Festival Report: Bradford Fantastic Films Weekend 2012
Report by Ben Bussey
By way of an opening disclaimer, I must profess to feeling a little disingenuous classing this as a report on the Fantastic Films Weekend given I was only there for one day of it, Saturday the 16th of June. But a jolly nice day it was, which I’ve no doubt vouches for the two days either side of it having been equally enjoyable. This was the eleventh year of the event, which takes over the Pictureville and Cubby Broccoli cinema screens of Bradford’s famed National Media Museum. With a mouth-watering selection of old favourites and rare jewels from the last fifty-odd years of genre cinema and television, the festival was a veritable fan smorgasbord from which I was more than happy to take a few hearty bites.
With the action split over two screens and the choice between the familiar and the hitherto unseen, we naturally took the road less travelled in most cases. Henceforth, Henry Selick’s endearing stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, 80s undead stripper flick Vamp and the inimitable Halloween III: Season of the Witch were all passed up in favour of a trio of under-seen Hammer productions, and a genuine grindhouse original. Even so, I still found time to catch a couple of lifelong favourites on the big screen for the first time.
First of those old favourites – and, I won’t deny it, the key thing that drew me to the festival – was Fred Dekker’s seminal 1987 comedy horror The Monster Squad. Now, there’s a hell of a lot I could say about this one, but given that its twenty-fifth anniversary is only a month or two away I’ll save my superlatives for now. Suffice to say The Monster Squad is supremely close to my heart, being the film that got me into horror in the first place, and it remains a real source of joy to me to this day. The chance to see it on the big screen as intended, particularly in an auditorium as nice as the Pictureville, was an opportunity I couldn’t possibly pass up. That said, I must admit I was a tad disappointed that the screening was of a somewhat murky, pixelated digital copy rather than a 35mm print, though I acknowledge this was not for lack of trying on the part of the organisers. Still, given that the film is yet to receive a Region 2 DVD release (the shame!), this might be the only chance many in the audience have yet had to see it. And even in a digital format, seeing it on the big screen still throws into focus little details that might not have been noticed before, even by one who has seen the film as often as I have (and believe me, I’ve watched The Monster Squad a great many times…) I could say more on the subject – and I assure you, I will be doing so in the not-too distant future – but that’ll do for now. Moving on…
Next up in Pictureville was a real curiosity, and a welcome one, in the form of Hammer’s Captain Clegg (1962) (which, yes, is also known as Night Creatures in some territories, hence inspiring the name of that band). We tend to forget that Hammer didn’t just make horror, but popular films of all kinds, and this film serves as a good representation of that less celebrated aspect of the company’s persona. An oddball blend of mystery, ghost story and swashbuckler, it follows the enigmatic inhabitants of a quiet small town when the king’s men arrive to investigate suspected smuggling. Peter Cushing heads up the cast as an unusual vicar with an alarming dark mop of grey-streaked hair, with an ensemble including a young Oliver Reed as a fairly dull romantic lead who gets to indulge in a bit of fisticuffs and wrestle a fair few snogs out of the delectable Yvonne Romain. It’s all typically cut-price and nonsensical – leave it to Hammer to make a pirate film that’s set almost entirely on land – but it’s teeming with the dark wit and anti-authoritarian undertones that we so often find in Hammer. The 35mm print looked great for the most part; the projection in the first few minutes had a distracting wobble which was quickly corrected, and from then on, the little scratches and occasional jumps just added to the rustic charm.
Next up in the more intimate Cubby Broccoli screen were two early black and white TV films from Hammer (digital copies, but perfectly decent ones). Directed by Curt Siodmak, famed for writing Universal’s Wolf Man, Tales of Frankenstein (1958) is a pilot for a TV show that never happened. A fairly standard tale of the mad Baron (here played by Anton Diffring) and his experiments, it opens with Frankenstein bemoaning the lack of a decent brain to make his creation work properly; at which point, who should turn up on his doorstep but a terminally ill man and his wife, who have sought out Frankenstein in the desperate hope that he can help them. Entertaining though it is, in some ways it’s not surprising a series never came of it. I mean, what would they have done, put a different brain in the creature every week? See the monster take on a new personality in each episode, like some macabre variation on Quantum Leap…? Even so, it’s a fun little creature feature, and a pleasant window back to the days when wailing theremins, misty graveyards and flashes of lightning over Gothic rooftops had not yet become the stuff of lampoons and Scooby-Doo cartoons.
