drop with many restaurants and an excellent Imax (that happened to be showing Superman Returns in Imax 3-D that weekend).

Unfortunately this year one of the Fest's Guests, the Italian Director Lamberto Bava (Danger Diabolik, Adventures of Ulysses and Ghost Son) could not make it for health reasons but hopes to next year. But actor Kenneth Cope (X The Unknown, Night of the Big Heat and of course the original Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)) was there with his actress wife Renny Lister (Curse of the Werewolf and TV's Coronation Street where she met Kenneth).   Also in attendance was actor Burt Kwouk who perhaps is most famous for his role in the Pink Panther series of films with Peter Sellars. However it was actor Ken Foree who made one of the biggest impressions. Not only is he known for his debut role in Dawn of the Dead (both 1978 and 2004 versions) and then later from TV appearances in The X-Files and Quantum Leap but physically he stands at 6' 5". He probably gets the award, if there was one, for the guest doing the most to keep the convention going. For late on Saturday (getting on for midnight) there was a problem with one of the screenings and Ken held the audience's interest with an entertaining routine of chat and wit, plus apparently one member of the audience, Donna Conner, with tots of whiskey.   One thing though. If you want to find out more about Ken then apparently don't rely on his entry which, he revealed over breakfast, still has details such as his age incorrect despite him e-mailing them a number of times. (Kind of knocked my faith in a bit.) But I am getting ahead of myself. First things first...

The Fest's opening ceremonies in the recent (post-Nadler years) lack the montage of fantastic film clips choreographed to music. This year though, following the domestic announcements, there was a brief shot of amusement and congratulations when it was revealed that Ramsey Campbell's book, Secret Stories, was short-listed for the British Fantasy Award due to be presented in a couple of weeks time. (Ramsey, of course, is not just an author but President of the Fest. The amusement came from the con-chair getting the book's title wrong.) And following this was one of the Fest's premieres only this time it was not a British or even a European premiere but a World premiere! The Fest was presented with a penultimate cut of The Death of Poe and in the audience was its producer and lead star from the US, Mark Renfield. Mark runs a small studio but The Death of Poe is a departure from its more commercial offerings as, it became apparent, Mark is clearly an Edgar Allan Poe fan. Poe, of course, is one of the early giants of US literature and, like H. G. Wells in Britain, some of his stories are decidedly SF/fantasy. In addition Poe could also be said to have influenced the birth of the detective story genre.   Anyway, Mark explained that apparently Sylvester Stallone wants to make a biopic about Poe, so Mark decided not to compete with such an undertaking but focus instead on the last week of Poe's life in 1849. Poe's death had been shrouded in some mystery so provides an interesting vehicle to explore some of the themes of the man's work. These were portrayed as visual images but you could only pick up on these if you had some knowledge of the author's works. Nonetheless, though not a Stallone blockbuster (thank gawd), for Poe aficionados, and indeed those heavily into written SF, The Death of Poe was a stimulating film. Others without any knowledge of or interest in Poe, it has to be said, might find it a little perplexing but The Death of Poe is very well made. Following the screening Ramsey led a Q&A session with Mark.

Other premieres or new films shown at the Fest includedWilderness. This Brit offering was shown in 35mm and was one of those group-isolated-gets-picked-off-one-by-one films. However this time it is not some of the rural locals doing the job but a person, it transpires, with a specific mission. It has to be said that I caught this one by accident and would never have been tempted by the programme guide's "It's not about revenge... It's about punishment" descriptor. The Fest organisers, and those providing recent independent films, really do need to ensure that they have a proper paragraph on each movie to tempt folk. (Committee and filmmakers, please note.) Due to a similar promotional reason I missed another new offering, Venus Drowning whose advertising flier didn't do anything for me. (It was designed as if promoting an established branded film or a film that has other promotion on TV and in magazines, as opposed to advertising that introduces a new one. Daa-ahh!) So I didn't miss seeing it. I did though regret not viewing The Witches Hammer (doubly so as I was only being side-tracked in the bar). This was a mix of SF and horror in which a vampire is created through genetic engineering so as to stop the damned from entering our dimension. The other premiere regret was 33x Around the Sun about someone who wakes up in hospital to find everyone gone (possible shades of Wyndham and 28 Days Later). Anyway I mention these titles in case you come across them.

