by Daryll Buxton

Events come and events go. The U.K. fan-scene has witnessed the emergence and subsequent disappearance of various film weekends over recent years, with perhaps only Edinburgh’s annual ‘Dead By Dawn’ looking likely to stay the course. There’s one festival, however, which shows a stubborn resilience, and which despite facing problem after problem, just keeps on coming back with a resolve and spirit that even Dracula, the Daleks, and Ming The Merciless might envy.

The Festival Of Fantastic Films entered its 14th year in 2003 - our intrepid band of travellers through outer and inner space found themselves depleted, through the loss of the irreplaceable Harry Nadler, yet still managed to concoct a weekend of magic, metamorphosis, and mystery, for the entertainment and delight of those of us along for the ride. Why Tony Edwards and Gil Lane-Young haven’t received greater recognition for their heroic efforts, who can say? Film fans at heart, but with the organisational skills and sheer drive that simply keeps them determined to stage this marvel every August.

Arriving at the festival hotel each year is a thrilling experience - grown men and women, some in their thirties, forties, fifties, or even the elders of the tribe, discovering once more that childlike rush of anticipation fulfilled, hauling our luggage through the revolving doors which offer tantalising wonders within, meeting fellow aficionados for the first time since last time, eagerly awaiting the revelations of the next three days. As ever, then, proceedings get off to a fine start, with plenty of good food, flowing ale, and conversation bubbling with knowledgeable enthusiasm. There are even early screenings of the classic ROCKETSHIP XM - one of the very first titles I viewed, and loved, at the inaugural 1990 festival - and a special ‘Tribute To The Monsters’, for those who wish to get a head start on the visual portion of the programme.

Festival regulars invariably expect a spanner or two in the works, and sure enough, the stellar guest list is soon revealed to have become somewhat truncated. Early publicity has promised the appearance of Christopher Eccleston, local-boy-made-good, and having boosted his fantasy credentials with an incredible performance as the new ‘Son of God’ in ITV’s speculative drama THE SECOND COMING. Sadly, ironically, it is the demands of our favourite genre that keeps Chris from us, as word arrives that his labours on the sixth and final STAR WARS instalment have taken precedence. Likewise, cult director Alex Cox fails to show, again citing other demands on his time as the reason; and husband-and-wife Harry Greene and Marjie Lawrence cry off at the last minute too. For Tony, Gil, and team, this is all in a day’s work - hastily putting a positive spin on matters, they inform attendees at the festival’s official opening ceremony that we will still get to see legendary British writer/director/actor Michael Armstrong (a presence I’m particularly pleased about, having been instrumental in the early stages of arranging Mr. Armstrong’s attendance here) - and that the menacing, brooding figure of David LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT Hess is lurking about the building too. As it turns out, Mr. Hess has been in the bar for some considerable time, getting on like a house on fire with one Ramsey Campbell and an enormous quantity of alcohol…

Further snafus result in a delayed start to the screening of MIRACLE MILE, thrown in as a filler adjustment to the programme - having given this one a five-star review myself back in the early 1990s, I know this terrifying, panic-stricken nuclear thriller is well worth the wait, though. E.R.’s Anthony Edwards (no relation!) and feisty Mare Winningham battle their way through the early hours of a decidedly untypical L.A. morning, as the population awaken to the news that the city may - or, here’s the twist, may not - be under attack from Soviet weaponry. In one of his final roles, John Agar proves precisely why most of us attending the festival hold him and his contemporaries in such high regard, and unlike so many films of its type, MIRACLE MILE retains a truth and dignity right to the end. The closing dialogue passage, concerning “diamonds” and their gradual formation, is the most beautiful reflection upon humanity’s enduring future since Grant Williams’ enlightenment at the close (?) of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN.

For me, the remainder of the evening was to be spent catching up with friends old and new over a few drinks - as usual, though, the alternatives on offer were most enticing, with Clint Eastwood’s grand, elegiac SPACE COWBOYS on the main screen, Gerald Price presenting some classic blasts from the past (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, THE STRANGE DOOR, BLUEBEARD and SPOOKS RUN WILD), and various amateur/independent shorts and features on show for the more adventurous night owls. In the bar area, the major topic of conversation was “would the Festival survive?” - Gil having hinted in his opening address that this 14th year might be the last. Debate continued into the early hours, general opinion seeming to be that although we’d all be heartbroken if things came to an end, given the pressures of putting the event on coupled with the disappointments, cancellations, no-shows and so on, we’d all understand if Tony and Gil elected to call a halt.

Tomorrow is another day, as they say, and any minor niggles were forgotten as everyone sat down to a hearty breakfast and more movie chat. Gerald Price and the splendid Adrian James hosted a rare screening of THE WHITE GORILLA for a packed audience of great ape fanatics, and the programme progressed with Ivan Zuccon’s latest, THE SHUNNED HOUSE. Championed by M.J. Simpson during the past couple of years, Ivan is almost Italy’s answer to Stuart Gordon in that his movies are steeped in Lovecraftiana, and this newest offering had all the creepy atmosphere and weirdness of an early-80s Lucio Fulci flick, though without the copious blood-letting of Signor Fulci’s signature works! The film’s scriptwriter, Enrico Saletti, was a most welcome and amiable guest, keen to discuss his work at length both at the screening and talking to punters in the bar afterwards.

