The Ninth Festival of Fantastic Films, 1998 - Report by Darrell Buxton

For any of you still under the impression that The Festival of Fantastic Films is exclusively aimed at lovers of vintage cinema, this year's event blew that particular misconception apart in brash, loud, and spectacular fashion. While rightly retaining the programme stream showcasing an unbeatable selection of 30's, 40's and 50's genre movie material, the 1998 fest also featured the U.K. premiere of HALLOWEEN:H2O, as well as providing a focus for the best of this country's emergent talent - several of whom attended in person. All credit to the comparative old-timers who organise this event - Tony Edwards, Gil Lane-Young and Harry Nadler have been around on the fan scene since before most of us were born, yet are open and aware enough to acknowledge the current surge in independent U.K. film production, and allow the new breed to screen their stuff to an appreciative audience.

Making most impact in this respect was RAZORBLADE SMILE, the stylish and confident debut feature of exciting young Jake West. Never mind 'Cool Britannia', this is 'Hot Vampira' as the gorgeous Eileen Daly combines the best of Carmilla, Nikita, and Emma Peel as a fanged and cat-suited hit-woman dispensing bloody mayhem in wild style. Eileen, present at the Festival in the company of Jake and producer Rob Mercer, had heads turning and grown men weeping throughout the weekend, both on and off screen - she has to be the most sizzling movie starlet this country has spawned since Linda Hayden, and exposure, fame and fortune surely beckon.

Despite stiff competition from the plethora of forthcoming goodies, the best British indie feature of the weekend had to be Andrew Parkinson's crushing, despair-ridden I ZOMBIE: A CHRONICLE OF PAIN. Samhain Magazine has documented the development of this melancholy shocker almost from its inception over 4 years ago and so I'm delighted by the news that Screen Edge are preparing a video release for October. Highly recommended, particularly for its plaintive, aching musical score and a tour-de-force by Giles Aspen as the gradually-decaying figure at the film's haunting core.

I was lucky enough to sit in on an impromptu round-table discussion on the current state of home-based movie production, hastily convened by Mike Simpson of SFX magazine. Major concerns expressed by those present (West, Parkinson and the makers of genetic engineering fantasy DEMAGOGUE among the group) included BBFC classification fees, the absurdity of video packaging regulations, and the lack of suitable outlets via which their labours can actually be seen by the paying public. Look out for the appearance of this opinion-packed session in print soon, and pray that my own drunken, rambling contributions are edited out!

Of course, it's not all hunky dory on the indie scene at present, and for every RAZORBLADE SMILE there will inevitably be a handful of less essential offerings - two such disappointments were Jon Sorenson's ALIEN BLOOD and Elisar Cabrera's WITCHCRAFT X: MISTRESS OF THE CRAFT. The former was a baffling and rather pretentious drama with a Frenchwoman on the run in the Lake District on the last day of the century, protecting an alien child from a bunch of men-in-black type trackers. A houseful of odd characters who may or may not be vampires are tagged on to no great effect, and the whole affair drags our fairly inconsequentially to a confused finale overloaded with computer graphics. As for Cabrera's film, this has been commissioned as the first British entry in the long-running WITCHCRAFT erotic horror franchise; Eileen Daly over-acts like mad as the lead vampire on this occasion (confirming the skill of Jake West, able to rein in her uninhibited RAZORBLADE SMILE antics), and as renowned genre critic David Prothero remarked to me afterwards, it all looked as though it had been filmed using department store security cameras! At times there were so many bonking babes on screen that I had to remind myself I was attending the Festival of Fantastic Films and not the abode of one of my more disreputable friends! Cabrera shows considerably greater confidence and ability in shooting the sex scenes than any other part of the film - one wonders if he shouldn't abandon horror altogether and movie into working in more 'specialist' areas (if you know what I mean...)

