Convention Review

The 21st Festival of Fantastic Films

Darrell Buxton reviews the event at the Sachas Hotel, Manchester in October 2010.


In an increasingly uncertain universe, it is nice to know that there are a few things on which you can rely. It is been under question whether the annual Manchester-based Festival of Fantastic Films can remain one of them, but the event returned for another monster rally/flying saucer attack/graveyard gathering - remarkably, the 21st such weekend, in an unbroken run since 1990 – once again this October.   Numbers were noticeably reduced but most of the regulars showed their faces, and the guest line-up was as stellar as ever. Debate about the festival’s future continues to rage (organisation debates were reported in Concatenation's autumn 2010 news), but for now let us revel in the highpoints of what turned out to be another fine weekend of fantasy, fright, and fun.

This year’s opening ceremony featured a specially-prepared video-clip celebration of the fest’s history – a lovingly-compiled parade of excerpts featuring previously invited celebs, the shebang’s organisers, and we the punters, all looking impossibly young and with full heads of hair (Richard Gordon and Roy Ward Baker excepted, perhaps…)

Jim Groom graciously accepted a late-night interview slot on the Friday to chat about his films Room 36 and Revenge of Billy the Kid, lending valuable insights into the struggles a young filmmaker faces during periods where the 'British Film Industry' lurches through one of its frequent lulls. I was pleased to hear Jim mention the James Whale TV special from 20 years ago that featured reports on the making of Billy The Kid and I Bought A Vampire Motorcycle – I thought I was the only person who had stayed up late to see that show!

Also on Friday, I was collared in the lobby by a young tyke tugging at my trouser leg, asking in an uncertain voice “are you the famous Mr. Buxton and can you get me a Fantastic Films badge?” – turned out it was little T. F. Simpson, progeny of man-about-festivals-and-film-sets-and-tie-shops M. J. Simpson, Thomas presumably now being deemed old enough to venture out into the weird world of fandom. T. F. was one of the characters of the weekend, particularly during those moments where he could be seen stomping around the bar or occasionally interrupting live interviews resplendent in his silver mini-Cyberman outfit. Even his proud dad’s typically colourful and varied selection of movie-related neckwear couldn’t upstage the youngster.

Speaking of proud parents, the always-welcome Welsh rock’n’roll legend Paul Barrett was present once again – his son Lincoln (aka cult DJ/recording star ‘High Tension’) could not make it this time, but we did get to view a new pop promo Linc has recently directed for Kid Adrift’s track ‘Oxytocin’ – typically loaded with manga, torture porn, and chainsaw references! But all in the best possible taste.

Night Of The Big Heat kicked off saturday, appropriately so since the pile of fried eggs in the breakfast buffet looked uncannily like the alien invaders in the film. I had not seen the film in years, so I was pleased to find it feeling as sultry, sweaty and sexy as I had remembered. Jane Merrow, who managed to act messrs Lee, Cushing, and Patrick Allen off the screen here, followed the screening with a very entertaining live chat, discussing her early career (a bit part in Hammer’s Phantom of the Opera – she had forgotten that she got a line of dialogue, until interviewer Wayne Kinsey pointed it out – and an early break in the TV adaptation of ‘Lorna Doone’), her success in The Lion in Winter and in establishing a lengthy career as a Brit abroad in countless 1970s US TV smashes (Six Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk, you name it, she was in it). On the subject of Big Heat, she added her name to the long list of industry professionals who hold Peter Cushing in nothing but the highest esteem, although her views on Christopher Lee were rather different: “I didn’t know what was going on in his head, and suspect that he didn’t either!”

She also spoke very highly of Patrick McGoohan (having thoroughly enjoyed her experiences on Danger Man and The Prisoner); less so of her famous co-star on the 1972 TV movie version of Hound of the Baskervilles – “Bill Shatner is in love with Bill Shatner!” Jane also spoke about her current project, producing a series of short films ('New Chilling Tales') for the internet based loosely on classic horror yarns – the first, Beware Of What You Wish For, a take on 'The Monkey’s Paw', is complete and there will be more to come.

The Saturday afternoon auction of film memorabilia with Ramsey Campbell presiding was the usual riot – red wine flowed, money changed hands, and Ramsey bellowed forthright opinions about each and every lot which passed through his hands, even managing to auction a pint of beer for seven quid!