Another returning visitor was Julian Richards, whose WICKER MAN imitation, DARKLANDS, had featured at the 1997 Festival. The lack of originality present in his debut feature, coupled with the rather uninspiring title of his latest work THE LAST HORROR MOVIE, didn’t exactly hold a great deal of promise - which just shows how wrong you can be on occasion. For THE LAST HORROR MOVIE turned out to be the hit of the weekend, the sort of film which might genuinely kick-start a British horror revival. Truly the home-grown answer to U.S. social terrors ranging from HENRY to AMERICAN PSYCHO, LAST HORROR MOVIE almost achieves the impossible in very nearly living up to its title - a friend who accompanied me to the screening commented halfway through that he would “never need to sit through another serial killer movie again” after witnessing this one. With Kevin Howarth giving the finest, most charismatic performance I’ve seen in a British horror picture for many years, Richards’ direction showing he has come on in leaps and bounds (there’s a scene featuring the killer confronting a schoolboy which left the audience reeling), and a script which cleverly draws the unsuspecting viewer right into the heart of the action, this is a major step forward for the genre and I hope it achieves the success it undoubtedly merits when it goes on general release in the spring of 2004.

How to follow a new masterpiece? Well, with David Hess present, an airing for LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was as apt a way as any, I suppose. Shown in its excellent DVD version, I’d never seen LAST HOUSE look so good before - and one could almost say the same about the film’s star, as Mr. Hess seems to have barely aged in the intervening decades. If the overall atmosphere of the festival had felt a little deflated, David’s attendance was the perfect tonic - he had a smile and a friendly word for everyone, while playing up to his psychotic ‘Krug’ persona on request, and proved to be one of the most accessible and approachable guests in the whole history of the event. Earlier in the day, he’d even managed to disrupt Ramsey Campbell’s infamous Auction, interrupting Ramsey’s patter and making outrageously low bids for items on the verge of being sold! His interview, with Gil presiding, was one of the most popular highlights of the entire bash, and he signed autographs and chatted in the hotel bar for hours afterwards.

Ramsey has been espousing the virtues of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli for the past couple of years, and it’s been pleasing to see the rest of the world catching up - the festival screened MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO, the studio’s unsurpassable peak, late on Saturday and followed up with KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE first thing on Sunday. KIKI must be recent cinema’s deftest and most wondrous tale of teenage hocus-pocus, and is essential viewing for anyone over-familiar with J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series.

Sunday afternoon was the perfect slot for a couple of hours settling back to enjoy the wry musings of Michael Armstrong, every bit as flamboyant a guest as we could have hoped, larger than life and twice as vocal! M.J. Simpson told me afterwards that this had been the easiest interview he’d ever hosted, and that he had to keep interjecting the odd word or comment at intervals just to remind everyone that there were two people on stage! Armstrong was most entertaining, discussing his early amateur fantasy films made in the late 1950s (NIGHTMARE, THE GAY GHOST) and his work in Germany on MARK OF THE DEVIL, screened just prior to this guest spot. He was on top form when discussing his difficult dealings with the legendary Louis ‘Deke’ Hayward, AIP’s man in London - what a shame Deke passed away a year or two ago, he’d have made a tremendous festival guest in his own right, and one regrets that the opportunity to see him and old enemy Armstrong sparring has now passed!

The screenings wrapped up with a fascinating double bill featuring R.K.O.’s rarely-seen waxworks thriller SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE and Albert Band’s haunting drama FACE OF FIRE; a chance to view the magnificent Mario Bava anthology BLACK SABBATH; and Jerry Warren’s outrageous cheapie FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND, a treat for fans of those films which feature unrelated John Carradine footage filmed several years earlier being cut into the plot! Made for about $1.98, maybe, but it was certainly an entertaining and lively time-passer!

And so to the closing ceremony. Thanks largely to the sheer enthusiasm of David Hess, everyone’s spirits had been elevated over the preceding 48 hours, and the air of gloom present to a certain extent on the Friday had dissipated. However, we all still wondered whether this was the end for Britain’s premier fantasy/sf/horror movie gala. Both Hess and Michael Armstrong had expressed a strong desire to return again in 2004, we fans all wanted to come back, and Gil and Tony admitted they were willing. The surprise clincher, a truly emotional climax to another great weekend, arrived when Tony’s daughter Kate unexpectedly invaded the stage and delivered an impassioned cry to safeguard the future of the Festival, revealing that private discussions behind the backs of the main organisers had led to suggestions about venue changes, dividing of workloads, and a possible move to somewhere just outside the traditional Manchester city centre base. An appreciative audience, suddenly lifted by the possibility of a near-certain return in 12 months’ time, rose to their feet to give a ten-minute standing ovation to Kate’s dad, a long-overdue tribute for Tony’s years of input into this unbeatable event and his decades of enthusiasm for fantastic cinema.

And even this moment of magic was rivalled a couple of hours later, when David Hess was coerced into performing a frantic singalong version of his own composition, the rock’n’roll standard ‘Speedy Gonzalez’, at the ‘Dead Dog Party’ which wrapped the whole thing up for another year. As a pal of mine remarked, you had to pinch yourself to believe what you were seeing!

If this is to be the final Festival of Fantastic Films, it went out with a bang. Thanks to Tony and Gil; plus, gone but never forgotten, the amazing Harry Nadler, and Dave Trengove; and all involved in staging the festival since 1990. But let’s hope we can do it all again one more time.

Daryll Buxton

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