The Tenth Festival of Fantastic Films, 1999
Report by Darrell Buxton

The longest-running, and premier, event of its kind in the U.K., reached its tenth year with this latest celebration of fantastic cinema good, bad, and ugly, one final romp through the celluloid annals before the new millennium. Throughout the 1990s, The Festival Of Fantastic Films has been perhaps the highlight on the calendar of any self-respecting movie buff, with the screening of literally hundreds of genre classics and rarities galore, coupled with major guest appearances from the likes of Roger Corman, John Landis, Ray Harryhausen, Caroline Munro, Veronica Carlson, Gunnar Hansen, Pete Walker, and even the late, great Screaming Lord Sutch!

Hopes were high for this year, with the organisers having invited a whole host of former Hammer alumni and other familiar figures on the British fantasy scene. Top of the list was the lovely Hazel Court, so memorable in horror landmarks from THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN to MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, with such notables as Jimmy Sangster, Freddie Francis, Janette Scott and Janina Faye adding substance to the bill. However, the festival soon succumbed to the curse of "circumstances beyond our control"…late cancellations by Robert Fuest, Brian Clemens, and Harold Goodwin drastically altered the shape of proceedings, and saddest of all was the news on the preceding Thursday that Norman J.Warren, director of TERROR and INSEMINOID and a keen and committed presence here in previous years, had been rushed into hospital. Tremendous though the weekend was, it just wasn’t quite the same without Norman’s enthusiastic support. In addition, the promised premiere of Paul Cotgrove’s much-anticipated short film GREEN FINGERS was unfortunately postponed less than 24 hours before the planned screening – the laboratory dealing with the soundtrack had reportedly made errors in synchronisation which they were unable to correct in time.

While the festival committee and their hard-working team of helpers rallied round to resolve these difficulties, the programme proper commenced unofficially with a few afternoon screenings for early arrivals, and I kicked off my viewing with TERROR IN THE MIDNIGHT SUN (1960). My appetite for this Swedish monster outing had first been whetted way back in 1973, when I acquired my copy of Denis Gifford’s splendid ‘Pictorial History Of Horror Movies’ and found a huge double-page spread featuring a photo of the film’s grotesque creature, all hair and fangs, looming large before me. Quite a sight at the tender age of 10, and no less effective today! As for the movie itself, clearly while Ingmar Bergman was toiling away on such masterpieces as ANSIKTET and WILD STRAWBERRIES, in another corner of Scandinavia strange things indeed were stirring! In a fashion typical of this festival, the opening feature managed to combine ice-skating, downhill ski-ing, and invasion from outer space in roughly equal measure. Some very impressive model effects gave the man-in-a-suit monster an imposing bearing as it trudged through the snowy wastes smashing log cabins to pieces, and another startling scene had various hooded, white-faced aliens terrorising the heroine, popping in from the sides of the frame at all angles accompanied by some peculiarly eerie music.

Video-wizard Mike Hardman worked his usual wonders for the opening ceremony on Friday evening, having managed to turn a sketchy script by yours truly into an hilarious compilation of movie excerpts accompanying the Sinatra standard "I’ve Got You Under My Skin" (if I tell you that the line "so deep in your heart that you’re really a part of me" played alongside the shot of James Woods up to his elbows in his own stomach-cavity in VIDEODROME, you’ll get the idea); whilst another high point was a rare screening of the 1978 comedy short, HARDWARE WARS – if I explain that this featured characters called ‘Ham Salad’, ‘Fluke Starbucker’, and ‘4-Q-2’ haring around the galaxy in a rocket-powered steam iron, you won’t need three guesses as to which contemporary hit was being mercilessly parodied!

As regular festivalgoers are all too aware, there’s more to this event than merely gawping at old movies, and at convenient intervals the bar area is always the place to be for gossip and socialising. It didn’t take long to run into my old friend David Prothero, from Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, who had plenty of news on the recent five-day Nigel Kneale seminar he had staged, with the man himself in attendance. News is that Kneale was apparently so affected by this revival of interest in his work that he’s begun penning a new Quatermass saga, which intriguingly pits the young Bernard Quatermass against anti-Darwinist Nazis in the political hotbed that was 1936 Berlin. The Olympic Games forms an offbeat backdrop, and by all accounts it isn’t long until an alien connection surfaces…another familiar face I encountered was ‘We Belong Dead’ editor Eric McNaughton, currently offloading most of his vast book/magazine/video/film collection in a bid to finance a forthcoming excursion to South America this winter. Eric showed us the proof cover for issue 9 of WBD, but said the remainder of the mag won’t be produced until after he’s discovered the Lost Tribe Of The Incas in darkest Ecuador.

