The 31st Festival of Fantastic Films
Darrell Buxton reviews the event at the Pendulum Hotel,
Manchester’s annual Festival of Fantastic Films has been a fixture on the speculative fiction scene for over thirty years. It is a small, intimate event but has attracted many major guests. The 2021 weekend saw a bid to revive the Festival, following the CoVID-enforced cancellation in 2020, as well as the shock news about the death of festival organiser Gil Lane-Young. Attendance was therefore down, with approximately seventy die-hard regulars and a few new faces making their way to the Pendulum Hotel over the Halloween weekend. Film programme was limited to two, as opposed to the usual three, streams and the original guest line-up was cancelled at the eleventh hour, though as you’ll see, miraculously a couple of star names were secured as last-minute attractions.
Meanwhile, a few weeks beforehand…
In late August of 2021, I spent a very pleasant evening at a restaurant in Derby, in the company of several friends connected with the Festival of Fantastic Films - among them, the heart and soul of the event, Gil Lane-Young. Gil was uncharacteristically quiet that evening during our meal, but certainly livened up in a local pub later on, chatting enthusiastically about the forthcoming 31st Festival, the revival of this annual treat following enforced cancellation the previous year due to CoVID-19, and about films old and new. Two weeks later, news came through that Gil had died.
Irreplaceable though the great man is, his own commitment and sheer drive regarding the 2021 fest weekend meant that we couldn’t just let this go. Something, anything, had to happen in Gil’s memory, even if it merely ended up as half-a-dozen locals raising a glass to Mr Lane-Young on Halloween night.
Don’t forget, however, that way back at the start in 1990, Gil was one of a team, a committee comprising himself, Harry Nadler, Dave Trengove, and Tony Edwards. I recall those early days, and marvelled at the family aspect of it all. And I don’t mean ‘family’ in the sense of how the regular attendees have all come to know and respect one another, but literally - the Fab foursome having co-opted wives, offspring, and local friends and neighbours into helping run the show. So I’ve known Kate Edwards Tulloch, Tony’s daughter, since her mid-teens, and while Kate has left her days of handing out badges and programmes at the festival to since show considerable business acumen and become successful in other areas, as they say, “you can take the girl out of the Festival of Fantastic Films but…”
So, just when we needed a saviour, we found out that we already had one. Kate, as upset by Gil’s passing as anyone, instantly and determinedly threw herself into action and decided that the show would go on. Within a matter of six or seven weeks she pulled the whole lost cause around, and it was pretty much business as usual. Without going into too much detail, I can say that Gil’s planned organisation of the 2021 fest was all completed and ready, but the tragic announcement that he had left us also meant that no-one had access to his paperwork or finances, so all the effort he had put in over recent months was for nought; Kate had to recommence almost totally from scratch.
The result was that, while we could still use the facilities at our favoured home The Pendulum, their main function hall was unavailable, and the festival crowd were shunted into the Cotton Theatre, a smaller, lecture-type room, though luckily equipped with banked seating and a cinema-size screen. Although attendance numbers were slightly reduced from the norm, part of this event’s charm anyway has always been its intimate nature, with dozens present as opposed to thousands, so, as ever, this gave an opportunity to catch up with old mates and take respite from the world in general (not to mention the new world of the 2020s, for which of course we fans of apocalyptic fiction come better equipped and more aware than most), to find a haven where we could safely chat over a few pints about vampires and robots and time machines and shape-shifters without getting funny looks.
Though this year saw a return of the Fest after last year’s cancellation due to CoVID-19, despite a vaccination programme, CoVID was still with us. As with other conventions, the Fest had to take CoVID into account, but being smaller could get away with a looser arrangement. The Fest’s organisers invited attendees to wear masks/face protection at their own personal choice, and many decided to opt to do so; in addition, a system of coloured wristbands was employed, allowing everyone to select and prominently display their preference (no contact, a measure of personal interaction, or full-on hugs and handshakes). This seemed to operate highly effectively.
Doctor Who’s Frazer Hines.
