The 27th Festival of Fantastic Films
Darrell Buxton reviews the event at the Pendulum Hotel,
John Peel’s legendary remark about cult Manchester band The Fall being 'always the same and always different' could equally be co-opted by me here, for it is equally applicable to the annual Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films (FoFF), back for a twenty-seventh consecutive event (the aforementioned Fall released an album named ‘The Twenty-Seven Points’ some years ago; and while it’s perhaps mildly disappointing that William Asher’s semi-apocalyptic 1957 Cold War drama The 27th Day failed to make it on to the film bill at the festival, the fare on offer was of sufficient quality to keep us all happy. (Hmmmm, maybe Jim Carrey was wrong to focus on the number 23…)
The film programme had been reduced to a more manageable two streams rather than the standard three this year, but as any Fest regular will tell you, this event is almost unique in the calendar as it proudly holds the reputation of being 'the film festival where nobody watches any movies'! While that is not quite true, the focus of the FoFF is in its ‘family’ feel - the extensive core group of year-on-year paying punters all know each other by name, but often meet up only at this event, giving it the air of a celebratory reunion, though newbies dipping their toes in for the first time are always made welcome and soon get into the spirit. Besides the enthusiastic bar-room and breakfast conversations, it is the selection of special guest names that singles out this particular weekend as something special – current fest head honcho Gil Lane-Young spends time throughout the preceding months targeting film personalities, and the likes of the splendid Uwe Huber tirelessly track down and secure their own recommended stars, writers and directors to parade before us.
The 2016 guest line-up was second to none. Linda Hayden is a familiar face on the circuit, but always welcome nevertheless; Harry Kumel has been interviewed in the UK previously yet all too rarely; Jacqueline Pearce ought to do this type of thing more often; Jorg Buttgereit, darling of the ‘extreme horror’ cult of the late 1980s/early '90s, was dragged out of hiding; Euro starlet Dagmar Lassander appeared (or did she? More on that later…); and the truly sensational coup was the presence during the weekend of the elegant Edith Scob.
Part of the programming was prepared in tandem with the attending ‘names’ - from Buttgereit’s devastating poem to the suicidal, Der Todesking (a shocker daringly screened at the very first Manchester Fest back in 1990) to Edith’s fragile and iconic role in Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, with room on the bill for The Reptile, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Daughters of Darkness and The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire , each guest was represented by one of their classic titles. The remainder of the cinematic bill featured everything from Liliom to Here Comes Mr. Jordan, from Topper Returns to Shatter; and in the absence of the longstanding Fest projectionist and programme stream manager hero Tony Meadows for the first time, the estimable and capable Stuart Scott stepped into the breach to run a second programme stream featuring I Bury The Living, Rocketship X-M, The Witches, Frogs, The Monster Maker, among many more.
Jorg Buttgereit was interviewed by Graham Rae on the Friday night - revealing himself to be all about artistic freedom, Jorg expressed major disappointment at the way various authorities and public bodies had viewed the challenging wave of gory German underground film offerings heralded by his own Nekromantik, talking at length about his decision to exit cinema following his initial splash, to instead enter the less censorious worlds of radio and theatre. His surprise hiring to helm an episode of late 1990s SF fan favourite Lexx was also discussed, Jorg having apparently enjoyed the experience to an extent while finding the restrictions of what he considered ‘mainstream TV’ to be somewhat limiting.