The retrospective programme stream was, as usual, up to its high standard with many of the offerings screened from a celluloid format. Alas, between other goings-on I only caught one feature, that of Return of the Giant Monsters (1967) which is a dire 'B' movie that hits the Godzilla-type spot. However I would have liked to have seen the 1972 Philippines film Night of the Cobra Women in which a jungle priestess's pet snake's venom bestows eternal youth. Apparently it was filmed in 'slitherama' whatever that is. I might have caught I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) -- with its Freudian and communist phobic undertones -- but I have seen it enough before. What I did miss was Jack Arnold's The Space Children (1958) about a rocket base constructing a new ship that will, supposedly, bring peace to the world. However it is the scientists and the children at the base, guided by an alien intelligence that are the real hope.   I could also have done with seeing The Night Caller (1965), the British and not the US film. This is about a UFO landing and subsequent murders in the area, which suggests that something is going on. (You don't say.)

This year though, there was an extra dimension to the retrospective programme and that was retrospective adverts. Yes, there was a Pearl and Dean slot between features and I managed to catch two Gerry Anderson ice-lolly ads. Ahh, the room was rampant with nostalgia. Much appreciation for the retrospective programme goes to the wonderful Tony Meadows.

Film competitions
For me, the highlight of the Fest is the amateur film competition. This year Steve Green took organisational control and did an absolutely brilliant job. First off, he and another judge skimmed off the crap a few hours worth, as well as the not-quite-so-good stuff. All told that removed nine hours worth of material, leaving just two and a half hours at the fest, and not, as we used to have, many more of highly variable quality... OK, so a couple of the films only had clips screened at the fest (for reasons of time constraint) for both attendee enjoyment and the final judging. I have to say that the standard of amateur films has soared over the past decade and today we are now seeing offerings that could propel their producer/directors to professional projects! A special mention has to go to the three Star Wars spoofs, each significantly better than the last, starring a young girl who is caught up in the epic's backdrop. You can view these off the net at   One that received a commendation was The Call of Cthulhu (47 minutes, 2005, USA) directed by Andrew Leman which was shot in the style of an old black and white film complete with the occasional text board and an orchestral soundtrack. This was based of the H. P. Lovecraft story and was beautifully done, but I have to say I thought it was an independent and not an amateur offering, but it was and shot, I'm told, in someone's back garden. We only saw a clip during the competition but were able to see the whole thing later in the Fest. It is a brilliant production that deserves a screening on TV. In fact not only did I think it more professional than an amateur production, I thought it deserved more than a commendation, as great an honour as that might be. So I quizzed one of the judges (not Steve). The way it works is this. The judges score each film on a number of standard criteria and it is the overall score that determines the winner. The problem the judges had with The Call of Cthulhu was how to give a silent film a good score for sound (even though a separate score of incidental music/sound can be quite high). Then again the film was shot in black and white aping early 20th century cinematic quality. While this was done for perfectly sound artistic reasons, and done well, another amateur film shot with excellent full colour and near state of the art looking effects may do better. Third, script. This, obviously, is very hard to score with a silent film. In short, the fact that The Call of Cthulhu was different from the current cinematic mould made it difficult to rank it higher when employing a standardised scoring system; even though because it was different was the actual reason for it doing well. Nonetheless Andrew Leman should be very proud of getting a commendation from the Fest and I urge all Lovecraft devotees to seek this one out and then, once having seen it, check the website to find out how it was made. Be amazed. Be gob smacked. Beware. Cthulhu calls.

