Convention Review

The 28th Festival of Fantastic Films

Darrell Buxton reviews the event at the Pendulum Hotel,
Manchester, 20th – 22nd October 2017.


Some conventions pride themselves on attracting hordes of eager punters, but that’s never seemed to be much of a concern to the organisers of the Festival of Fantastic Films. Even at its mid-1990s height, the festival was luring along a mere few hundred buffs, rather than the football crowds you find yourself bustling through elsewhere. It’s about quality, not quantity, and I’d like to think that Gil Lane-Young, the continuing active member of the quartet of mates headed up by Harry Nadler and Tony Edwards, who established the fest almost thirty years ago - after a preceding thirty years of friendship and fandom - is at least happy that those of us who do turn up year after year are a knowledgeable, keen bunch who know our stuff and who treat each other as ‘family’, of sorts.

Many higher-profile rival weekends would kill for the sort of guest line-up this annual Manchester shindig can pull in. The 2017 roster included the star of notorious U.S. rape-revenge shocker I Spit On Your Grave, the director of the even more controversial Italian jungle slaughter/found footage pioneer Cannibal Holocaust, a prominent cast member from not one but two of the Spanish Blind Knights Templar franchise, a children’s television legend best known as an ex-presenter of Magpie, and more.  Even with eleventh hour cancellations by George Hilton and Peter Wyngarde, this felt like a star-studded celebration of cult cinema rather than a depleted and deflated damp squib.  It is the combination of major names with a rather ‘select’ audience that really makes the FoFF what it is - somehow, after nearly three decades, it remains the best-kept secret in the calendar. Those who know, know.

You can always find a seat or table in the bar, you never fail to bump into old pals or like-minded newcomers wanting to chat about Boris Karloff, screen robots, obscure short films or Amicus anthologies, you have free and easy access to the guests who almost always prove friendly and who soon pick up the tone and ‘join in’ - unlike the cattle-market aspects of memorabilia fairs and sponsored film events, the Manchester 3-dayer remains relaxed and easy-going. We had a big Ramsey Campbell-shaped hole this time out, as he and wife Jenny were attending a family wedding in foreign climes, but the absence of the noted author’s boisterous and booming presence was made up for in several ways - John Llewellyn Probert and Thana Niveau admirably stepped in to take over Ramsey’s regular duties as Auctioneer on the Saturday afternoon, Danish actress Lone Fleming became the heart and soul of the 2017 festival, and despite a low turn-out, the fest did seem to manage to attract a bit of enthusiastic new blood this year - more than a couple of first-timers expressed their love of the occasion and promised to return without fail in the future.

The film programme included everything from Harry Houdini in the silent The Man From Beyond to animated riffs on Poe in 2013 anthology Extraordinary Tales (narrated by Christopher Lee, Guillermo del Toro, Julian Sands, and an archival Bela Lugosi, with Roger Corman stepping up to the mic for a single dialogue line in a version of Masque of the Red Death). F.P.1 Does Not Answer, The Ghost Train (the Arthur Askey version) and She-Wolf of London kept fans of ‘vintage’ happy, while A Candle For The Devil, Tombs of the Blind Dead, What Have You Done To Solange? ensured that Euro-horror cultists were never short of fare.

This year’s guest line-up was pretty varied, with 91-year-old ‘continuity girl’ Reneé Glynne partying all weekend like someone a fifth her age, Jenny (Magpie) Hanley proving as charming a presence as she used to be on telly all those years ago, and Jonathan Rigby attending not to talk about and sell his books for once, but to discuss his lead role as real-life ghost hunter Harry Price in Ashley Thorpe’s new film Borley Rectory. As mentioned, Lone Fleming threw herself into the event with abandon, unveiling a spectacular visual feast of a teaser trailer for 'The Barefoot Virgin', a short she hopes to direct next year, participating in a lively interview session conducted by Uwe Huber, and even invading the stage during my own interview with Reneé and promptly collapsing…

Ms. Glynne aside, my own on-stage duties included hosting live chats/q&a sessions with Camille Keaton, and jointly with Ruggero Deodato and gorgeous young starlet Carlotta Morelli. Camille is of course best known as the rape-revenge figure at the heart of the notorious I Spit On Your Grave (1978), but I took the opportunity to discuss at length her earlier career in Italian horror and fantasy, in Solange as well as Riccardo Freda’s gothic-and-gore combo Tragic Ceremony and items such as The Witch’s Sex and Madeleine: Study of a Nightmare.  Camille rather surprised me by stating that she liked the titleI Spit On Your Grave despite this having been foisted on the film by distributors - the film was shot as Day Of The Woman, a title preferred by many, but Camille scoffed and remarked that this could easily be interpreted as a film about "doing the shopping" or the like! I mentioned her stunning performance in 2010’s little-seen Sella Turcica, a sort of Deathdream for the Osama/Obama age with a returning military veteran tainted by something horrible that threatens his entire family; Camille seemed delighted when I suggested this as her finest acting role to date.

Ruggero was back for his third visit to the festival, to screen his new production Ballad in Blood, his decidedly individual spin on the Amanda Knox/Meredith Kercher case. He eagerly sought me out straight after the film played, to insistently ask "is it Deodato movie? Is it Deodato movie?". I assured the maestro that indeed it was - after all, who else could rip a story from yesterday’s headlines and then spice it up even further by adding extra murders?! Carlotta Morelli managed to translate my questions into manageable Italian for Ruggero, though my plans to ask him about titles such as The Atlantis Interceptors and The Barbarians soon changed when I saw how keen he was to promote the new film; Carlotta also had plenty to contribute herself, both on her challenging role in Ballad In Blood and on other aspects of her fast-developing career - we discussed her work on Tracey Ullman’s Tracey Breaks The News TV series, for instance, with particular reference to the clever sketch in which Ms. Morelli plays a robot stand-in for Melania Trump, developed by Russian scientists to infiltrate the American political process.

Borley Rectory seemed to be a hit with those who viewed it - a true original, though with perhaps a slight nod to the work of Canada’s Guy Maddin and his consciously retro features, heavy on the 1920s/1930s cinematic techniques. Ashley Thorpe’s concept was to cover the history of ‘the most haunted house in England’ as if renowned spook chaser Harry Price had documented and filmed his visits to the property - a sort of ‘found footage’ project as if it had happened 80 years ago! Should you get a chance to see this during its tour of UK festivals, do not miss it - you’ll spend much of the running time pondering whether the billowing clouds of white evident on screen are merely tobacco smoke emanating from the pipes being determinedly puffed by Reece Shearsmith and Jonathan Rigby, or something more ectoplasmic…  Jonathan was interviewed by Steve Green, discussing the film and his recent glut of essential tomes on the history of classic horror cinema - Steve attempted a gag at one point, listing Mr. Rigby’s publications, "English Gothic, American Gothic, Euro Gothic… Roxy Music?", only for Jonathan to respond, without batting an eyelid, "oh yes - Roxy Music are definitely gothic!"

And once again, almost before we knew it, the Festival of Fantastic Films had run its course once more. Gil is promising at least two further events, in 2018 and 2019, to make it a nice round 30 festivals in total; beyond that, who knows? Let’s hope that this one can run and run in some form - it’s such a blast.

Darrell Buxton

Review of the previous year's Fest here.


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