Back to the movies, then, and I caught the hysterical tail-end of that old favourite TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE (as Ramsey Campbell described it, "the best movie ever made featuring the shadow of a giant lobster"!) before heading off for a look at a real rarity from 1946, CATMAN OF PARIS. This was quite something, mixing drawing-room romantic intrigue and an attempt to bring down the French government into its otherwise standard (though moodily-staged and often frightening) were-cat story. The murder scenes, with the catman leaping out of nowhere to claim his carefully chosen victims, were sufficient to keep our late-night audience on its toes, and one wonderful moment sees a sudden cut to a seemingly symbolic shot of a huge black cat strutting through the street where one savage killing has just occurred, this then being explained away as actual when it is revealed to be simply a domestic moggy wandering through a specially-constructed police mock-up of the murder site!

Saturday morning promised a rare glimpse of Jack Arnold’s THE SPACE CHILDREN, but as this failed to materialise, adding to the list of organisational problems, I elected to attend the alternative programme offering, a panel discussion on The Rise And Fall Of The British Horror Film. This proved to be partially a winner, and partially maddening; special guests, producer Richard Gordon and Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster, were in first-class form, particularly with their reminiscences about working with the arrogant young Christopher Lee, and raising some fascinating, speculative topics such as the possible direction of Peter Cushing’s career had he not accepted his early roles in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA. It was the panel host, Jonathan Sothcott, and his sidekick John Hamilton (currently toiling on a biography of Tony Tenser), who got everyone’s blood boiling, however. Sothcott’s opening pronouncement claimed that British horror had initially emerged in 1956 with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (which presumably would come as quite a surprise to Tod Slaughter and the makers of DEAD OF NIGHT!), and he continued in this extraordinary vein, stating that HELLRAISER was set in the United States (a bellowing Ramsey Campbell soon corrected him on this score!), and amending the title of one of Terence Fisher’s movies to "The Earth Dies Sleeping". Most jaw-dropping of all was the attempt by Sothcott and Hamilton to convince everyone that Ralph Bates was a superior actor to Peter Cushing! Now I’ve nothing against sacrilege, but this was mere stupidity. An enormously entertaining morning, mainly for all the wrong reasons, but at least it provided a few of us with some major talking points for the next couple of days!

Back to the visuals, then, and despite the pulling power of William Castle’s crazy fantasy comedy ZOTZ! (which several of my friends saw – and by all accounts, loved), I opted for Paul Naschy in DOCTOR JEKYLL AND THE WEREWOLF, in which a modern-day Jekyll, Naschy’s wolfman character ‘Waldemar Daninsky’, and a couple of dollybird assistants unwisely seek a cure for lycanthropy. Afghan coats and stock shots of 1970s London abound, Naschy gets to add Mr.Hyde (looking rather more like a glam rock incarnation of Tony Hancock) to his roster of monster characterisations, various glamour girls have their clothes torn off by a slavering werewolf, there’s the most embarrassing ‘dance club’ sequence since my pal Dave Gold appeared in the film version of FATHER DEAR FATHER, and an unintentional dialogue reference to "village people" brought the house down! Fabulous stuff. Much more dour but equally good was Ray Milland’s perceptively pre-Cuban crisis end-of-the-world thriller PANIC IN YEAR ZERO!, determined and uncompromising material as a nuclear strike reduces typical family man Milland to ruthlessness and savagery in a bid to ensure the safety of his kin (including Frankie Avalon as his son and a brilliant Jean Hagen as his frequently appalled and disgusted spouse).

The Saturday afternoon auction has become a legendary section of the Festival, presided over by the inimitable Ramsey Campbell. Every year Ramsey desperately tries to cajole us all into parting with hard-earned cash while maintaining a stream of innuendo, banter with his friends and relations, and thinly-veiled threats! I’ll go no further on the subject, other than to say that without any doubt the high-point of this year’s auction was the sight of Mr.Campbell cavorting with a life-size, inflatable model of ALIEN…

A measure of decorum was restored to the weekend with the Saturday evening appearance of Hazel Court. Touchingly, Stephen Laws launched the interview with a tribute to Hazel’s husband of 35 years, movie director Don Taylor, and she spoke movingly of their relationship together before discussing her own lengthy career. Now in her seventies, Hazel still has her movie-star looks and a commendable recall of her life in front of the cameras, and spoke fondly of working alongside Lee and Cushing at Hammer, and rather less fondly of the day she was covered with graveyard earth while filming THE PREMATURE BURIAL! In recent years she has been sculpting for a living (an occupation inspired, perchance, by her role as artist’s model in THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH?), though John Schlesinger has approached her for his new film and she is still willing to act in movies if appropriate parts come her way.