Naturally, the fest did provide us with a hefty fix of the usual rickety black-and-white tat we've come to expect and love! Most jaw-dropping of the blasts from the past had to be the delirious 1961 Mexican jape THE BRAINIAC, a movie so demented that those of us who saw it (as an alternative choice to the new exploits of Michael Myers) could gibber about little else for the rest of the day! Sentenced and burnt to death by the Inquisition in 1661, a sex-mad aristocrat vows vengeance within 300 years - one dodgy 'special effects' cardboard comet later and the baron falls to Earth reborn as a ratty-haired, hook-nosed, lobster-pincered creation with hypnotic power over women and a penchant for jamming his 18-inch-long forked tongue into the cranial matter of the locals. This bizarre creature leaves his initial victim not only dead but looking totally ridiculous, having magically stripped him to his vest and underpants; and by the time two bungling detectives have decided to destroy Brainiac with a couple of enormous, fuck-off flame-throwers the audience was rolling in the aisles! Did I mention Brainiac's powers of invisibility or the silver dish full of brains which he keeps under lock and key, by the way? Extraordinary.

Other film fare on the bill included a rare chance to see Harry Houdini act in the silent THE MAN FROM BEYOND; a frantically-gyrating, beautifully cruel Allison Hayes engaging in jungle voodoo rites in THE DISEMBODIED; Jack Elam and Bigfoot vying for the titles of 'most unkempt actor' in CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE (there were innumerable contenders spotted lurching around the bar area at about 2am every morning...); the aforementioned preview of HALLOWEEN:H2O, which was either adored or loathed by those who caught it; an opportunity to view Stephen Weeks' peculiar and creepy GHOST STORY, featuring one of cinema's most menacing dolls, a porcelain Victorian plaything with an evil gleam in its eyes. Weeks himself arrived at the hotel on Sunday afternoon, to be interviewed in depth by Stephen Laws, and taking great delight in insulting Milton Subotsky (producer of his I, MONSTER) and family! The director expressed his dissatisfaction with the 3D process used on this Jekyll and Hyde movie (although the Festival did screen it in 3 dimensions a few years ago and it damn near knocked my eyes out!), and poured deserved scorn on Subotsky's decision to re-name the dual personalities 'Marlowe' and 'Blake' for no apparent reason. GHOST STORY, intriguingly, was shot on Indian locations despite being set in an English country manor, Weeks pointing out that the same 3 or 4 mansions kept cropping up in film after film at the time and he simply wanted to ring the changes. His most bizarre revelations concerned the abortive attempt to film THE BENGAL LANCERS in the mid-80's, when the producer arranged for the film lab reports to be faked, incorrectly stating that all the footage shot was damaged and unusable, in order to write the movie off as part of a fraudulent tax scam! Weeks has spent the past 9 years resolving the legal conundrums surrounding this sorry episode, and apparently the guilty party is now serving a prison sentence!

Rather annoyingly, Suzanna Leigh (THE LOST CONTINENT, THE DEADLY BEES) gave a frustrating interview which seemed designed simply as a means of advertising her new autobiography "Paradise Suzanna Style" - potentially lurid tales about Elvis Presley, Jerry Lewis etc. were largely dismissed with a couple of throwaway line and a request that we should read the remainder of the story in her book! Much better, indeed considered as the highlight of the festival by absolutely everyone I spoke to, was veteran stuntman Eddie Powell, a warm, genuine, easy-going guest, full of fun and loaded with anecdotes, from almost drowning while doubling for Christopher Lee in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS to playing the Giger-designed monster in ALIEN, a role for which an imposter was actually given the on-screen credit! Philosophical to the end (on stunts involving heights, he simply remarked "it doesn't really matter how high up you are after the first 20 feet") and uproariously funny at times (in particular while reminiscing about his nude scene in TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER!), Eddie would undoubtedly be given a friendly reception if invited to continue trawling through his history at next year's convention.

As always, a huge debt of gratitude is owed by everyone attending this truly marvelous festival, to the organisers Tony, Gil and Harry, with special praise also due to the hard-working projectionists Steve Hill, Robert Johnson, and Tony Meadows - one movie managed to grind to its conclusion only through the superhuman efforts of Steve, holding a paintbrush against the unspooling reel of film for 45 minutes to prevent on-screen jiggle and saving us from severe eye-strain. Heroic.

Next year's festival is the tenth, a quite remarkable achievement - rumour is that this longevity and endurance is likely to be celebrated in a big way, hopefully with a few proposed treats in the pipeline. I seriously urge you to be there.

Copyright 1998 Darrell Buxton

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