Convention Review

The 23rd Festival of Fantastic Films

Darrell Buxton reviews the event at the Days Hotel,
Manchester, 26th – 28th October 2012.


The Number 23. No, not that strange paranoid Jim Carrey flick from a few years ago, but the twenty-third occasion on which SF/horror/fantasy devotees have been invited to descend upon autumnal Manchester, UK, to celebrate our film favourites across the decades, to meet a stellar array of cult acting personalities, and to catch up with old friends over breakfast or in the hotel bar.

The Festival of Fantastic Films (FoFF) has a remarkable history - the brainchild of the late Harry Nadler and late Dave Trengove, together with current stalwarts Tony Edwards and Gil Lane-Young and some of [Britian's] north-western fantastic film buffs whose interest and involvement in fandom stretches back beyond even my birth (I reached a milestone the week before this year's fest, taking the first precarious steps into my fifties…), the event kicked off in 1990 and over the years has managed to attract major genre legends. From Ray Harryhausen and Forry Ackerman, to John Landis and Roger Corman, with heaps of Hammer personnel, 1960s starlets, offbeat characters such as Crispin Glover, Euro stars like Jorge Grau, Paul Naschy, Lamberto Bava, Antonio Margheriti, Bobby Rhodes, etc., etc., the FoFF has consistently been able to provide attendees with a chance to meet and hob-nob with some of the finest exponents of motion picture flights of fancy. This year, two regular fest visitors from north of the border, George Gaddi and George Houston, produced and published a special book detailing the great times we have all had in Manchester across almost a quarter-century of film fun - copies of the book were snapped up like hot cakes, and every time I wandered into the bar or the lobby I could see someone excitedly leafing through the tome, spotting a photo of themselves, reminiscing about memorable interviews by the likes of David Warbeck, or marvelling at how Tony Edwards cut such a handsome, muscle-bound figure during his stint as Superman in one of the team's early-sixties amateur home movie shorts.

The 2012 festival's advance Progress Reports promised the appearance of Return of the Living Dead star and self-styled 'Scream Queen', Linnea Quigley, as the main guest. Sadly it all proved too good to be true, and Linnea cancelled at the eleventh hour (under somewhat murky circumstances beyond the control of either Ms Q or the organisers). She has however promised to appear at a future fest, and if by some chance she happens to be reading this I can inform Linnea that she would fit right into this event's low-key yet ultra-enthusiastic vibe; I'm sure many of the regulars would love to see her.

Hasty programme revisions are nothing new to the organising committee, however, and the schedule was soon reworked to avoid any lengthy gaps in the triple-strand line-up. There are not many UK-based conventions where you can choose to view from a roster of movies including Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks, Late Night Trains, The Ghost of Kasane Swamp, Black Moon, Murder at the Baskervilles, Highway To Hell (a re-edited version of Richard Driscoll's extraordinary all-star Blues Brothers/Texas Chainsaw Massacre mash-up previously released as Eldorado), and Surf Nazis Must Die, and that line-up represents a mere portion of the programme offered up on day one only!

The guests who did make it along included Derren Nesbitt in a return visit - I was lucky enough to be handed the job of interviewing Derren live on stage, and his easy-going manner and fund of showbiz tales made my task a simple one. Mr. Nesbitt did have a habit of answering most of my questions, no matter what subject I had addressed, with an anecdote about Frank Sinatra (with whom he worked on 1967's The Naked Runner), but the yarns were so fascinating and amusing that I was happy to let it go. We did coax a few memories about The Prisoner and Doctor Who from Derren, but he was not too keen to talk about his experiences as a semi-regular on The Comic Strip Presents… in the early '90s ('not my best performances'…). Mention of his recent theatre work brought out the beast in him - comedy duo Hale & Pace, with whom Derren appeared in a recent touring production of Dry Rot, coming in for a particular tongue-lashing!

Saturday brought about a Village of the Damned reunion of sorts, with prominently-featured child performer Martin Stephens (still instantly recognisable, amazingly!) joined on stage by twins Teri and Lesley Scoble, very much part of the chorus line in the movie but welcome here nevertheless, as their tales from the film set were every bit as vivid and lively as the star's were. Martin was of course able to add a few comments about his involvement in The Innocents and The Witches, but Teri revealed a local connection as she worked as a choreographer on Marc Bolan's Granada TV series Marc, which won over the Mancunians in the crowd as well as the aging glam rock contingent!

Final interview of the weekend was conducted by Adrian James, chatting to actress Mary Maude. On the Monday evening following the festival, BBC4 broadcast Mark Gatiss' latest documentary on macabre movies, 'Horror Europa' - one of the more obscure titles on which the documentary focused was La Residencia/The House That Screamed directed by Narcisco Ibanez Serrador in 1969. Mary had a sizeable role in La Residencia, and excitedly described to Adrian the scene in the movie in which her hands are chopped off at the wrists - lo and behold, the very same scene that was to be screened a day and a half later by the Beeb! Mary also chatted about her other involvement in the genre, with parts in Crucible Of Terror, the seemingly lost Jose Larraz picture La Muerte Incierta (1973), and Norman J. Warren's Terror - Norman, a regular at the fest, was of course on hand to add his own thoughts.

Dipping in and out of the film programme, I managed to catch the crazy Danish monster romp Reptlilicus, marvelling at the crowd scenes which appear to use almost the entire population of Copenhagen as extras; the late-60s krimi Der Gorilla Von Soho, a ropey but hugely entertaining affair about a killer in a tatty monkey suit, featuring characters named 'Dr. Jeckyll' and 'Sergeant Pepper' and a plot which is pretty indescribable but which you really ought to experience for yourselves; new Scottish drama Electric Man, a sort of rom-com/noir/Clerks hybrid centred upon an Edinburgh comic-book shop and the hunt for a rare 1930s edition featuring the titular superhero - Fish from Marillion turns up among the likeable and competent cast - in something of an unexpected indie treat; and my viewing ended with yet another zombie picture, the British Eschatrilogy, a three-part anthology which opens with a very dull episode but gets better and more confident as it progresses. Punters who spent most of their time in the main auditorium had to bail out midway through Sunday, as leaking water was seen pouring through the room's ceiling - luckily, I avoided a soaking/possible electrocution, and as ever the organisers re-jigged a few titles here and there and soon had the fest programme running smoothly again.

And for the second year running, the hotly-contested post-festival quiz resulted in a tie between the top two teams - in 2011 this stalemate was only resolved after a whopping 6 tie-break questions, this year we got to five and then decided to share the spoils! Here's to next year, hopefully chock full of great genre personalities, a varied film line-up, another brain-taxing quiz, and - most important of all - a bunch of fantasy film enthusiasts, chatting away over drinks/meals, before and after movies, in the well-stocked dealers' room, or at any other available opportunity. The Festival of Fantastic Films is very definitely the other side of the coin from a corporate beast like FrightFest - and so much the better for it. Long may it continue.

Darrell Buxton


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