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The Fun of the Horror Festival

The Theatre BizarreOver the last couple of years one of my great rediscovered pleasures has been the horror film festival. I used to go to quite a few but the pressures of time, work and a general lack of someone to go with meant that for many years I had been absent from the festival circuit. Because fortune has smiled all this has changed quite spectacularly in the last couple of years, however, and it’s been a delight for me to find that if anything, British horror film festivals are even better now than they ever were.

Last October Lady Probert and I went to Manchester’s Festival of Fantastic Films, or FoFF as it is affectionately known at Probert Towers. This was a scant two months after we had achieved a long-held ambition to attend the whole of FrightFest – the undisputed ‘Daddy’ of British horror film festivals as we attempted to answer the question – how many of these things is it sensible for one to attend in a single year? The answer to that question will of course vary from horror fan to horror fan but at the moment the balance of one ‘new’ festival to one retrospective per year seems to suit us down to the ground.

Horror film festivals are very special events indeed. To those who attend they represent a magical three or four days where like-minded (not to mention knowledgeable, obsessive, crazy, fun-loving, intense but above all jolly nice) people cram themselves into a packed auditorium to spend more time together in a few days than the average married couple does in a year, and all for the sake of this genre that we love. I may be wrong but there can’t be that many pursuits (except perhaps role play gaming) where those involved take part for an almost non-stop fourteen hour day for days on end. Of course there may be those of you out there who know better. This year’s FrightFest kicked off on Thursday evening with a remake, a sequel and an obscurity, or Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Final Destination 5 and The Theatre Bizarre, respectively. Response to the remake was deservedly lukewarm at best, to FD 5 was deservedly uproarious and to The Theatre Bizarre was mixed, as one might expect from an extreme anthology movie from six different directors and featuring a linking sequence starring Udo Kier as a marionette. No marks for guessing that I loved it. No marks either for guessing which of the three is still awaiting any kind of release. But it only took those three films and the audience reactions they engendered to remind me how much I had missed going to these things.

Shock Around the Clock

Peter Jackson's Bad TasteThe first horror movie festival I ever went to was called Shock Around the Clock, also co-organised, coincidentally enough, by one of the men behind FrightFest – Alan Jones – together with Stefan Jaworzyn, the editor of the oft-acerbic horror movie magazine Shock Express. Starting at around 12pm on a Saturday the festival crammed as many previously unseen horror film into the next fifteen hours as it could. Shock Around the Clock gave the discerning horror fan the opportunity to watch all kinds of weird, obscure and occasionally mainstream new horror films. It’s difficult to imagine anywhere else at the time exhibiting for your delectation on the big screen Thomas Burman’s Meet the Hollowheads, Wings Hauser as The Carpenter, Bill Fruet’s Invasion of the Bodysuckers, and the utterly dismal The Unnameable (the sequel is much better). I remember, at one of these, director Michele Soavi turned up with his new film The Church. Unfortunately the print only had an Italian dialogue track and no subtitles and as he didn’t speak English the entire audience was left scratching its collective heads even more than usual at an Italian horror film. One EuroHorror that provoked a different response was Jorg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik. This tale of the rather unsavoury activities enjoyed by a chap who takes home a corpse from a road accident and introduces it to his girlfriend who then runs off with it leaving him to commit suicide in a way I can still see in my head now without too much effort was shown at some unmentionable hour of the morning as a well-programmed eye opener. Bear in mind as well that the Scala was not the most comfortable of venues, with no air conditioning (the festival tended to be on at the height of Summer) and seats so grubby anyone going in wearing a white T-shirt would inevitable come out wearing one more blotchy and yellow.

We all laughed long and hard at Peter Jackson’s debut feature Bad Taste, and at JP Simon’s Slugs – The Movie! adapted (one hopes not too faithfully – I’ve never had the opportunity to find out) from the Shaun Hutson novel of the same name. Shaun was present for the auspicious occasion and wasn’t impressed.

Festival of Fantastic Films

These days, festivals tend to be divided into previews of new horror films like FrightFest, and retrospectives. One of the most well-loved of the old-time festivals is Manchester’s Festival of Fantastic Films, which has been steaming along in its happy-go-lucky slightly ramshackle way for the past twenty odd years. Usually held around October, the most recent included guest turns by Norman J Warren (a festival regular) David McGillivray (who did a splendid Q&A despite having a terrible cold) and Robin Askwith (who introduced me to the films of Richard Driscoll, a ‘favour’ for which words still fail me.). The movies tend to be the kind that used to turn up on TV all the time and it’s been a pleasure for me to see old favourites like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tower of Evil and Hands of the Ripper on the big screen, as well as weirder films like Leslie Stevens’ Incubus (William Shatner emotes in Esperanto!), Jess Franco’s Count Dracula and Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space.

The Mask of Fu ManchuWhile FoFF and FrightFest are regular yearly fixtures with a specific remit and predictable programming, festivals elsewhere around the country are more sporadic and the programmes often have a greater variety. Bristol’s Shocktoberfest a couple of years ago had a programme that included Fulci’s The Beyond, Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu, Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet and the really rather unpleasant Murder-Set-Pieces which as a result of the much-welcomed viewing opportunity managed to make it onto the very small list of horror films I hate.

Fortunately most of the UK’s horror film festivals have either established a tradition, or tend to be run by people who are known within the horror community, such that the debacle of the ‘Festival of Pure Horror’ from about 20 years ago will never be repeated. For those who don’t know, the magazine The Dark Side ran (in all good faith I must emphasise) full page adverts for the festival, which promised to screen the premiere of Omen IV – the Awakening. Any festival with that as its selling point was

probably in trouble anyway, but it became apparent that the registration fees were being pocketed with no intention of the festival taking place. It is to the eternal credit of the organisers of Manchester’s Black Sunday horror film festival that when this criminal act came to light they offered people who had got burned tickets to the Manchester festival free of charge.

Over the years, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the reaction of the fans and the sheer unadulterated pleasure of experiencing a horror film with up to a thousand like-minded individuals, whether it be the raucous crowd-pleasing antics of Final Destination 5 or an intense and personal shocker like Lucky McKee’s The Woman, the experience can’t be repeated at home. And that is what festivals are really all about. See you at FrightFest.

 JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT

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