Another casualty of the circumstances was that Gil’s proposed guest line-up had to be scrapped at the eleventh hour. Half a dozen intended personal appearances/Q&A sessions were abandoned, and Kate was left with the seemingly insurmountable problem of filling the gap. Luckily, the already-booked Frazer Hines confirmed his continued availability; in something of a master stroke, Kate carefully scanned ‘what’s on in Manchester’ and was able to provide a truly stellar surprise second guest in the form of Britt Ekland, who just happened to be in the area at the right time! Britt had been touring the UK as part of an ensemble cast in Bill Kenwright’s stage revival of The Cat and the Canary, the best known version of which is Bob Hope’s version of John Willard’s venerable warhorse of a thunderstorm mystery, now almost a century old. I’d seen the production in Birmingham in early October, and was impressed at how they had managed to keep it reasonably authentic (at times I felt I was back in 1922 watching a first run), while adding impressive modern sound design and having the temerity to augment Willard’s drama with a rewritten twist lifted from Wes Craven’s Scream (1996)! Kenwright’s tour had reached Manchester in the final week of the month, and so, through the agencies of the gods of sheer good luck, this left Miss Ekland at a loose end for several hours on Sunday 31st - so where better to spend that time than being complimented, admired, and praised by a bunch of keen fans?
Swedish invader Britt Ekland and Darrell Buxton
Speaking of good fortune, I was the lucky so-and-so designated to host Britt’s flying visit and to interview the great lady on stage. Belying her years (she celebrates a milestone birthday next year, I’m too much of a gent to say which one, and frankly you wouldn’t believe me), she swanned in with the air of the major star she is, but with friendliness rather than being aloof, more than happy to pose with everyone for photos, to sign autographs and to chat about her screen work. Several of the Festival attendees had also seen The Cat and the Canary, and I suspect Britt was pleased to have the chance to talk about some current acting work rather than having to dredge up memories of sets on which she performed for a couple of days’ shooting fifty years ago! That bit, of course, was my job, but Miss Ekland graciously took the time to reminisce about Get Carter (1971), The Monster Club (1981), Endless Night (1972) and Asylum (1972) - in which I suggested that her role of an ‘imaginary friend’ might have been a particular challenge, though she brushed that off, stating that it was ‘just another part’ and that she had become friendly with her ‘other half’ in the story, Charlotte Rampling. Occasionally things took a frosty turn - when I dared to put forward the idea of a Scandinavian invasion of early 1970s British cinema, led by Britt, her Man with the Golden Gun (1974) co-star Maud Adams, Julie Ege, Yutte Stensgaard, etc., Britt quickly snapped back “don’t mention me in the same breath as Julie Ege!! We had completely different careers!” That’s me told, then! When an audience member asked about the infamous rumour surrounding The Wicker Man (1973), that her rock star partner at the time had demanded to purchase the negative and all prints to destroy them and prevent Britt from being glimpsed naked by global audiences, Britt huffily dismissed the notion with a glare and an icily telling comment - “Rod Stewart would never buy anything!!” Britt’s beyond-anything-we’d-ever-encountered-previously superstar status was confirmed by the presence of a small dog nestling inside her handbag, inches away from my feet - I suppose that I can now claim to have achieved a seemingly-lost life’s ambition and shared a stage with ‘Bowie’, this being the name of her pedigree chum!
On the Saturday my old pal M.J. Simpson (also busy flogging his two recent books detailing the incessant flood of 21st century British horror movie production) had joined the aforementioned Frazer Hines for a rollicking hour, more like a comic double-act than an interview!
Frazer seemed to have come prepared with as many hoary old gags as he could muster, but delivered them to the vast entertainment of the crowd, and managed to fit his punchlines into the actual on-set tales he related. A tried and tested act for sure, but hugely pleasing nonetheless. If you want a taster, MJ wound up the proceedings by asking “what is worn under the kilt?”!
Frazer seemed delighted that we were screening the early Hammer science-fictioner X The Unknown (1956), in which he appeared as a raw youngster; he’d worked with Chaplin, no less, soon after in A King in New York (1957), and spoke of how he had dared to offer advice to the screen legend during filming! His time on Doctor Who (1963-'89) filled out the bulk of the chat, mainly via ribald reminiscences regarding Patrick Troughton! And the audience was left gasping as Mr Hines occasionally threw in the names of various beautiful actresses with whom he had liaised over the years (mention of Pamela Franklin bringing an audible wave of envy across the auditorium!)