I was privileged to interview the great Bert I. Gordon in a prime slot on Saturday evening, just prior to a screening of his fast moving, ultra-cheesy and immensely entertaining 1977 gem Empire Of The Ants. In terrific shape for an 88 year old, Mr. G (“call me Bert”, he growled as I formally introduced him on stage) was a super guest, dismissing his early films Serpent Island and King Dinosaur but speaking lovingly about his late-1950s output – I tried to provoke some discussion on Tormented, a brilliantly spooky item which I consider his best movie, but Bert seemed keener on chatting about his two Colossal pictures and especially Attack Of The Puppet People. He also had fond memories of working with Orson Welles on the film Necromancy in 1971. Bert is currently writing a regular column for Fangoria magazine, and his autobiography has just been published.

Next up, Wayne Kinsey reclaimed the hosting duties, firing questions at Horst Janson – looking absurdly young and healthy, confessing that he hadn’t had to speak English for several years but doing so impeccably, and relating yarn after yarn about his experiences on Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter as well as some less familiar corners of his career.

Your truly was back on the main stage in the early hours of Sunday morning, this time chatting to the exotic Ms. Françoise Pascal. Prior to the interview, a handful of still-sleepy movie addicts had stumbled into the hall for a screening of Rose De Fer, an eerie 1973 outing starring Françoise – it got a mixed reaction from the punters, to say the least, but I thought this mood piece directed by Jean Rollin was absolutely stunning, a macabre and virtually plotless tone poem set almost entirely in the cemetery at Amiens. Some found it way too long; conversely, I lost myself in the film’s haunting world and wish I were still watching it now. Ms. Pascal had plenty of nice things to say about the film (in which she is the main character and gets the lion’s share of screen time, even performing a bit of ballet in one weird sequence), but commented on Monsieur Rollin slightly less charitably, saying “he lives in a sci-fi movie inside his own head”! Françoise was extremely lively and chatty on stage, spending much of the interview ignoring my questions and talking to Norman J Warren (who directed her in Loving Feeling way back in 1968), NJW being perched in the front row! She spoke briefly about her work with Peter Sellers, and about how TV writer Vince Powell had penned her signature role, the part of ‘Danielle Favre’ in ITV’s hit series Mind Your Language, especially for her. She also gave illuminating insights into the pressures of fame and having to deal with media attention, before bizarrely wrapping up the chat by having a dig at Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, and calling for the return of Mrs. Thatcher!

There was only one way to turn from here – back to the blob monsters. Despite being a big fan of Italian SF/horror cinema, I had never seen Caltiki, Il Mostro Immortale, the Riccardo Freda/Mario Bava film from the late fifties, something which the festival allowed me to remedy this time – with an enthusiastic and informative intro from Ramsey leading us into this excellent example of how the Italians can steal ideas from all around them (in this case The Quatermass Xperiment and The Blob being clear inspirations) but can add their own unique twist, and dexterity with a low budget, to the proceedings. Those who saw this one spent a good portion of the afternoon chatting about it later.

Stephen Volk gave a wonderfully cynical, writer’s-eye-view of the tv and movie business during his chat on Sunday afternoon - he seems genuinely grateful to have the opportunity to write about his favourite subjects for a living, and like many scripters, takes a jaundiced stance regarding producers and directors: some of his tales about working with William Friedkin on The Guardian were very funny, and his experiences on The Kiss seemed no less fraught. Best of all was his anecdote about the producer of Ken Russell’s Gothic, who told Stephen that he loved his screenplay but asked if he could consider changing the names of the main characters from ‘Byron’ and ‘Shelley’ to something different!!

And so to the traditional Dead Dog Party, featuring folk in elaborate zombie and Edward Scissorhands costumes roaming about the bar area while we competed to answer some of the fiendish quiz posers set by the estimable George Gaddi (sample question - “what three-word phrase is chanted by the crowd in the film Dragonslayer before the choosing of a sacrificial victim?”).   A 21st-anniversary cake, decorated as though scarred by the claws of Freddy Krueger, was eagerly consumed by the festival throng, and things inevitably descended into an alcoholic haze.   It seems the immediate future of the Festival is assured – the 22nd event will take place late in 2011, back at Days Hotel/Manchester Conference Centre.

Darrell Buxton

Other news from the 2010 Fest is here in our seasonal newscast.

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