The Eighth Festival of Fantastic Films - Report by Darrell Buxton

Another year, another Festival of Fantastic Films - 3 non-stop days of movies from every era, plus guests galore and the friendliest bunch of film fans you'll ever encounter anywhere in the UK If the 1997 festival threatened to take a more subdued approach than normal, it certainly had good reason - the pall cast over the convention at the recent death of last year's guest of honour, David Warbeck, and the hasty programme re-arrangements following the enforced cancellation of several of this year's celebs, are the kind of headaches the organizing committee seem to cope with effortlessly year in, year out, but with the shell-shocked country at an almost total standstill in the wake of the terrible Royal tragedy, many of us had wondered whether the fest would still go ahead as planned this time.

Due to superhuman activity on the part of the organizers, all fortunately managed to proceed pretty much as usual. A dignified minute's silence in memory of the late Princess of Wales was observed at our opening ceremony, and a little re-jigging of the tight schedule on Saturday morning allowed for all filmic pursuits to cease from 11 am for the duration of her funeral. As for our more immediate concerns, the withdrawal of Dario Argento (busy starting his new film in Hungary), Linda Hayden (also absent due to work commitments) and Aida Young (the ex-Hammer producer having been unable to arrange a carer for her sick spouse) from the bill was neatly side-stepped by the addition of Veronica Carlson and scripter Tudor Gates, who alongside already-booked Jimmy Sangster and Janina Faye, plus returning favourites such as Ingrid Pitt and Dave Prowse, partially transformed the weekend into a mini-tribute to Hammer Films. Last year's problems, we were delighted to discover, were neatly alluded to by the creation of a special lapel badge, sported by many attendees over the weekend, bearing the legend "I survived Hal Chester 1996"! (for the full story, or as much of it as I'm legally permitted to relate, see last year's festival review in Samhain 59).

Down to business, then, and given the tantalizing choice between HANNAH, QUEEN OF THE VAMPIRES and THE GREEN SLIME for openers, I plumped for the former, less familiar option. HANNAH (screened under alternate title CRYPT OF THE LIVING DEAD) dates from 1972 and was the usual rag-bag of polo-necked sweaters, creepy children, and local "don't go up to the castle" superstition so prevalent in this type of kitsch Euro-shocker. Teresa Gimpera's wordless performance in the title role carried a certain apt majesty, increased in prominence by the fact that gormless Andrew Prine and a pair of dubious would-be vampire hunters in ?bobble hats comprised her chief opposition. Pretty risible stuff, largely accompanied by mournful accordion ditties pumped out by a blind rustic type, HANNAH perked up for its rather groovy climax in which the vampire queen's apparent fiery demise dovetails into an early example of the "not quite dead killer" syndrome as her burnt corpse lurches back to life - surrounded by orthodox Torch Bearing Villagers, she then burst into sympathy-gaining tears before being dispatched by the unmoved Prine.

Prior to the official opening, there was just time to squeeze in a rare look at one of the key titles forever cited as a seminal influence on the genre-Paul Leni's silent masterpiece, THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927). As a first-time viewer, I was thrilled to find this one entirely justified its reputation-70 years on, and hundreds of imitations later, the creaky 'old dark house/drive the beneficiary insane' shtick may have become predictable, but remember that THE CAT AND THE CANARY invented what developed into today's clichés-most famously, perhaps, the clutching, clawed hand grasping from a secret panel to claim a victim or wrest a diamond from around the leading lady's throat. It's to the Manchester festival's credit that the format and variety of programming permits us the chance to witness rarities of this nature. Wonderful.

An entertaining opening ceremony on Friday evening was given added spice by the unexpected entrance of two mysterious Men In Black! Compere Gil Lane-Young's spiel was brusquely interrupted by the besuited figure of fest regular Paul Barrett and his sidekick Count Dread (a more than adequate stand-in for Will Smith), with Harry Nadler on hand to provide the memory-wiping 'special effects' using a common or garden camera flash!

