Convention Review

The 30th Festival of Fantastic Films

Darrell Buxton reviews the event at the Pendulum Hotel,
Manchester, 25th – 27th October 2019.


SF² Concatenation’s Jonathan Cowie is a stickler for people in our 21st century, technological, knowledge-based, global society being numerate as well as at least having basic scientific literacy, and so he would have been rather upset to find that this year’s Festival of Fantastic Films was officially billed as a ‘30th Anniversary’ event.  Not true!  It was, admittedly, the thirtieth Festival to be staged with the involvement of the estimable Gil Lane-Young, but the milestone anniversary won’t actually be marked until 2020, the Fest having commenced at Parkers Hotel way back in 1990 – so long ago that most of my surviving photos of that inaugural weekend are in black and white, and all of them had to be developed by Boots the Chemists!

Anyway, let’s leave numeracy aside, as well as the problems inherent in finding the time to trek to your local Boots with multiple rolls of film in the days when ‘taking a photo using a hand-held communications device’ was the stuff of SF. Instead, we’ll move on to discuss the 2019 Fest.  As usual, I’ll have a bit of a gripe and moan at the outset, but don’t let that colour your picture of what happens in Manchester - it is so difficult to convey this to people who have never attended this late October treat, but for us regulars the mistakes, eleventh-hour programme changes, cancellations, accidents and disasters are as welcome as ‘cock-ups’ in a Denis Norden-presented hour of television.  We all know that things go wrong at Manchester, and we take it in our stride, graciously accept the fact, and indeed use such unfortunate occurrences as fuel for our conversations in the bar. I was directly and personally affected this year - the 77-minute movie I co-scripted some years ago, Ouijageist, was to form part of the programme, but on checking the schedule I noticed that Gil had positioned it in an hour-long slot!  Was he planning to screen it in fast-forward mode, I mused over the first of several pints? What’s more, our 17-minute overlap would be cutting into the Sunday morning interview with Dez Skinn, and Dez is not a man anyone wants to irritate or mess with! As I scanned the programme further, I looked for details of the interviews Gil had asked me to host, with former Hammer starlets Pauline Peart and Deirdre Costello.  It turned out that Pauline, Deirdre, and (unbeknown to me) Janina Faye were all to be huddled together in a single Q&A on Saturday lunchtime, and that Deirdre had unfortunately pulled out due to illness. So, once I’d checked in, I tore up my two sets of prepared questions and started from scratch in my room…

Don’t take away the impression that the Festival of Fantastic Films(FoFF) is anything less than great, though - it’s a low-key, intimate affair, more like a decent-sized family get-together than anything, and a far cry (and far preferable, for most of us) to a corporate beast like FrightFest or to any of the US-style mega-conventions beginning to spring up over here.  We all recognise each other by sight, and know the names of a good three-quarters of the attendees, leading to much friendly banter and film-related conversation and debate during the three days.  Plus, we all get to pick and choose from a varied film line-up, and sit in on some stellar guest interview sessions, made all the better since these sizeable names are chatting before a few dozen of us rather than a couple of thousand in some grand but hollow venue elsewhere.

And what a roster Gil and his helpers had prepared for us this time!  As well as the aforementioned Pauline and Janina, we had not one but two legends of Italian movie make-up, Sergio Stivaletti and Giannetto De Rossi, plus popular music vocalist and sometime star of British ‘exotic adventure’ fantasy movies, Dana Gillespie.  Dez was here again (my riotous 2018 interview with the publishing mini-mogul and the fact that people kept buying drinks for him had given Dez such a good feeling that he decided to invite himself back for more), and Fest perennial Norman J. Warren had been asked by Gil to attend, mainly so that punters could bring along their Indicator Blu-ray box sets of his work and get NJW to sign them. It has to be said that the ailing Mr Warren didn’t look in the best of health early on Friday, but the mere act of his attendance coupled with the attention and acclaim he received from we fans appeared to have a genuine regenerative effect - I think Norman departed Manchester feeling pleased that he’d made the worthwhile effort to show up. As ever, it was lovely to see him chatting away, laughing, and holding court at the breakfast table. Tim Langley of Renown Pictures was another welcome returnee, and it was wonderful to have Julian Richards briefly passing through to screen his new film Reborn - Julian last attended the FoFF in 2003 with a little item entitled The Last Horror Movie, which wowed the crowd back then, and Reborn proved itself a good, solid little horror thriller, with strong echoes of the telekinesis hits of the 1970s and a truly exceptional performance by Barbara Crampton, elevating a fairly standard ‘mom’ role into something rather poignant.  M. J. Simpson (MJ) and I had a brief pre-screening catch-up chat with Mr Richards, our main topic of conversation being his current globe-trotting status and the consequent problems this causes obsessive British cinema researchers and chroniclers like me and MJ, in our attempts to establish which of his productions are officially UK-funded and which are not.  Reborn, for example, is an American movie, but damn good of its kind.