There were two other commendations. The Spell (6.5 minutes, Spain) directed by Pablo Millan, sees a procrastinating artist ritually prepare for what hopefully be a creative day but... The other commendation went to an even shorter offering! The Guy's Guide to Zombies (3.5 minutes, UK) directed by Daniel Austin was funny. Zombies are not really the shambling scourge of the modern world, just a little misunderstood. This offering presents the zombies' case and is the A-Z guide to living with the dead.

Returning to this point of the quality of entries to the amateur film competition steadily rising over the past one and a half decades, remember back in 1990 video camcorders were very expensive and home editing facilities non-existent. Back then shooting to film was the only real option. Today the technology (especially with the digital revolution) not only exists out side of professional studios, it is far better and cheaper. Technology by itself will not separate you from the herd. So what you are now seeing with the commended and winning entries is actually reflecting care, attention to detail, a discriminating approach to script writing and acting. (One's best friends simply will not do unless, of course, one or two of them happens to have flare for acting.) And of course nearly all the movies were made on a very tight budget. In fact the quality is so high I am really very surprised that those that commission shorts for TV channels, studios, agents and so forth, don't come to the Fest solely to view the short film competition.   True some of the winners may not want a career in film making, but one or two would, and nearly all the shortlist are suitable for main terrestrial broadcast. Indeed, because the competition is amateur, nearly all the producers would be happy to accept only a low fee. (Having said that any terrestrial channel broadcasting such quality without paying something at least vaguely meaningful would be taking the proverbial pistule: an insult to both the quality amateur film maker and their professional counterparts they rival.)

So what won the amateur competition? That accolade went to a humorous horror Eddie Loves You (26 minutes, UK) directed by Karl Holt. A young man discards the one thing he used to love dearly, his teddy bear, and pays the price. The acting, the effects, the homage to the genre (there are scenes alluding to The Exorcist, The Fog and other films) all made Eddie Loves You a delight. (If you stream the trailer from the Darkline website the audience you see is actually that from the Fest: either that or Mike (Simo) Simpson and Ann Green have been cloned. (What a horrific thought.))

Unfortunately I missed the independents, aside from the aforementioned Wilderness and Intergalactic Combat. (If you get the idea that I missed more than I saw then this simply goes with the territory of there being three parallel streams, plus the dealers room, bar, Manchester itself, etc. which, as with many excellent conventions, means that one person will miss most of what is on offer.) Intergalactic Combat had an SF premise (aliens want Earth's unarmed champions to fight teams from other worlds) but it was really a fight fest film with limited genre appeal albeit shot with a bit of an edge.   Meanwhile another independent The Slaughter (95 minutes, US) by director Jay Lee also featured Cthulha. Here six college kids take a job cleaning up an abandoned house. At night they play. In the course of this they find a tomb and accidentally awake Cthulha.

As to what won the independents competition, it was The Toybox (81 minutes, UK). It is about two children in deepest, rural East Anglia (that's the bit of low-lying England to the northeast of London for our non-Brit site visitors). A book on local myth sets their imaginations racing.

Again, other than the amateur film competition, I missed out on the 8 shorts shown. I would have liked to have seen The Survivor (25 minutes, UK) by Christoph Warrack. Back in 1956 a meteor wiped out a village outside of Oxford. But there was one survivor and she developed powers. However as scientists test her it becomes apparent that interest in her goes beyond the government. There has to be a way out.

And finally...
The Fest officially ends after the closing ceremony at 9pm on Sunday. However about two-thirds (those who don't have work Monday) stay on as there is a genre film quiz and dead-dog party. This goes on till after midnight. Breakfast the next day is when folk say their goodbyes, which rounds things off nicely.

The Festival of Fantastic Films remains one of the more-than-competently organised events of the Brit SF calendar, even if we don't have gentlefan Harry at the helm any more. Virtually all who go return for more at some stage and there is a hard core that go every year. The offerings of film remain international. Most, as you would expect, are from the UK and US, but there were also items from Japan, Germany, Spain, Italy and Mexico and enough to give the Fest the feel of being more than an Anglophone reflection.

