Convention Review

The 26th Festival of Fantastic Films

Darrell Buxton reviews the event at the Pendulum Hotel,
Manchester, 30th October – 1st November 2015.


From far-flung corners of the globe, fans descended upon the re-named Pendulum Hotel (formerly Days Hotel, and not a Pit in sight despite our collective love of Mr. Poe) for Manchester's twenty sixth Festival of Fantastic Films.  If you are a regular attendee of this event, a part-time participant, or even if you have only read about it in passing, you should be aware that the Festival of Fantastic Films - surely now well established as the longest-running show of its kind - proffers a mixture of: entertaining guests brimming with anecdotes; a film programme comprising classics, old favourites; newer items, and plenty of so-bad-it-is-good fare; plus a keenly-contested quiz and celebratory closing night bacchanal (I bailed out from the whiskey and ale fuelled revels early this year as a Monday morning flight to overseas warmer climes beckoned); a well-stocked dealers' room; and – the real lifeblood of the weekend – plenty of chat with fellow buffs at the bar (be that 'breakfast' or otherwise...)

The 2014 Fest had seen a sizeable boost in attendance, possibly due to a substantial reduction to the weekend fee. The cost rose to Ł50 for a full weekend pass this time, but still offered genuine value for money and a whopping discount on the amount we regulars had been charged in previous years. So if numbers were slightly down in 2015, certainly no-one present was complaining, and if it meant you could get to the bar slightly quicker or nab a prime front-row seat for the guest interviews, so much the better.

In recent years Calum Waddell, freelancer and contributor to many an Arrow Video or 88 Films Blu ray release, has facilitated many of the guest appearances at the Festival of Fantastic Films.  This year's celeb roster featured signs of his involvement, particularly with Euro cult names such as Erika Blanc1 and Jack Taylor on the bill, but Calum himself was nowhere to be seen, word being that he has departed Britain for East Asia.  In his absence, fest regular Adrian James was called in to interview Erika - an heroic hour or so with Welsh Adrian, and his gorgeous pouting Scottish assistant, Jim asking Italian Erika questions in French and translating them for our benefit back into... well, you get the picture!  In a chaotic but fun session, we did manage to decipher that Ms Blanc (looking fabulous at 73) rates Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) as her finest work and regarded the film's director Mario Bava as a genius.  We got to see her on screen in the gloriously titled The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971), a crazy fusion of gothic and giallo screened here in an authentically ratty, scratchy, discoloured transfer which did at least give you the impression that you were viewing it in some tatty fleapit in the early seventies. (For a pristine version, see the No Shame label's 2006 DVD release.)  Yours truly was asked to perform the interviewing honours with the venerable Jack Taylor, 79 years old but with tremendous recall of the minutiae of his long and varied career - it was a privilege to chat to Jack on subjects ranging from the Jess Franco/Christopher Lee/Klaus Kinski Count Dracula (1970) (IMDB entry here) and the Roman Polanski/Johnny Depp  The Ninth Gate (1999) to his 1950s stint in Mexico working on the 12-episode vampire tv series 'Nostradamus' and SF/horror/wrestling hybrid films featuring the character 'Neutron'.  Jack also has the distinction of having portrayed Dr. Jekyll but not Mr. Hyde (the evil side being taken by Paul Naschy) in the delirious Soho-lensed Dr. Jekyll Versus The Werewolf (1972), a title screened at this very festival several years ago to much acclaim from the more 'psychotronic' punters in attendance.

Most intriguing interview of the weekend, though, was with the lively and personable Simon Fisher Becker. Originally scheduled for M. J. Simpson to host, M.J. backed out and elected to give his eleven year old son, Thomas Ford Simpson, a chance to display his "like father like son" chops, on the basis that (as dad put it) "he knows more about Doctor Who and Harry Potter than I do!".  Young Thomas did a sterling job - the boy has a future - and Simon Fisher Becker was not at all phased about chatting on stage to someone a quarter his own age!  The interview itself was crammed with fascinating content, Simon seemingly happy with his lot as occasional featured bit-player in some of our major shows and franchises and the attendant attention his connection with these productions happens to bring.  He was also open and honest in discussing the pros and cons - happily, mainly the former - experienced by being an actor of a particular build and appearance.

I did not see too much evidence of it myself, but reports from around the venue suggested that Sarah Douglas had been rather frosty in her dealings with fans and staff on initial arrival.  True or not, she was a radiant delight during her stint in the spotlight, just prior to a screening of Superman II (the Richard Donner cut)(1980) . Sarah (order restored, talking with Simpson senior) was happy to chat about her reputation as a screen villainess in the Superman series and as Queen Taramis in Conan The Destroyer (1984), pointing out how hard she had to work to register much of a presence alongside the screen-hogging, camera-loving Arnie and Grace Jones!; she gave equal time, if not more, to her role in The People That Time Forgot (1977)- a film she seems to adore - and also spoke of her brief stint in the Dan Curtis/Jack Palance Bram Stoker's Dracula (1973) (in which I suggested she made quite an impression as the most active of the vampire brides - Sarah rather graciously gave equal credit to her co-vampires here) and the savage wife-beating exposé The Brute (1977).  Indeed, her abusive 'husband' in that one, Julian Glover, was present at the Festival too ("better keep them apart", suggested one wag).