Sergio Stivaletti and Giannetto De Rossi are two of those ‘pinch yourself’ names that we could barely have dreamed would ever grace Manchester with their presence. In his recent autobiography Little Do You Know, screenwriter David McGillivray mentions his experience at the FoFF in 1992, up on stage with former collaborator but now mortal enemy Pete Walker - and we could well have been in for similar frostiness this year, as word was that Sergio and Giannetto don’t get on well at all! Then again, perhaps that is not unexpected, since the standing gag on the Italian horror film scene of the 1970s and '80s was that “everybody hates everybody else, and they all hate Dario Argento”!  Luckily, they seemed to manage to avoid one another, and both gave typically hesitant/slightly stilted onstage interviews in a mixture of their home language and English.

Stivaletti spoke of his directorial debut from 1994, Wax Mask (recently reissued on Blu-ray by Severin) and how he inherited the reins when Lucio Fulci fell into ill health; he also discussed his role as fx/make-up artist on numerous Argento titles in the 80s, and his frequent work with director Michele Soavi, seen by many as the last great hope of the Italian commercial film industry and who sadly retired from the business at a young age to look after his ailing son - Soavi’s later return to movies failed to live up to the promise of that thrilling first handful of features - Stivaletti having teamed with him on The Church, The Sect and Dellamorte Dellamore.  A few hours prior to Signor De Rossi’s appearance, we’d been privy to a feature-length documentary on him by Naomi Holwill, The Prince of Plasma: The Giannetto De Rossi Story, and his live interview did repeat a few of the best tales from the biographical study - but via the film and the chat, we got to hear several wonderful, amusing tales. Remember that infamous ‘worm-faced’ returnee-from-the-grave in Zombie Flesh Eaters  De Rossi loved telling us how one of the writhing invertebrates had to be prevented from making its slow progress towards one of the nostrils of the poor actor caked in living dead make-up!  Or how about the shot-in-Derbyshire Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue?  Required to create edible ‘eyes’ for one gruesome scene, de Rossi boiled and reduced a batch of eggs, and attached cotton backing to hold them firm. The zombie cast all fell ill - but unanimously concluded that “we’ll never eat at that restaurant again”, believing that local cuisine rather than their make-up man’s concoctions had caused their shared condition! De Rossi has worked with Fellini, Bertolucci, Sergio Leone, David Lynch, and Sylvester Stallone - on first meeting Sly for Rambo III , he was confronted with the statement, “you know everything about me - I know nothing about you. Tell me one of your movies”.  Giannetto responded by mentioning Fellini’s Casanova.  Sly asked “who made up Donald Sutherland?”. “I did”. “Tell me another”. Dune. “Who made up Baron Harkonnen???”. “I did”.  “Have you read the Rambo script, and what didn’t you like about it?”  De Rossi gave an honest opinion, stating that Rambo should not receive medical attention from an Afghani medicine man (“that’s not Rambo!”), but should cauterise his wounds himself.  This was duly written into the screenplay and De Rossi was assigned as the production’s special make-up effects artist.

Giannetto was hired by Alexandre Aja for 2003’s Haute Tension/Switchblade Romance in order to give an old school feel to that film’s gory murder scenes, simply because Aja was such an admirer of his 80s work - De Rossi’s contribution here made such an impact that he almost single-handedly spawned an entire subgenre, the ‘new French Extremity’ of the following ten years or so. Giannetto told us that he regards Rick Baker as a genius, but when an audience member referred to Tom Savini he was somewhat less complimentary!  And, questioned about his work on Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery, he couldn’t recall a thing about it! (“I do too many movies, you know!”)

The first fact you need to know regarding Dana Gillespie is that she pronounces her first name to rhyme with ‘spanner’. Her interview session was a candid joy, not dissimilar to the very open chat with Jacqueline Pearce at the Fest some years back.  It is always great when the guests are so honest and raw, especially if and when they begin dishing the dirt on other people they’ve worked with or encountered along the way! Dana dismissed The People That Time Forgot as “The Film That People Forgot” and revealed that the collective cast/crew nickname for the movie’s big-name star was “Glug McClure”, for reasons best left between Doug and his corkscrew.  Ms Gillespie also took enormous delight in informing us that the sight of her spectacular cleavage became the topic of animated discussion in the office of the British film censor - apparently it was considered to be too much for the intended kiddie audience.  Fortunately, sanity prevailed - as Dana pointed out, the kids were there for the dinosaurs and pterodactyls and couldn’t care less about her boobs.