The Man in Black (1949) makes for fairly surprising viewing today given that it provides an entirely straight role for Sid James. Though he had a long and illustrious career in straight drama, it’s almost impossible not to immediately identify him as the notorious old perv of so many Carry On films, so much so that when told that his character in The Man in Black is the country’s premier exponent of yoga, one can’t help but immediately picture him stood at the back of the class with Bernard Bresslaw, barking his signature “hyuk-hyuk” as all the girls bend over. However, that’s a far cry from what we have here. Following the efforts of James’ conniving second wife and stepdaughter to cheat his daughter out of her inheritance in the aftermath of his mysterious death, it’s a supremely twisty-turny melodrama filled with yet more of that classic dark wit, in which everyone has an ulterior motive and is out to get someone else. I’m sure they could take the same script today and make a mean episode of Midsomer Murders out of it.
Coming up after that, whilst Keri took in the short films (which you can read about here) I headed back over to Pictureville for my other old favourite of the day, the 1968 sci-fi camp classic Barbarella. Much as The Monster Squad instilled in me a love for horror, this film instilled in me a love for films in which gorgeous women in outer space take their clothes off and have sex a lot… I jest of course. That instinct was already in me long before I saw this film; it’s genetic, I think. Anyway, for a film that I have in years gone by seen erroneously stocked in the adult DVD section in stores, Barbarella is actually considerably tamer than the uninitiated might anticipate; but at the same time, it may also be somewhat darker than expected (the very rumination that inspired this article the other day). There isn’t actually much nudity and the sex all occurs off-screen, but we do have an abundance of weird and wonderful glittering sets and costumes which make no attempt to pass themselves off as realistic. The result is somewhere between a Carry On film and Flash Gordon, filtered through a very 60s flower power sensibility, yet the film is also quite unflinching in its portrayal of cruelty and suffering. To fully embrace peace and love necessitates confronting the horrors of war and hate, I suppose. Another one projected in good old fashioned 35mm, there were again jumps and scratches aplenty, but certainly nothing to detract from the pleasure of this old gem, at least not for one as susceptible to its charms as myself.
Wrapping up the day, and indeed the festival for me was I Drink Your Blood (1970), and I daresay that was as good a film as any to end on. A joyously absurd mix of Satan-worshipping hippies, small town hicks and sociopathic pie-poisoning pre-teens, it’s so grindhouse that if I hadn’t been told any different I might have assumed it was yet another contemporary take on the genre contrived to tick all the boxes. Cheap and cheerful to the extreme with the obligatory tacked-on overtones of morality, it’s pretty much everything you expect from a madcap midnight movie. As such, it was entirely fitting that the very rare 35mm print the festival had procured was battered to buggery, drained of colour to the point that the whole screen seemed to glow fluorescent pink, and so worn out that it actually broke about two thirds of the way in, resulting in a delay of around ten minutes. Initially I suspected this might have just been showmanship on the part of the organisers, trying to provide that same ‘real grindhouse experience’ that Rodriguez and Tarantino were so keen to mass-produce, but unless they kept the act up very well it would seem to have been genuine. And no, it didn’t detract from the experience at all. Indeed, it gave my fellow audience member Gavin Baddeley time to advise me to look out for the rabid workman who, during a chase scene, would accidentally lose his helmet, and then stop to pick it up. Many laughs were had all around.
All things considered, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to attend all three days of the Fantastic Films Weekend. The National Media Museum is a lovely place to visit any time, home to Britain’s first IMAX screen and innumerable treasures from the history of photography, film, TV and computing; festival attendees were given the chance to take a look at some rare artefacts from the Hammer archive including design sketches, sculptures and props including – gasp – Christopher Lee’s original fangs. There were also – double gasp – a few original Ray Harryhausen models nearby. Add to that a friendly team, and of course a great selection of films and reasonably priced passes, and everyone’s a winner. I sigh to survey the list of films I missed: Big Trouble in Little China in 70mm, The Quatermass Xperiment, Pieces, Fright Night, and more besides. Of course film festivals that showcase the new are very important, but there’s also a lot to be said for venerating the old; taking greats of yesteryear which we’ve only ever seen on DVD or VHS or perhaps have never seen at all, slapping them up there on a full-size cinema screen as their makers intended, and then enjoying those films side by side with similarly inclined film lovers. More of it, I say. Once details of the twelfth Fantastic Films Weekend are announced, my ears will certainly prick up.