The venue hotel -- the Days Hotel -- is fine (apart from (still) the person who processes advance hotel bookings and that the restaurant tends to get overwhelmed at the height of breakfast). The room rates, especially if going as a couple, are good value, which more than makes up for the Fest's own slightly high registration fee (needed to cover film and guest costs). The hotel's draught special offer bitter (for the Fest?) was most welcome and the restaurant satisfactory aside from the wine list that was 'literally' a joke. (One bottle had on its back label, an ideal complement to 'sausage and mash'!) Nonetheless the hotel would be suitable for other SF conventions sized around the 100-150 mark but a slight discount for those in the overflow student rooms would be welcome.   Over all the staff were friendly and helpful, while the principal auditoriums were above standard compared to average hotels that run medium-sized business functions. The proximity (four blocks) of the venue to Manchester Piccadilly rail station (with its connections to London, Glasgow and Manchester airport) helps greatly. It is also close to Manchester's China town (the UK's largest Chinese community outside of London) and, a cult SF television and film themed pub, not to mention a Waterstones bookshop in the town centre with a quite reasonable SF/fantasy section. The Imax cinema is a little further away (0.5 mile / 0.8 km) in what is known as 'The Printworks', which itself is architecturally a mix of the old juxtaposed with the ultra modern. If you have not visited Manchester then it is well worth arriving midday the first day of the convention (before its 4pm start) for a wander to see what is what.

Those of you who have read earlier reviews of the Fest may recall my warning that this series of conventions might end at number 15. That the Fest is still going is an achievement, and a testimony to its continuing leading lights Tony Edwards, David Rigby and Gil Lane-Young, but how long will this last? With the loss of Harry Nadler the Fest team are getting by without the person who effectively provided the interface with the Fest and the broader SF community. This is not to knock the current team for they do a great job of actually putting the event on and that itself takes a pile of other skills and much effort: remember these are unpaid volunteers who give unstintingly of their time.   However what it does mean is that you (the average SF punter) are unlikely to hear of this event. So my advice is that if from this review you like the sound of the Fest, then take that decision to attend the next one. Each year that passes is one more closer to the final Fest.

Further advice, having decided to go, as once there it is easy to miss out on so many of the screenings that you really do have to prepare a plan (a bit like going to a Worldcon) of what you are going to see and not get sidetracked with a good time socialising. This itself is surely a testimony. If you like SF, fantasy and horror both old professional and new art-house (missing out the big release current blockbusters) then this event is for you. And if, as this is the worldwide web, you are reading this overseas and could contemplate a short holiday in the UK then do consider timing it to coincide with the Fest. Manchester is under three hours by train from London to the south and Glasgow to the north, and all three cities have international airports. For how long there will continue to be a Fest I cannot say, but there is one scheduled for 31st August - 2nd September, 2007. Unfortunately I myself could well be out of the country that month, nonetheless don't say you weren't advised.

Thanks go to the friendly staff on the Fest's desk who, aside from being helpful to all making enquiries throughout the event, sold several copies of Essential Science Fiction: A Concise Guide. This was also somewhat appropriate as the guide's entries are determined by a several strict quantitative criteria of SF enthusiast appreciation (which makes this book vaguely unique), including that (for the cinematic dimension) of participants at a number of the early Festival of Fantastic Films.   Nice one guys 'n gals.

Jonathan Cowie


Also on this site: Concatenation's chart of Annual Top Box-Office Science Fiction Films which is handy should you wish help in choosing what to hire/or download for the weekend; and the forthcoming film release diary for the year. Also our seasonal newscasts occasionally (for example see here) have links to short films free-to-view elsewhere on the internet.

For details of future major SF conventions on planet Earth (that's the inner one in the Sol system, that wobbles only a little) check out the diary page which is updated each New Year.

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