The campaign to acclaim Joan Collins as first lady of British trash cinema received a healthy boost with an outing for Sidney Hayers' 1971 child abuse drama REVENGE (a.k.a. INN OF THE FRIGHTENED PEOPLE), the only horror/thriller I can call to mind which is set in a pub in High Wycombe! Kenneth Griffith excels as the twitchy, sweaty suspected molester, abducted and trapped in a cellar for days by grief-stricken publican James Booth (whose own performance takes on a pre-Basil Fawlty fluster as Griffith's presence beneath the hostelry floor causes his universe to unravel). Such power as REVENGE may possess lies not in its confused shock-politics, but in its concise encapsulation of that British disease, hypocrisy and small-mindedness. Hayers' capable direction ekes suspense from seemingly mundane occurrences, notably the arrival of the draymen at a particularly inopportune moment, and I suppose the scene where Tom Marshall rapes Collins, shown P.O.V. through Griffith's broken spectacles, has to go down as some kind of footnote in British film history!

For me, the Friday wrapped with the first of the weekend's guest interviews-lovely ex-Hammer girl Veronica Carlson, now based in the States but happy to be spending the full duration of the festival with her fans here. Like many previous guests, she enthused about the working practices and relaxed, friendly atmosphere she had enjoyed at Hammer, and had nothing but glowing praise and enormous respect for the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Perhaps more revealing were the occasions where her interview hit slightly sour notes. Veronica spoke several times about feeling isolated on set while discussions took place around her 'as though I wasn't there', and seemed a little upset whilst reminiscing about the infamous rape scene in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. She claimed that this appeared nowhere in the original script, but was added in the final days of the shoot following James Carreras' pronouncement that 'there isn't enough sex in this film', and that the whole process caused much anger and stress on set. Veronica went on to infer that her work at Tyburn had been marred by the incommunicative approach of producer Kevin Francis, and was very reluctant to discuss her involvement in Clive Donner's woeful horror farce VAMPIRA at all! One amusing snippet of trivia which did surface was that the dress she wore for the scene in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, where she is drenched in water from a burst mains pipe, had originally been donned by Sally Ann Howes in CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG!

"It's not just a bird-its wing-span is 15 meters. And it eats people!' No, it wasn't the return of fifties' fest fave THE GIANT CLAW, but a description of one of the airborne Gyaos monsters terrorizing Japan in GAMERA, THE GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE, the welcome screen comeback of Daiei's enormous flying turtle. A trio of Gyaos are discovered inhabiting Himegami island, making foraging raids to the mainland before the military entrap them within a huge domed baseball arena. Two of the winged whoppers are destroyed, but a third flaps its way to freedom before heroic Gamera emerges from the ocean bed and the usual mayhem ensues. Perhaps one last chance to revel in rubber monster-suited lunacy before Roland Ennerich's high-concept revision of GODZILLA shifts the agenda next summer. Speaking of big G, more outsize Eastern frolics arrived in GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER, the little-seen, totally daft follow-up to ol' Greeny's 1954 debut. Where GOJIRA, the closing movie at the 1996 festival, was somber and quietly moving, GIGANTIS was the film which sowed the seeds for Toho's later demented monster antics into the 1960s and beyond-kamikaze hero Kobayashi appeared to have been dubbed with the voice of Fred Flintstone, and the core of the piece was an extended manic scrap between Godzilla and Anguilus involving lots of bellowing and knocking over of pagodas.

The Hammer connection was re-established with the guest appearance of company legend Jimmy Sangster, scripter of many of this country's finest excursions into terror, and an accomplished producer and director to boot. Among the many points of interest discussed with Stephen Laws, Sangster mentioned an unproduced late 1950s screenplay for DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS which he prepared for Irwin Allen and Cubby Broccoli's Warwick Productions; his prime reason for creating psycho-chiller TASTE OF FEAR ('I got tired of doing gothic') and the fact that Sidney Box, Peter Rogers and Baker/Herman all passed up the project before it came to Hammer; Hammer's surprise wave of pirate adventures ('tits and sword movies, we called 'em'); and his attempts to fend off the amorous advance of Bette Davis during the troubled shooting of THE ANNIVERSARY ('she wanted to get into my trousers!').