Julian and his real-life spouse Isla Blair were good value, a proper double act during their interview, bouncing off one another and virtually finishing each other's sentences.  A highlight of their stint occurred when host Wayne Kinsey produced a tiny Lego figurine of Mr. Glover (I didn't get close enough to see whether it was a General Maximilian Veers or a Walter Donovan); Isla's eyes seemed to take on a sort of "imagine the voodoo I could perform if I got hold of that!" glint while Julian attempted to wrest the toy from Wayne and claim it for himself!  Despite a somewhat fiscal approach to the proceedings (that bane of commercial as opposed to fan-run conventions, autograph charges, raising its head once again), the pair were great fun and I would guess we got a tiny glimpse of what life is actually like round the dining table chez Glover.

This year's big name guest was not an actor, producer, writer or director:  she was a daughter!  But like former attendee Sara Karloff (cf. Boris) before her, Victoria Price (offspring of Vincent) proved a very welcome presence, a genetic link with the Golden Age right in our midst, and a super interview subject in her own right. Life growing up with her dad sounded like a dream, and Victoria seems to have known Vincent Price as much as a gourmet, raconteur, practical joker, and fine art collector as he was a film star. Victoria herself went to educational establishments where her fellow classmates were all children of the Hollywood elite, but there is no question that she was raised to become a fully-rounded personality (if 'fully-rounded' is an appropriate description, since she shares her father's gaunt features and imposing yet playful qualities).  It was a pleasure for us to spend an hour or so in her company.

As ever the Festival's film programme offered thrills and spills galore.  As a huge fan of those more oddball film fantasies, on checking the line-up I was bowled over to see one of my favourite films of the 1930s, the uniquely-named Sh! The Octopus (1937) was to kick everything off at 4pm on the Friday.  Some couldn't quite take this hour-long programmer's strange combination of wisecracks, slapstick, and sight gags mixed in with a spooky lighthouse plotline, hanged bodies, mysterious supervillain and hook-handed prophet of doom, but I've loved this one since I first viewed it a few years back, and marvelled at it once more. The absolutely stunning and unexpected transformation scene (no CGI required!) remains an eye-popping highlight. Another treat was RKO's 1943 entry in their popular 'Falcon' series, The Falcon And The Co-Eds, with Tom Conway investigating strange murderous goings-on in a remote cliff-side girls school.  This one plays like a great lost Val Lewton film, populated with a cast of Lewton regulars, penned by Ardel (Leopard Man/I Walked With A Zombie) Wray, and possessing a whispery eeriness typical of the Lewton house style.  For those seeking a further fix after devouring the nine official Lewton/RKO horrors, this one is the closest imitator you will ever see.

Zardoz (1974), Tremors (1990), Inseminoid (1981), Voyage to a Prehistoric Planet (1965), La Belle Et La Bęte, Creepzoids (1987), Quatermass And The Pit (1967), The Relic (1997) Conquest Of Space (1955) and the eternal crowd pleaser The Giant Claw (1957) were among the other titles fleshing out the bill.  The only downside was the announcement that stalwart projectionist, Wigan's finest, Tony Meadows, will be stepping down from his role in programming the festival's third (and usually most fascinating) strand and "spending more time with his family".  The Festival of Fantastic Films certainly will not be the same without him. (Editorial note: Too true.  Tony's film programme stream was a major element of the convention and it is hoped that he will interact with his successor.  His contribution to the Fest should not be underestimated and several of us on the team who have occasionally dropped in on the Fest have hugely enjoyed his screenings.)

Company across the weekend was of the expected high standard.  Eric McNaughton gamely manned a stall for much of the duration, selling DVDs, books, and a variety of mags including his own essential fanzine We Belong Dead (issue 17, a tribute Christopher Lee special, should already be part of your collection); Eric chatted at length too about his forthcoming book 70s Monster Memories, a whopping full colour 400-page treasure trove celebrating BBC2 horror double bills, Alan Frank's seminal books on the genre, the joys of 8mm collecting, Dracula and Dalek ice lollies, the Birmingham statue of King Kong, and everything else my monster/macabre-fixated generation grew up on.  Coming very soon, and another vital addition to your creaking bookshelves.  Surprise, surprise, Wayne Kinsey had yet another new tome available too - Fantastic Films of the Decades, Vol. 1 - The Silent Era, a glorious trawl through fantasy cinema pre-1930, lavishly illustrated and tremendously informative.  Wayne was keen to show me one particular page on which he had reproduced a series of stills to indicate how James Whale's classic Frankenstein (1931) had in fact stolen much of its 'iconic' imagery from Rex Ingram's earlier The Magician (1926)!  Wayne was taking pre-orders for Vol. 2, covering the 1930s, which should now be readily available, and this entire ongoing series ought to be burning another hole in your wallets.  Dawn and Jonathan Dabell were present too, touting issue three of their splendid and diverse zine Multitude of Movies, and (here is the plug...) even I joined in, flogging a few copies of my own new book Dead or Alive - British Horror Films 1980-1989. Ramsey Campbell, one of my dinner companions at a sumptuous Indian eatery on Saturday night, kindly bought one, and if it is good enough for him...

I am already counting down the days until the next Manchester Festival.  Long may it continue. And if like me your Halloween calendar always seems a little cluttered/triple-booked, the solution is simple.  Spend the three days at the Pendulum Hotel, ignore the competition elsewhere. You won't regret it.

Darrell Buxton

(1). Uwe Huber was the person responsible for bringing Erika Blanc over, and Uwe also supplied stills for Jack Taylor and Erika to sign at the event. Apparently Callum was not involved in this year's fest but, of course, has in a number of previous years.


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