Festival of Fantastic Films 1996

Jonathan Cowie at the 7th Festival of Fantastic Films, Manchester.

Jonathan Cowie is an environmental scientist by qualification and a science publicist (science writer, event organiser and consultant) by profession both with UK learned science societies and on a freelance and volunteer basis. His main job, though, is to compile scientists' views and to present them to governmental consultations With regard to SF he: founded his Hatfield college's SF group PSIFA in 1978; was on the committee of the BECCON series of SF conventions (1981-87); has assisted with most international UK-venued SF conventions of the 80s and 90s by providing science contacts and press liaison services. His most recent activities have included co-ordinating the Anglo-Romanian Science & SF Cultural Exchange and writing a non-SF text on the greenhouse effect (Climate & Human Change from Parthenon Publishing (Autumn 1997)), in-between the more serious business of enjoying Romanian wine. Declaring an interest in the first sentence -- that Manchester's 6th Festival of Fantastic Films part-sponsored Concatenation (and the 8th will be too) -- is not a particularly good start, but in the absence of our commissioned reviewer's comments I am sure that you can see through any bias; not that any is deliberate. Interest declared, what do I look for in an SF convention? The bottom line has to be value for money and time, but the penultimate lines include: coverage and understanding of the convention's subject, conrunning ability (including programme management), a good hotel with late bar, great guests, a friendly atmosphere and a sense of fun. By and large this convention had its ample share of all of these as well as pedigree and many amiable attendees.

Given my potential bias allow me to elaborate, starting with my frame of mind as I journeyed to Manchester. Here almost everything that could have gone wrong personally in advance of the convention went wrong: without going into detail typical of the problems was that one of the post-Thatcher British Rail intercity rail track north eastern type companies threatened to strike. As it happened, with back-up route engaged, the journey was most enjoyable with an excellent sunset much of the way reminiscent of the famous Sky Lab low orbit picture of the 1970s. I also have to say Manchester airport (my first visit) at night is brilliant -- far better than Heathrow or Gatwick -- and the first storey high, glass tube corridor rail station link, with its low-level, blue up-lighting against an external panorama of atmospheric craft continually taking off and landing was a skiffy trope in itself.

Calling in at the Britannia Hotel (the overflow for the Fest) first revived old memories. I was last there almost a decade earlier courtesy of my previous employer and things had not changed that much. A kind young lady outside asked whether I wanted a 'good time' (though I did not take her up on the offer, wasn't she sweet?), while inside the hotel convention rate was £35 a night (which compared to the £80 my previous employer's paid years ago!). My room was not quite the same as I had had previously, but more than an adequate base from which to attend the Fest directly across the City Centre's Piccadilly Gardens Square.

Now last year's Fest was the first convention I had attended in over two decades by myself without accompanying friends, plans to meet anyone nor with any occupying involvement (apart from one small panel). Furthermore, despite showing some recent hard SF movies, the Festival is (slightly contrary to my tastes) traditionally slanted towards B movies as well as Hammer-type horror: would there be enough skiffy to keep me occupied should I find time on my hands...?

I need not have worried. The organisers were as welcoming as ever, and the attendees as friendly as many encountered at the smaller SF literature and film conventions of the late 1970s and early Scottish conventions of the 1980s. In the £1 (US$1.55) a pint convention bar (which is cheap for the UK) attendees were most friendly. Sit down at any table with an empty space and it was not difficult to join in the conversation; people were so amiable. This contrasts somewhat with some recent Eastercons (the UK national convention). This is not to put Eastercon-goers down. Much of this contrast I believe is due to some Eastercons' lack of holism (fortunately there are exceptions). Though that event is meant to be the gathering of the SF clans, too often different groups turn up at Eastercons to do their own specialised thing, as opposed to provide a showcase for those with other interests to sample, and Eastercon programme organization and preparation is sometimes (though not always) leaves something to be desired. On the other hand with the Festival of Fantastic Films the organisers have got two things going for them before they start. First, that everyone attending has an interest in fantastic films albeit that the Fest is slanted towards either horror, turkey, old movies and/or hard SF. This cinematic dimension at least provides common ground for all. Second, armed with a projector and film, little other preparation is required for film-showing, and showing films dominates the Fest. However in addition the organisers are a tight team who have honed their Fest running skills over half a dozen events, and the organization of a local Fantastic Film appreciation society. Finally, and here modestly the organisers do not let on, the organisers have a solid SF fan pedigree: among their ranks are a couple of Knights of Saint Fantony (a group of long-standing UK fans who, in their own way, act for the greater good of the SF community). In short the Fests are quite homely.

