Convention Review

The 29th Festival of Fantastic Films

Darrell Buxton reviews the event at the Pendulum Hotel,
Manchester, 26th – 28th October 2018.


Every year at the Festival of Fantastic Films, a couple of hours from around 4pm are devoted to an auction where donated books, DVDs/blu-rays, t-shirts, magazines, and other donated treasures are sold off to boost the coffers. For as long as we can recall, the effervescently ebullient Ramsey Campbell has hosted this riotous affair in his inimitable way. In recent times he has been ably assisted by the equally 'individual' Mister John Llewelyn Probert. And this year the Pendulum Hotel/Conference Centre decided to amend their facilities, removing the sturdy wooden stage and replacing it with three flimsy platforms (barely) supported by thin metal struts...

There was little room for manoeuvre atop this makeshift structure - called on stage to perform interview duties and present awards at times over the weekend, I myself had come perilously close to toppling off the edge. With the lively JLP and Ramsey caught up in the enthusiasm of flogging bits and pieces to the cash-waving hordes, no-one suspected the disaster that was to follow.   Both gents had stepped on to the unsteady rostrum to find it wobbling beneath them; both had laughed this off, each performing a soft-shoe shuffle that left us wondering if they might close the sale with a medley of songs from the shows. Then, Mr. Campbell approached the middle board from behind, armed with the latest pile of merchandise...

Now Ramsey has a way with the tropes of the creepy yarn, but even he was surprised as he placed a size nine on the back of the stage - before our horrified gaze, the central plank of the rostrum rose up under the weight of his tread, and poor Ramsey lost his balance and was tipped violently against the back wall of the theatre, his spine jabbing painfully against a jutting skirting board and causing seemingly intense pain.   Helped to a seated position and handed a medicinal tot of something alcoholic, the great man was briefly reduced to an uncharacteristic shocked silence.   The good news is that he was soon back to his regular self; the hotel management were given what for in plain speaking, and we all await the outcome of Ramsey's official complaint/accident report with interest.   As one fest-goer wisecracked in the bar later on, in partial reference to the festival's annual murmurs of termination, "don't worry. We'll all be back next year. Ramsey will probably own the hotel!"

Trauma aside, the FoFF was once again a joyous occasion.   Despite meagre attendance numbers, those present more than made up for the lack of bums on seats - pretty much all of the regulars were back for yet another Halloween-weekend party, with special guests aplenty lined up for our entertainment.

First up was German actor and Jesus Franco regular Fred Williams. Born Friedrich Wilhelm Löcherer, handsome octogenarian Fred looked in rude health as he related tales of working with Visconti, Fellini and Attenborough as well as the more downmarket names we all appreciate! Asked about the Anglicisation of his name for career purposes, he joked that Americans have remarked to him that, 'you now have a taxi driver’s name!'  Franco tales ranged from former Fest guest Jack Taylor injuring himself jumping over a wall during filming, to Maria Rohm's infidelity, and inevitably the struggles in squeezing money out of Harry Alan Towers. On the iconic Soledad Miranda, Fred offered, "she had a certain class, but was always reserved, kept her distance", graciously adding that the tragic screen Euro-goddess was not as 'cold' as she may have appeared. Fred mentioned working with the almost-as-legendary Terence Hill on 1966's Die Niebelungen, and on how he achieved his own biggest fame starring in a popular Robin Hood-style TV show in Germany. Chatting about the Italian method of shooting without recorded sound and then looping, even on the most prestigious productions, he recalled Fellini advising actors on And The Ship Sailed On to count instead of reading dialogue that would be dubbed later, though still having to guide the rapidity of their speech patterns to fit the script: "no, no - say one-two, three-four, fivesixseven..."

Ray Brady brought his 'new' film Psychomanteum, actually a compilation of various shorts he has made over the past six or seven years, bolstered and bumped up to feature length by the addition of contributions from a smattering of other directors. Variable but occasionally effective - biggest impact was made by 'Cyber 911', the story of a global terror attack as experienced by a young domesticated couple, which had something of Signs or Right At Your Door about it.   Ray amazed me by telling us that what I had assumed to be stock footage shots linking these 'tales of the dead' (mainly close-up images of creepy bats, spiders trapping prey, etc) had been filmed by him using macro-photography specifically for this project.   Ray briefly discussed his feature career, and (having covered his own Boy Meets Girl censorship woes while asking a question from the audience during Luigi Cozzi's session), here moved on to his distribution and promotional issues and problems on his 2001 Saeed Jeffrey/Rik Mayall-starring feature Day of the Sirens.  Though probably not a person who suffers fools gladly, Ray was a friendly presence over the weekend and a chatty, lively guest. After I had mentioned my own current scriptwriting project, Ray was kind enough to seek me out in the bar several hours later, presenting me with his business card and asking me to get in touch if I needed assistance or advice. Lovely guy.