Saturday saw the festival numbers rather depleted after 5 pm or thereabouts, as John Carpenter was in town performing musical selections from his classic films and his two ‘Lost Themes’ albums. Quite a few punters hot-footed it over to the JC gig, which at least made it easier for the rest of us to get service in the hotel bar. The day had kicked off with a really entertaining and informative presentation by Tim Langley, telling us about his work with the Renown DVD label and the Talking Pictures TV channel, in tracking down and restoring lesser-known films from British cinema’s distant past. It was wonderful to see Steve Green make one of his sporadic festival appearances - Steve was present to interview a select lucky few on camera for a documentary he’s putting together about the history of the FoFF, and was also roped in to interview Dagmar Lassander about her career in Italian cult fare of the seventies and eighties. Dagmar had altered in appearance so greatly since her heyday that rumours began doing the rounds that she may well be an impostor! What’s more, the main drama surrounding her over the course of the festival was not occurring on-screen or even during her chat with Steve, but via problems with her hotel accommodation and resultant verbal and physical altercations with the long-suffering check-in desk staff and the festival organisers. Low point of her difficult time in Manchester may have been the moment when the toilet in her room exploded… I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
Luckily the other guests were more fun, although Jacqueline Pearce proved a little frosty and monosyllabic in the first section of her interview (conducted by a seemingly and uncharacteristically stressed Wayne Kinsey). All seemed headed for disaster, but Jacqueline suddenly went through a startling transformation: having seemed set on giving mumbled ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses to Wayne’s questions, she warmed up after about twenty minutes and spent much of the rest of her time on stage openly relating ribald and candid tales about her sex-and-drug-filled escapades! Wayne’s chat with Linda Hayden was sedate in comparison, taking in a few under-discussed items from her resumé (Night Watch, Vampira, etc.) as well as her better-known screen outings. Linda spoke very fondly of Diana Dors; less so about Queen Kong, in which her then-boyfriend Robin Askwith had cajoled her into playing The Singing Nun! Wayne took great glee in constantly keeping the subject of Linda’s various screen deaths at the heart of the conversation, which she played along with nicely for our entertainment.
I myself was given the task of interviewing Harry Kumel and Edith Scob (the cultured pair really hit it off during the weekend and spent part of one day ambling round Manchester museums and art galleries). Harry rather dismissed my own line of questioning, preferring to set off on his own more intellectual tangent, but seemed pleased to get the opportunity to talk about his ambitious 1976 fantasy epic The Arrival of Joachim Stiller and his debut feature Monsieur Hawarden as well as the more familiar Daughters of Darkness and Malpertuis. His views on the silver screen royalty appearing in the latter pair (Delphine Seyrig and Orson Welles respectively) are well known, but it was lovely to hear his opinions at first hand once again (in a nutshell, Harry loved working with Delphine, but did not get on so well with Mr. W…)
When Edith Scob’s attendance as a guest was announced, myself and many other fans could barely believe that we would be about to encounter the lithe, graceful, tragic figure from Eyes Without A Face in person. So when I got the call, five days before the event, to confirm that I would actually be interviewing the great lady, I had to pinch myself several times. I can still hardly believe it all happened. Edith turned out to be one of the most charming and delightful guests in the whole history of the festival – she herself seemed a trifle anxious and insisted on having an interpreter sitting alongside, but once we began she answered me in fluent English and managed to continue doing so for 99%of our time on stage. Edith spoke fondly of her years working for Georges Franju and about her experiences performing behind a mask in their most celebrated collaboration (made very, very early in her career); we also discussed her films for Leos Carax (Holy Motors) and Luis Bunuel (The Milky Way), her parallel career in theatre, and supporting roles in fantasy movies and chillers ranging from Brotherhood of the Wolf to The Burning Court , from One Deadly Summer to VIDOCQ (whose director, Pitof, she praised highly).
Among the film fans present, it was especially great to catch up once again with Eric McNaughton, an old friend and editor of the popular fanzine We Belong Dead. Eric had been hoping to launch his new book Unsung Horrors at this year’s FoFF, but the weighty tome had not arrived back from the printers on time. However, he made do by showing off an advance proof copy, which everyone marvelled at. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. Full disclosure: I spent the summer of 2016 proofreading the dozens of contributor submissions, and Eric kindly gave me a ‘co-editor’ credit as a result, but I make no apologies for enthusing about the publication, a hefty 450-page behemoth, in striking full colour and with a foreword by Joe Dante, containing some 200 reviews of under-appreciated fright flicks from silent days through to the 1970s. In many ways, it is almost like the print version of the Festival of Fantastic Films itself…
Review of the previous year's Fest here.