Despite the loss of Paul Cotgrove’s GREEN FINGERS short, we were not to be deprived of new U.K. material as Paul’s good friend Grant Littlechild presented the showreel for his forthcoming alien invasion feature, the luridly-titled COSMIC BRAINSUCKERS. This was so good that, following its midnight unveiling on Saturday, the organisers decided to re-screen it as part of Sunday’s closing ceremony. Grant has taken the canny step of securing cameo appearances from a string of star names, which won’t do him any harm in trying to raise money to complete BRAINSUCKERS, so we got to view Norman Wisdom being caught in a spaceship’s ray beam, Patrick Moore interviewing a scientist looking suspiciously like Ray Harryhausen and including the titles of his own movies within his answers, the great Stanley Unwin babbling away in his usual manner, John Landis authoritatively presenting the whole thing, and best of all Warren Mitchell reviving his ‘Alf Garnett’ persona and blaming the alien-caused blackout on a "bloody Labour council"!

Sunday morning opened with programme options including Michael Haneke’s harrowing FUNNY GAMES, Douglas Buck’s equally gruelling short pieces HOME and CUTTING MOMENTS (even projectionist Steve Hill told us he found this one difficult to stomach), and an entertaining panel discussion centred on the great days of Hammer gothic horror, with Hazel Court, Freddie Francis, and Jimmy Sangster regaling us all with a fund of wonderful anecdotes while the host, Hammer expert Wayne Kinsey, happily took a back seat and revelled in the stories with the rest of the audience. Francis even passed on some news about THE STRAIGHT STORY, the new David Lynch project on which he served as cinematographer, stating that the film is so nice and sweet that it may alienate many of the director’s hardcore fans, and that he expects Richard Farnsworth to secure a ‘best actor’ nomination at next year’s Academy Awards.

Anyone who attended the 1998 Festival had spent the past 12 months waiting for just one thing – the return of Britain’s stunt king, Eddie Powell. Powell’s interview session was the crowning glory of last year’s event, and we were all thrilled at the opportunity to listen to another hour or so of the same. His slice of professional wisdom this time concerned his methods of negotiating his fees with producers ("you offer them five falls for the price of three – and hope you get it in one!"), and he recalled two 1970s jobs, THE OMEN and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, on which he volunteered to be attacked by dogs – being painfully savaged by untrained rottweilers on the former! Naturally, we couldn’t let him go without hearing him repeat his hilarious tales from the set of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER either; after Eddie doubled for the burning Anthony Valentine in what was Britain’s first ever all-over fire stunt, the vicar of the church where filming took place wandered over to him and exclaimed "now you know what it feels like to be in Hell". Mr.Powell’s considered response? "I told him to f-off!". What a man.

Final movie offering of the weekend was another virtually unseen item, Mexican shocker THE VAMPIRE’S COFFIN, with German Robles back in the cape and fangs as one ‘Count Lavud’. The uneventful monochrome ‘thrills’ take place in a hospital and on stage at a theatre before we reach the rather more lively climax involving a guillotine, an invitingly-open iron maiden, a couple of spears and a shape-shifting bloodsucker. The very odd final scene sees the victorious but presumably somewhat disorientated hero leading his girl the wrong way out of the store-room where the vampire has been despatched! (Closing dialogue exchange; Cop: "Those stairs lead to the roof"; dumb hero: "sorry, my mistake!"; fade-out!).

One final treat remained before we all raced into the hotel bar for the traditional Sunday night ‘Dead Dog Party’, in the shape of Adrian James’ marvellous presentation on the days of the great movie serial. Adrian was a joy to listen to as he extolled the virtues of his favourite form of film entertainment, giving an informed and definitive pocket history of the genre and throwing in a quite superb videotaped compilation of classic scenes from his beloved chapter-plays. Particularly memorable were the two sequences from MANHUNT IN THE AFRICAN JUNGLE, the 1943 classic which is said to be the inspiration for the Lucas/Spielberg "Indiana Jones" series – the sensational punch-up/sword-fight between Rod Cameron and an evil Nazi had those of us present on the edge of our seats, desperately regretting that there wasn’t time to sit through the serial’s entire four-hour duration! A perfect example of how this event caters for all tastes, and how such a wide variety of movie subjects can be embraced by the catch-all term ‘Fantastic Film’.

Despite the initial hitches and drawbacks, then, another terrific Festival. Harry Nadler, Tony Edwards, Gil Lane-Young and crew deserve all the plaudits we attendees will undoubtedly throw their way; long may they continue, and here’s to Festival 2000.

Copyright 1999 Darrell Buxton

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