This festival has a long record of attracting major European players in the field of fantasy, and so it was with no surprise that I found myself having a long chat with Luigi Cozzi (Starcrash, Contamination, Hercules) at the bar mere minutes after my arrival. Speaking excellent English, Luigi updated me on his friend Dario Argento's current state of health (I had been scheduled to host interviews with Argento at this year's Sheffield-based HorrorCon UK, before a shoulder injury prevented his attendance) and expressed surprise when I related the sorry tale of a holidaying friend who had trekked across Rome to visit the 'Profondo Rosso' store only to find it closed ("I don't believe it! I normally get up early every morning to make sure the shop is open", responded Signor Cozzi, though possibly with a twinkle in the eye). Cozzi's recent return to filmmaking, the low-budget but ambitious Blood on Melies' Moon, was screened as part of a late-night double bill along with the director's delirious Paganini Horror; the latter is highlighted by a delightful turn from Donald Pleasence as a playful Devil, seen cascading paper money from the top of the tower in Venice's St. Mark's Square while cackling "little demons! Little demons!", while Blood on Melies' Moon manages to splice endless footage of Cozzi shuffling around at 'Profondo Rosso', and an interlude where he goes to Lamberto Bava's place for dinner, with a plot concerning the mysterious real-life disappearance of Louis le Prince, 1890s film pioneer who might have claimed all the credit bestowed on the Lumières and Georges Méliès had he not vanished while undertaking a train journey.

Continuing in Italian vein, we were very privileged to see the first ever UK appearance of Aldo Lado, another aging but super-stylish veteran of the exploitation movie realm. Aldo also almost took a tumble on the unsteady micro-stage but luckily retained his balance to deliver an informative interview chat (in fierce Italian, via an interpreter). He worked with George Lazenby on his own controversial Venice-set shocker, the pre-Don't Look Now psycho-thriller Who Saw Her Die? (Lado claimed to have never seen the Roeg movie) - he explained that Lazenby had just come off On Her Majesty's Secret Service and expected star treatment. When it rained one day, he asked to go back to his hotel but Aldo said he could depart only once he had helped everyone pack the camera gear away! After that, George mucked in and was fine with everybody on set.

Asked about rumoured involvement with The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Aldo said he had developed a central pillar of the story after reading a scene in a particular book.   Called away to film a western, he returned to find Dario Argento had begun filming, and was claiming to have read the same book and taken ideas from it!   Aldo is said to have regarded Dario as a mortal enemy ever since and says he will not work with 'a thief!'.  The interview concluded with a slightly embarrassing moment when Aldo's Society of Fantastic Films International Award was presented bearing a nameplate etching rebranding him as murdered ex-Prime Minister Aldo Moro...  I am sure the organisers will have contacted a local hardware store by now to correct his billing!

My screenwriting partner, Steve Hardy, had arranged for former child actress Dawn Lyn to guest this year - Steve handled a comprehensive potted career overview taking in film and TV work, including the cult 'killer kids' item Devil Times Five which featured Dawn alongside her older brother, 70s teenage pop idol and poster boy Leif Garrett. Dawn auditioned for the 'Regan MacNeil' role in The Exorcist, telling us she had done so with several other juvenile contenders who went through a mass hypnosis and, sitting in a circle with a dollar bill placed between them, were asked to pick up the money but were told that it would be too heavy to lift. Dawn and one other girl had not fallen under the influence and effortlessly grasped the cash. No sign of Linda Blair there, however - presumably she attended a similar session at another time.

Dez Skinn was a hugely popular presence around the venue all weekend, holding court in the bar and telling so many anecdotes that we feared he might have little left to say during his interview on Sunday at 1 pm (allotted time shifted from 10 am since, as Mr. Skinn pointed out himself, "the bar is open on Saturday night..."). We shouldn't have worried, since Dez has a fund of stories and could have easily spent several hours chatting. I was allocated as his interviewer and had a grand time, laughing along with an enthusiastic crowd as Dez related tales of the publishing game and his adventures on House of Hammer, Monster Mag, Starburst and Doctor Who Weekly. As he had pointed out to me during a breakfast chat, as a non-filmmaker or actor he felt a bit out of place within the guest line-up, but this was all to our benefit as we were able to discuss science fiction, horror and fantasy film from a slightly different angle. A yarn about Leo Baxendale's trousers brought the house down, while my query about the photo of Koo Stark in a sheer negligee on Dez's website led to a tangled and equally hilarious story involving the royal family and the renaming of Dez's comic shop from 'Weird Fantasy' to 'Quality Comics'.

As ever, the camaraderie and barroom chat provided the true soul of the festival - various groups of friends and acquaintances meeting up, in some cases for the only occasion this year, to discuss films and TV, swap stories, update one another on exciting personal projects etc. Many of the regular contributors to Eric McNaughton's popular fanzine We Belong Dead were attending, for instance - that particular throng was joined by visitors from the United States this year, in the form of writer/critic Kevin Nickelson (a whopping 6-foot 9 or thereabouts) and his only slightly less tall husband Ronnie. They seemed to immediately join in with the spirit of the fest and have promised to return next time. Speaking of American travellers, we were all astonished when Jesse Wells turned up at the hotel just as everyone was packed and ready to depart on the Monday morning - in his guise as 'Count Dread', Jesse had been a mainstay of the event several years ago, a flamboyant and entertaining presence, and he had intended to surprise us with an appearance this year, though flight delays resulted in him arriving right at the tail end as most of us were shuffling out of the door. I hope he tries to make it over again next year - always welcome.

The major news is that Gil Lane-Young has decided to end his involvement with the Festival after the 30th event in late 2019. Gil, Tony Edwards (who was present for most of the weekend, and who I'm happy to report was looking in better health than he has for quite some time), and their never-to-be-forgotten cohorts Dave Trengove and Harry Nadler, all put so much effort into establishing and maintaining the Festival of Fantastic Films, and we salute them and everyone else involved over the decades. Do make an effort to get to next year's Fest, the very last under Gil's tenure. As for the future of this unique shindig... watch this space!

Darrell Buxton

Review of the previous year's Fest here.


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