Not one but two film programmes were hastily put together as part of the last-minute preparation. I was involved in selecting the main stream, alongside Andrew Clark and Jim Montgomery, while Stuart Scott ensconced himself in his regular side-room away off a corridor somewhere and offered a second screen option on the Saturday, showing the classic Vampyr (1932), 1950s big bug fare The Deadly Mantis (1957), late-period Karloff cheapie House of Evil (1968), and drive-in Bigfoot outing Creature from Black Lake (1976).
The big hit in the Cotton Theatre was a late night ‘TV Cops versus Bloodsuckers’ double bill allowing the 1970s generation to reacquaint themselves with the McCloud episode ‘McCloud Meets Dracula’ (1977) and the Starsky and Hutch (1976) ‘The Vampire’. Genre royalty, John Carradine and John Saxon, starred respectively as the faux (or are they?) fangers, and the Starsky and Hutch producers had sufficient nous to appoint Bob Kelljan, king of early 1970s vampire films, as director, Kelljan in turn bringing some of that Count Yorga (1970) style to the show. A selection of vintage short films also had a positive reception; a pair of 1970s British supporting programmers, The Anna Contract (1977) - a tense Cold War thriller about a sniper, with an ending that topples it over into decidedly fantastique territory and dares to suggest that there may be such a thing as ‘breaking the fifth wall’ - and Victims (1979), a half-hour study of a psychotic lonely housewife and her erotic/murderous fantasies; plus Clu Gulager’s award-winning creepfest A Day with the Boys (1969), the impressive premature-burial themed silent Prelude (1927), set to Rachmaninoff, and one more recent film, Dead Man’s Lake (2012) which initially plays as a seen-it-all-before ‘zombie in the woods’ affair before revealing its surprising true colours. The influential Korean psycho-drama The Housemaid (1960), said by Bong Joon Ho to have been a huge influence on his Oscar-winning Parasite 2019) rather divided the audience on Saturday morning, some finding it tense, gripping, and socially significant, others feeling it to be rather overwrought and manic. One of the festival regulars brought along a copy of a real rarity for us to slot into the running order - the 40-minute production from the National Film & Television School, Sphere: The Spores of Doom (1984), a much sought-after and barely-ever-seen item; this chilling story about a mystic wizard, who controls the community of a mediaeval settlement by brewing a potion from the weird outsized mushrooms he forces them to pick, had the flavour of Robin of Sherwood or some of the bigger-budgeted British cinema fantasies of the same era about it, and turned out to exceed expectations. We previewed an excellent new mockumentary from Argentina, Pablo Schembri’s Zombies in the Sugar Cane Field (2019) which posits that George Romero’s zombie movies may have stolen images and ideas from a lost South American film screened a handful of times in the mid-sixties and now missing; this impeccably-detailed piece is far from the gorefest that the title might suggest, and turned out to be a really sweet ‘quest’ movie with researchers and critics on the hunt for the inspirational absent shocker. Equally surprisingly ‘nice’ was The Final Girls (2015), appropriately the last offering on the programme and another audience favourite - co-written by Joshua John Miller, whose dad played Father Karras in The Exorcist (1973) this sees a bunch of teenagers watching a revived 1980s slasher flick at their local cinema but ending up inside the movie themselves, interacting with the cheesy camp counsellor characters and having to avoid the machete-wielding attentions of a masked killer. Again, violence and bloodshed are suggested, but any such ideas are overridden by a time-travelling tale of friendship in adversity, and a truly touching mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the piece.
A productive meeting hosted by Kate on Saturday morning saw several keen regulars volunteering for various tasks over the coming months in order to perpetuate the Festival. The reaction was so very positive that it seems certain we’ll be back in 2022, and hopefully for many years to come. Whether the ‘new broom’ will ultimately achieve the thirty years that Gil heroically managed, who knows? But for now I’m happy to report that the long-running Festival of Fantastic Films has a bright future.
Review of the previous Fest here.