Convention Review

The 2005 Leicester Festival of Fantastic Film

18th-22nd March, Phoenix Arts Centre, Leicester
Tony Chester checks out the other Fantastic Film Fest t'other side of Pennines...


This was the fifth annual Festival of Fantastic Film to be held at Phoenix under the guidance of Alan Alderson-Smith, not to be confused with the longer-running Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester. Phoenix Arts has existed in one form or another for 30 years and, as a stage, has seen the early careers of such as Anthony Hopkins, among others. It started showing films 15 years ago, moving rapidly from just a couple per week up to about 60% of the events. Around 12 years ago it started to attract help and funding from Leicester Council and the Arts Council and is overseen by a board/panel from De Montfort University. Matthew Linley is the Director of Phoenix Arts, Alan Seaman has responsibility for live events and Alan Alderson-Smith is responsible for cinema programming. He is an enthusiastic fan of science fiction and fantasy, and cites authors such as Ursula K LeGuin as among his influences, and describes SF and fantasy as the "lead horses" for the Festival, though it also caters to horror, exploitation and, on occasion, 'sleaze'. Like myself, though probably a couple of years apart, Alan fondly remembers the Scala in Kings Cross, London, saying "I probably spent the better part of my twenties there." The Phoenix has a 270-seater auditorium with stepped seating, a cafe on its upper floor (where weekly live music events are staged), and a bar on the lower ground floor (serving real ales and wheat beers!). The Festival started in 2001 and has hosted many premieres, such as Ghosts of Mars, and frequently has special guests; for instance, in 2003 the Festival was a Troma retrospective and was attended by Lloyd Kaufman, maverick head of Troma.

This year's events were combined with the Wild Japan tour of 35mm prints of classic Japanese films mixed with cult classics. Phoenix was one of only eight venues in the country to feature Wild Japan, including the Edinburgh Festival (Phoenix maintains a good year-round relationship with Matt Palmer, film co-ordinator for Edinburgh). The prints were supplied by The Japan Foundation, supported by The Sasakawa Foundation, part of The Japan European Union, and sponsored by Eureka Video. However, the Festival opened on the 18th of March with a non-Japanese premiere, Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water (2004), a documentary, about 25% of which is in Klingon!, and was attended by the film's director Alexander O Philippe. I didn't get to see this myself, but Peter Thorley, part of the local Total Cult SF group in Leicester was there. He said, "The most disappointing thing about the film was the low turnout at the Phoenix. A documentary about a meeting of members of the Klingon Language Institute doesn't sound like exciting stuff, but the material is surprisingly engaging. Similar to the other notable Star Trek documentary, Trekkies, it is a light-hearted look at the fans who have learnt and studied the Klingon language and how it has affected their lives. While it certainly doesn't have the humour of Trekkies, Philippe films it sympathetically and with a beautiful visual style, never playing the fans for laughs. You end up feeling like you could share their passion for this fictional language. It is only a shame that there were so few people there to appreciate it." The second film that day was the classic Sword of Doom (1966) directed by Kihachi Okamoto, a samurai epic of vengeance and psychopathic sword-play, quite violent even by today's standards, that prefigures the driven and possessed 'heroes' of many later Japanese films.

Saturday opened with another well-known classic, Shogun Assassin (1980) directed by Robert Houston and Kenji Misumi, the first of the 'Baby Cart' films, known in comics circles as Lone Wolf and Cub, and was followed by Woman With Red Hair (1979) directed by the virtually unknown Tatsumi Kumashiro, in which a construction worker picks up a hitchhiker and embarks on an obsessive relationship as a form of escape from their everyday lives, set against a backdrop of ceaseless rain and the moaning of the junkies in the flat below. Female Prisoner 701 (1972) directed by Shunya Ito is a 'chicks in chains' movie (or 'bare behind bars' if you prefer) and contains all the tropes of such fare. Meiko Kaji, a 70's cult pin-up, is the wrongly imprisoned woman of the title who seeks escape and vengeance on the man who put her there. Ito is cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of his influences, though poor editing lets 701 down in places. The final film of the day was the mind-boggling 1981 film Possession starring Isabelle Adjani (in, quite possibly, her best ever performance) and Sam Neill (who cites this as one of his best ever films), directed by Andrzej Zulawski. It's almost impossible to describe this movie and the narrative is hard to pin down: Adjani plays a schizophrenic housewife who is raped by an unseen presence in the subway, gives birth to a tentacled monster, who she also makes love to, which later adopts the shape of her husband, Sam Neill. Neill may or may not be some kind of industrial spy or saboteur, consumed with jealousy against another of his wife's lovers. The more you watch, the more confused you become! Unlike most of the 'happy ever after' pap that passes for cinema these days, this film actually stimulates discussion as you try to work out just what the hell you've been watching. If you ever get the chance to see this wonderful movie I strongly suggest that you do so.

