Convention Review

The 22nd Festival of Fantastic Films

Darrell Buxton reviews the event at the Days Hotel, Manchester 21st-23rd October 2011.


We have all seen those creepy old dark house thrillers where an oddball group of disparate folk congregate within a shadowy mansion. Such a party might consist of a scholar specialising in the arts/culture of an under-documented region; a cynical writer with plenty to say but finding himself reduced to spewing out double entendres to make a living; a once hugely-popular film star trading on former glories; a jack-of-all-trades with a fund of amusing and informative anecdotes; a burly but enigmatic and exotic European man-about-town; an outrageous, larger-than-life rock’n’roller; and of course, a dotty old lady.

Therefore, the spectacular guest line-up for the 22nd annual Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films supplied the perfect cast. Stalking through the corridors and rooms of the conference centre venue over the weekend, we found ourselves in the presence of Salford-based university lecturer and former punk-era hero from Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias, Dr. C. P. Lee; the arch, self-deprecating and everybody-else-disparaging movie and tv scriptwriter David McGillivray; the king of 70s sexploitation, Robin Askwith; Hammer Films’ go-to guy Hugh Harlow; stuntman-turned-action-hero Bobby Rhodes; distinctively-bearded wrestling promoter/rockabilly singer/trash film distributor Johnny Legend; and, speaking of legends, that ageless and unstoppable force of British cinema, continuity lady supreme, Ms. Renee Glynne.

Fortunately, no hooded maniac or grudge-bearing psychopath stood in our stellar throng’s way, no Agatha Christie-like body count began to tally, and if the clock ominously boomed out a warning as it struck midnight, we were probably all too busy attempting to catch the eye of the staff at the late bar to notice.

Most punters agreed that although the Festival of Fantastic Films has had its share of peaks and troughs, 2011 was a vintage occasion. Funnily, none of us quite knew why - this year’s shindig just had a certain vibe about it. Maybe none of us went in with particular expectations, we’ve reached the point now where familiar faces turn up year after year, looking a year older but acting younger, and where any newcomers stepping precariously through the hotel portals for the first time are enthusiastically embraced and given a hearty welcome. The guests were visible, approachable and friendly, the film programme offered delights galore, regulars such as director Norman J. Warren and horror author Ramsey Campbell were in find fettle, and even the staff at the Days Hotel (with whom the festival has encountered minor hiccoughs previously) were super-efficient and extra helpful this time around.

Highlights? Well, Johnny Legend’s lively chat with fellow rocker Paul Barrett proved a lively diversion, followed by a superb Legend-compiled selection of rare trailers, news reports and other rare footage centred upon Edward D. Wood Jr. and Bela Lugosi. Bobby Rhodes was a softly spoken pussycat in person, a far cry from his uber-macho turns in Demons, Demons 2 and The Last Hunter. C. P. Lee’s presentation on the cheapo films of Manchester’s own cut-price action/horror hero Cliff Twemlow was insightful and amusing. Norman Warren’s patronage of the festival (try as the organisers might, they just cannot keep NJW away!) was celebrated formally this year via screenings of his films Terror, Inseminoid, and the rarely-seen Bloody New Year - the latter in particular went down a storm, and the aforementioned Paul Barrett revealed to us that he had first met and befriended Norman on the set of this movie, shot on Barry Island (Paul essayed the role of ‘The Table Monster’ in the film, a part which appears to have led to little else, although how could one possibly top it?). I was called upon to assist with the judging of the annual Delta Award, the festival’s popular short films contest - my critical faculties were proven to be well out of step with those of my fellow judges, since the film I liked best, a gripping American mini-psycho-thriller Apt. (pronounced ‘apartment’), was placed last in the overall points total! I couldn’t argue with the full panel’s choice as winner, however, a clever little item from Ireland entitled Hatch, in which a bearded layabout discovers an alien egg in his bathwater one morning, and, as you do, takes it down the pub, where the ovoid entity begins to perform a few strange manoeuvres on the bar top. I will not spoil the hilarious visual punchline but it brought the house down. Catch this one if you cross its path.

Another short gem (not in competition but screened several times over the weekend, to much appreciation) was M.J. Simpson’s long-promised and promisingly-titled Waiting For Gorgo. The finished piece was well worth the, erm, wait - Mike’s script positing the existence of a long-forgotten branch of the Ministry of Defence devoted to fending off giant lumbering monsters, the department gradually reduced by budget cuts and lack of work over the decades until it is staffed by two elderly civil servants (Geoffrey Davies and Nicolas Amer) who find themselves under audit and possible threatened closure. Was their office really created in the wake of an attack on London by the gigantic mother of baby monster Gorgo? Or were these merely fictional events, seen in a 1960 British creature feature at the local cinema? After 15 minutes of none-more-meta plotting and smart debate, the satisfying final shot reveals all. A first-rate example of how to make a monster movie with three actors, one location, a smart screenplay and no monster!

My own meagre contribution to the festival revels this time out were to act, for the second occasion, as stooge to the great Robin Askwith. As in 2005, I hosted the live interview with Robin, and as always he gave great value for money, chatting about sharing a joint with Jimi Hendrix, appearing on Marc Bolan’s tv show (as Mr. A pointed out, every time he worked with a rock star they snuffed it a few weeks later!), starring in the rather desperate fag-end-of-the-sex-comedy-boom production Let’s Get Laid (a poster for which he kindly signed for me later, scrawling “It’s Not The Thighs!” across an expanse of flesh revealed above Fiona Richmond’s stocking top). Askwith revealed during a post-interview pint that he is planning a tour of small UK venues soon - if that all works out, I can’t recommend enough that you grab a ticket and see the man live, he’s a truly wonderful raconteur (as evidenced by the number of satisfied festivalgoers who shook his hand and congratulated him immediately after our chat).

All that remains for me to mention is that one of the handful of films I found time to view over the weekend was Birdemic: Shock And Terror. It’s been doing the festival rounds for a couple of years now, but was new to me, and proved a jaw-dropping, near-hallucinatory experience. Someone had warned me beforehand that “the special effects resemble the old Space Invaders arcade game”, and they were dead right. Long may the Festival of Fantastic Films continue, and long may it continue to screen tat like this!!

Darrell Buxton


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