Then there were the Fest's guests.

Considering the Festival is quite small, about 300 attending (excluding day registrations), the organisers run over fifty films yet still manage to present five Guests of Honour and four additional Special Guests. Last year these were: director John (American Werewolf in London) Landis (and also TV's Sliders co-producer that was to have its UK terrestrial launch the following month unbeknownst to us at the time); Freddie (Day of the Triffids and The Evil of Frankenstein cameraman) Francis; actress Catriona (The Beyond and Hawk the Slayer) Maccoll; actor David (The Beyond and A Fistful of Dynamite) Warbeck; and actor producer Hal (Night of the Demon and Bold and the Brave) Chester. The Special Guests were: actress Janette (Day of the Triffids and Paranoiac) Scott, Gunnar ('Leatherface') Hansen; actor Dave ('Darth Vader') Prowse and James Bond lady Valerie Leon. I regret that I only saw much of just one guest and that was Landis a most approachable chap and one dedicated to his profession. (For more of a profile check out back issues of SFX magazine around the turn of the year as Mike Simpson got the interview away from the Fest (in a nearby MacDonald's kiddies' corner (the only place to eat on hand at that time).)

Of the films, of note was the showing of the then recently released Screamers (not badly based on the Philip K Dick short Second Variety), the European Premiere of Proteus (a sort of remake of The Thing) and premiere of The Eliminator (a low-budget Irish horror/thriller spoof -- quite fun if you like those genres). Then, of course, there was that essential late nighter Rocky Horror. Also showing was a film that had only been out a couple of months, the most expensive B-movie ever made Independence Day which, despite the poor plotting, stereo-type characterisation and crap raison d'Ítre, is, with one's mind turned off (or instilled with a few pints), still a visual romp. (Unfortunately circumstances meant that it was shown very late hence missed by as many as it was enjoyed. Many called for it to be shown again this year, probably the same people who got the Fest's organisers to give it the 'Worst film of the Festival award'. How the organisers are going to square both these reactions with the film's distributors remains to be seen.)

The programme itself consisted of four alternative streams, three of which had 16mm projection and one of these in turn was supplemented by 35mm. This last was an innovation for the Fest, one that we hope they will continue. However given the number of guests and specialist speakers, such as Brian Talbot's full colour 3-D NASA slide show, that it was frequently possible to attend a non-film showing programme item.

Meanwhile the hotel (Sachas) was as welcoming as ever, with only Hal Chester marring cordial relationships with the staff. Nonetheless, my feelings went out to the convention bar man whose stints of duty were hours beyond the call of duty to the point of being an affront (management please note!). Notwithstanding this the hotel continued to prove to be an excellent choice of venue.

The only low point was the fire alarm when we all had to decant to the car park. All was done in good humour with much blame going to Janette Scott (who was a guest some years previously when the fire alarm happened to go off in the middle of the night). The fire brigade came to pronounce a false alarm, but it transpired a deliberate one by thieves to cover the stealing of the convention's camcorders. But the story almost has a happy ending, in true Film Festival style, the youths in question were videod by closed circuit TV! Judgement day is coming perps.

In short the 7th Festival of Fantastic Films was an excellently run convention. Improvements? Of course there could be, and no doubt there will because they are doing it all again next September. If that is not a happy ending then my name is Cecil B.

The Festival's website is at www.fantastic-films.com

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