On Sunday audiences were treated to Masahiro Shinoda's black and white 'lost classic' Pale Flower (1964), a yakuza gangster film in which a violent punk recently released from prison finds his life pointless and spirals down to his doom. In the same vein Street Mobster (1972) was the first of 3 films from director Kenji Fukasaku, another of Tarantino's influences, though it was the 'double bill' of Battle Royale (2000) and Battle Royale 2 (2003) that really brought in the audiences. Known by many because of its computer game incarnation, Battle Royale is a perverse take on reality TV in a dystopian near future in which 40 students are set up on an island and must kill one another until only one survives. Sadly Kenji died when he was barely into the filming of the sequel, so the torch was passed to his son, Kenta. While the direction lacks the flair of his father's work, Kenta takes on this anti-American diatribe with enthusiasm. The film opens with 'terrorists' blowing up most of the tall buildings in a city, while a voiceover and graphics lists the number of countries bombed by America in the last 50 years (it's a long list). The terrorists in question are, in fact, the survivors of the first movie and their allies, and the new intake of students must assault their stronghold on the island. It's hard to know who to root for in this morally ambiguous film, but everyone can be united in their hatred for George Dubya Bush.

Onibaba (1964) is one of the best-loved cult movies of genre fans, though rarely seen as a 35mm print. ((Channel 4 has shown the film, and so has BBC2, so it isn't exactly obscure, but definitely rare)) It opened Monday's line-up and was directed in monochrome by Kaneto Shindo. This complex horror thriller concerns a mother and daughter who make their living ambushing samurai and then selling off their kit. A young neighbour, returning from the skirmishes, is the catalyst for escalating tensions between the pair of women until, depending on your interpretation, the mother either pretends to be, or actually is, possessed by a demon and determines to frighten her daughter into compliance. Onibaba was followed by the barely known Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), though it is often cited (along with Kurosawa's Rashomon) as one of the films that introduced the West to Japanese cinema. Ghost story films (kaidan eiga) were very popular in Japan in the forties and fifties (though the type is probably better known to modern audiences in their Chinese form), and director Kenji Mizouguchi made a handful. In this one a simple potter is haunted, or seduced, by a ghostly princess with inevitably fatal results. Though only PG rated this is quite a chilly little offering, so probably not suitable for younger children. The final film of the day was a showing of the restored, re-edited British horror classic from 1973, The Wicker Man. Directed by Robert Hardy and starring Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, this has been a cult classic ever since it was butchered and buried as a "B"-movie on its original release. Sergeant Howie, a pious plod, visits Summerisle to investigate a child's disappearance and is exposed to the island's pagan religion and drawn into sacrificial intrigue. This is, among other things, one of Christopher Lee's favourite movies and his performance as the unrepentant Lord Summerisle is perfectly played off against Woodward's po-faced Howie.

The final film of the Festival, shown on Tuesday, was School of the Holy Beast (1974), a 'naked nuns' exploitation film directed by Norifumi Suzuki. Part sex comedy, part political commentary this weirdo movie mixes sex, flagellation, drugs, horror, perversion and incest as a young woman enters a convent to investigate the mysterious death of her mother, a former nun. Working out who her father is isn't the audience's hardest task; that would be keeping a straight face! Either you enjoy this kind of thing or you don't; I make no apologies for laughing my head off. So ended the Festival. Sadly it didn't exactly break any box office records over the weekend, despite an average price of only 3 per movie, depending on which offers you took up, but I think the problem lies more with the punters than the organisers (and a bit with the complex cultural make up of Leicester), and it's hard to see what they could have done better to attract more people. There was plenty of advance publicity, a great selection of movies, and Phoenix is a great venue for seeing films, but the auditorium was rarely more than half to two thirds full and often only about one quarter filled. The Battle Royale double bill was pretty much a full house, but this was the exception. It's a shame because, like many venues of a similar type, Phoenix lives somewhat hand-to-mouth as a going concern and I believe that such venues should be cherished by any city that has one. I enjoyed the Festival and recommend it to all and sundry, whether you happen to live in Leicester, or can visit and, if you do live in Leicester, I positively encourage you to go see events at Phoenix Arts (film or otherwise) as often as you can. If Phoenix ever goes under, Leicester will be the poorer for it.

Tony Chester


For details of future major SF conventions check out the diary page which is updated each New Year.

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