Questioned about 1978’s comic version of Hound of the Baskervilles, she considers that cult American director and Warhol associate Paul Morrissey was “mismatched” with the cast of English comedy stars, and that the whole enterprise was a bit of a disaster (“People should see it if they can - if only to see how not to do a film!”). Soon after that experience, she revealed that she had also auditioned for the role ultimately won by Sarah Douglas in the Salkinds’ Superman franchise. Dana didn’t hold back with her controversial views during the festival interview (“I don’t believe in the #MeToo Movement”; “I don’t like it when females use the term ‘actor’ “), and was at pains to explain how old-fashioned and out of touch she is nowadays in certain respects - to the point where her car is equipped with a cassette player!

Dez Skinn stole the show last year and was back for more.  I’m not sure I could have coped with this dervish of a man two years running, so was pleased that I could sit back and let my pal Tony Earnshaw take over interview duties this time around. I say ‘interview’ - but Dez is one of those characters with whom a hapless interrogator can barely get a word in, what we in the trade call a “wind up and let them go merchant”. It’s difficult to describe a Q&A session with such livewires, so I’ll simply repeat a few choice quotes here! On Moon Zero Two: “Bernard Bresslaw in space! What a concept!”. On potential ideas for alternatives to his House of Hammer magazine: “Attic of Amicus doesn’t quite work!”. On Hammer’s unfilmed project Zeppelins Vs. Pterodactyls: “that would have been the shortest film ever!” – Dez proceeded to screech and form his hands into talons (“pterodactyl”), then indicated a rugby-ball shape (“balloon!”) and left us to imagine how Hammer might have attempted to fill the other 89 minutes and 59 seconds of their proposed epic!

Dez’s pre-Monster Mag plans, he revealed, had included a magazine for football hooligans to be called Foul!, perhaps fortunately never to sully the shelves of any newsagent; and he described his daily trek down Wardour Street in the mid-to-late 1970s as “Dez’s office --- Hammer House --- Pub”, often accompanied by his great pal, fellow beardie, and Hammer scriptwriter Christopher Wicking.  Dez reminded us that Grant Morrison had once responded to the query “what will they call 2000AD in the year 2000?” by saying “history”, adding, “he was a great one for one-word answers. I’ve never been able to do that myself!”  Dez, we’ve noticed, and we love you for it.  It really does look as though he may become the festival’s next ‘Norman J. Warren’, i.e. invited as a guest one year and keeps turning up thereafter! See you next time, Mr Skinn.

I actually watched a few films this time around too (the FoFF has the reputation as being “the film festival where no-one ever sees any films”, despite several being programmed in the main hall to accompany the guest interviews, and despite Stuart Scott’s heroic efforts to present a tantalising programme of old faves and rarities in a side room). Aside from the aforementioned Reborn, and my own film Ouijageist (co-written by yours truly and Steve Hardy, directed by John R. Walker), I took the opportunity to rewatch Day of the Triffids from 1962 (still showing signs of it being a troubled production, and still unavailable in anything like a decent print, but enjoyable nevertheless), and two very good documentaries – the Giannetto De Rossi one already referred to, and A Life Like in the Movies, a new German study of the life of Carl Laemmle, the immigrant founder of Universal Pictures, which gave real insight into a true story which ought to be better known. Without a doubt, though, the highlight of the film schedule had to be Fahrmann Maria, the dark German fantasy from 1935 - directed by Frank Wisbar (spelled ‘Wysbar’ on these credits - he’d anglicised it by the time of his Hollywood b-movie remake Strangler of the Swamp in the forties), this was a classic worthy of a place among the greats, reminiscent of Dreyer’s Vampyr (and sharing a female lead with that movie in the shape of Sybille Schmitz) and achieving a masterly combination of myth, folklore, and the most subtle shudders.  A ‘dance of death’ sequence in a town square towards the close proved devastating, even more so when it didn’t quite play out according to audience expectations and went off on a further tangent, leading to a confrontation scene in a nearby church.  Again, the source copy was not of any decent quality, but the chance to see this at all was more than welcome.  The whole riveting experience was best summed up by a pal of mine, who compared Fahrmann Maria to a Murnau classic. No, not Nosferatu, not Faust, but Sunrise.

Despite rumours that Gil Lane-Young had intended this thirtieth event to be the last Festival of Fantastic Films, he is keen to continue, though much hinges on the health of Gil’s wife Victoria. He has promised that he will make an announcement by February 2020 - and I think it’s safe to say that the show will go on.  Even if Gil, the last of the original team (headed by the remarkable Harry Nadler) to take an active part in running the Fest opts out next year, those of us who attend annually will take action ourselves to keep it all moving and on track.  As always, the Festival of Fantastic Films comes highly recommended.

Darrell Buxton

Review of the previous year's Fest here.


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