Deciding I wasn't quite dressed up or made-up for the part, and unable to convincingly argue that 'I never drink...wine', I forewent the late-night party staged by the Vampire Society on Saturday and instead plumped for Parisian thrills in the shape of SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE, an enjoyable 1932 RKO romp which combined the true-life hunt for Russia's hidden heiress Princess Anastasia with a look at the crime-busting methods of the Surete, throwing in an insane hypnotist for good measure-the mesmeric villain managing to add spectacular staged car-wrecks and wax-covered corpses to his box of tricks before electrocuting himself as the police burst into his lair at the finale. One of the undoubted high points of the film program was SWAMP OF THE LOST MONSTER, a magnificent Mexican turkey from 1964 introduced by projectionist Tony Meadows with the warning 'you'll not believe what you're going to see-compared to this, Edward D. Wood Jr. was Cecil B. DeMille'! Naturally, this colourful, crazy, kiddie horror western unspooled before a packed and enraptured audience! Think of Champion the Wonder Horse starring in a cheapo remake of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON scripted by the makers of 'Scooby-Doo' and targeted at an undemanding crowd of seven year olds at a Saturday morning picture show, and you'll garner some idea of what was on offer. The perfect festival film-even highbrow horror critics like David Prothero, sitting adjacent to myself during the screening, were reduced to the level of hooting, hollering, popcorn-throwing imbeciles-one can give no higher praise, and SWAMP OF THE LOST MONSTER adds its name to the ever-growing list of perennial Festival of Fantastic Films favorites.

Screenplay writers usually make for humourous and entertaining guests at these affairs, and I'm pleased to report that Tudor Gates was no exception. Briefly skipping through his Dino di Laurentis period with stints on DANGER: DIABOLIK (Mario Bava was a lovely man, we got on very well') and BARBARELLA, Tudor progressed to discuss his fondly-remembered 'Karnstein Trilogy' for Hammer in the early 1970's, apparently produced as a bid to retain the Hammer house style while capitalizing on then-current relaxations in stage and screen censorship ('we used to invite BBPC head John Trevelyan to lunch regularly...'. As for TWINS OF EVIL, I swear a gleam appeared in Mr. Gates' eye as he recalled working with gorgeous Madeleine and Mary Collinson, the Maltese sisters and 'Playboy' centrefolds appearing in the title roles. The interview also revealed details of an intriguing project which remained sadly unproduced, Gates' script 'Murders in the Folies Bergere', all about a transvestite psychopath to have been portrayed by none other than Danny la Rue!

DARKLANDS helmer Julian Richards turned up at the hotel on the final day, and I spent an illuminating half-hour chatting to him about the current healthy state of Welsh cinema. The attractions of industrial music, and his forthcoming NATURE RED, a monster movie combining DNA experimentation with ancient mythology, which begins shooting for Roger Corman in Ireland next spring.

My final official screen experience of the weekend was THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS, a formula fifties outing focusing on a weird lighthouse keeper and the scaly, cave-dwelling creature he feeds on a regular basis. As the supply of sustenance dries up, the beast ventures into the film's coastal town setting, initially purloining pretty heroine Jeanne Carmen's skimpy underwear while she takes a nude dip, and following this act of lingerie fetishism with a shocking spate of head-ripping, commendably strong and bloody stuff for its era.

After a two-year break, Tony Edwards' 'Great Movie Quiz' made a welcome return as the climax to the weekend this time-my team (hi, Mark!) made an unfortunate early exit in the knock-out tournament which went on to be won by my pals from Nottingham-based horror fanzine 'We Belong Dead'. Highlight of the quiz had to be the irrepressible Ramsey Campbell's on-the-spot invention of a hitherto undiscovered James Bond girl, christened 'Slick O'Riffis'...

Post-festival blues were staved off for a few more hours with the lively 'Dead Dog Party' in the bar area, not to mention a number of select gatherings around the hotel, such as the self-styled 'fringe festival' late-night film show staged in their hotel room by brothers Noel and Roy Spence, inviting myself and a dozen or so others up to finish the bash with a real flourish; a brace of 'Colonel March of Scotland Yard' episodes featuring Christopher Lee as a fashion-house killer in the first, followed swiftly by a story pitting Boris Karloff against the Abominable Snowman. Conversation continued into the early hours, on a wide range of subjects (the career of Matthew Hopkins, Hamilton Deane's theatre adaptation of 'Dracula', the genius of Tod Slaughter) that I couldn't imagine one being able to debate in any other setting or with such knowledgeable and enthusiastic company.

All that remains is the annual vote of thanks to Gil, Tony, Harry and the hard-working team for putting together yet another glorious celebration of the movies we love and cherish. I never cease to marvel at the tireless efforts these guys put in-long may they, and the Festival of Fantastic Films itself, continue. The greatest.

Copyright © 1997 Darrell Buxton

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Click here to read Darrell's review of the 1996 Festival

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