The rise and fall of subversive late-night programming at The Festival Of Fantastic Films.
In the first three years of the 1990s, your Reprobate editor – alongside colleagues from Headpress, the magazine and publishing project that we had all just launched – became involved with Manchester’s Festival of Fantastic Films, an event then itself in its infancy. It was, in retrospect, a culture clash doomed to failure – but at the time it was both a fascinating and often frustrating battle of wills between the traditional fantasy film crowd and the new transgressive culture generation.
The Festival of Fantastic Films was a three-day event that mixed film screenings with celebrity guests from the film world, and at that point was very much of the old-school. Ray Harryhausen was the first guest, and it would continue along the lines of creaky 16mm film prints, beloved names from (mostly) British horror films of the 1950s and 1960s, and a lot of propping up the bar in whichever hotel the event was taking place in. In other words, it was a film convention of the traditional sort, in pointed contrast to the new generation of all-nighters like Shock Around the Clock and Black Sunday.
The event had spun out of the Society of Fantastic Films, which Harry Nadler had launched as a weekly event in a pub backroom a few years earlier. Like the Festival, the Society showed films on 16mm prints and was very much an old-school affair. Unfortunately for the organisers perhaps, it had attracted the soon-to-be Headpress crew as members. Myself, David Kerekes and David Slater would be a continual thorn in their side as we argued – with the audacity of youth – that the days of people automatically liking both horror and sci-fi were over, and that the Society should be programming a wider variety of content. We had a point – more than once, the scheduled film would be an overly-familiar classic (It came From Beneath the Sea comes to mind) that would then turn up on TV a week later; sometimes, because the season was booked in advance, it turned up on TV the week before. Of course, attempts to appease us rarely went down well with everyone else – the general consensus after a double-bill of David Cronenberg’s Stereo and Crimes of the Future did not match our enthusiasm. We didn’t understand them, they didn’t understand us and it would very much remain that way for the remainder of our association.
Nevertheless, we figured that a three-day event taking place across various spaces in a hotel offered the opportunity to keep everyone happy. Fans of whiskery old film prints that constantly broke down had plenty to choose from, but we could also commandeer a space for more alternative viewing. This would prove to be a constant struggle of mistrust and misunderstanding.
Our first tentative venture into the world of film programming came in 1990 when we persuaded the organisers to include the UK premiere of Jörg Buttgereit‘s Der Todesking in the schedule. They seemed oddly reluctant, but eventually acquiesced and we had a Sunday afternoon slot allocated. Come the day, come the problem. It turned out that the Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) Appreciation Society – yes, there was such a thing – had been allowed to show the whole series, and were doing so in our allocated room. Our complaints about this fell on unexpectedly deaf ears until we finally negotiated a two-hour break in which to show the damn film, which had not been mentioned anywhere in the festival literature. We figured the premiere of the new feature by a major and controversial cult name would be something of a big deal, but in the end, we were left to fight for space with the oddball fans of a niche TV series. Unsurprisingly, it was not a packed house.
This might have been a warning of things to come, but we persevered. Being regular attendees of the all-night festivals, we figured a midnight-to-dawn selection of films for fellow insomniacs and adventurous movie lovers would be a great idea – and wouldn’t clash with anything else. In our youthful arrogance, we figured that all the old first would be tucked up in bed and so we could run what was essentially a fringe festival throughout the night, showing the sort of thing that might have been rejected as too weird, too outrageous or not ‘fantasy’ enough for the main event. Unexpectedly – possibly just to shut us up – we were given the go-ahead.
Knowing by now that this would not exactly be bigged up in the festival programme, we created our own flyers, with a suitably deranged cover illustration by David Slater that would catch the eye of the right sort of attendee. We called it All Night Psychosis and put together two nights of oddball stuff. Some of this was cleared with the filmmakers and distributors, and some of it was shown in shameless contradiction of those copyright warnings you see at the start of discs. Fuck you, we won’t do what you tell us. In fairness, it seemed unlikely that most of the 16mm prints owned by private collectors that played throughout the event had done so with permission either. The event had a blanket screening licence and that seemed enough.
We had lost our main event – Nekromantik 2 was to have its UK premiere, but had to be pulled at the last minute after what we described ambiguously as “some unfortunate and childish interference”. Just what that was escapes me now, but the fact that the film was scheduled to have a high-profile screening at the Scala a month later might be a clue. Some London festivals have been known to pull rank over upstarts trying to show films before them.
With just a hint of pretension, we announced that our shows were “in order to offer the attendees a deeper insight into film culture” and insisted that everything being shown was a landmark film in one way or another. The Festival organisers were deeply suspicious of us and we made sure that they had seen our leaflet and knew what was being shown. Nevertheless, in the evening of the first day, one of them walked up to us, wagged a finger and said “no porn!” before marching off. This did not suggest confidence in us.
Upon arriving at ‘Cinema 3’ just before midnight, tapes in hand, we were impressed to see a full house, and none of them seemed to have any connection to the festival organisers. Good. We opened up – possibly as a warning of what was to come and send any outraged punters off to bed at a reasonable hour – with the infamous 1979 Mondo movie This Violent World, which contained enough frank nudity, cruelty, self-mutilation and death to wake most people up. This was followed by Nathan Schiff’s They Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore (“reminiscent of the work of the late Andy Milligan”), a gory feast of madness made even more hallucinogenic by a ‘video camera pointing at the TV screen’ NTSC transfer that was a few generations down. What were we thinking showing this? God knows. The Trip (then still banned), Mad Doctor of Blood Island and the unnerving suicide short Teenage Babylon made up the remainder of the night before we closed at breakfast time with Man Behind the Sun, the ultra-bleak and uncompromising Chinese film about Japanese war atrocities. Sweet dreams, everyone!
Unexpectedly and possibly disappointingly, there were no complaints it seems, and so the next night we were back with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (then also still banned), Beth B‘s Salvation, Coffy and George Kuchar’s A Reason to Live. This Saturday night screening pushed further at the boundaries – Richard Kern’s Fingered and Carl Anderson’s Mondo Weirdo certainly stretched that ‘no porn’ promise to the limits, arguably breaking it completely depending on your definitions. The Kern movie pushes the limits of decency, and Anderson’s movie is awash with explicit sex but is more arthouse/underground than erotica – nevertheless, despite this arty get out clause and it being shown in the middle of the night, we nervously watched the doors for incoming punters. The fact that the festival didn’t have an age limit for guests also made us wary – no one wanted a kid wandering in during one of the more outré movies. At one point, we actually took turns guarding the door just in case the wrong sort of person tried to come in, but it was ultimately fine – no one who wasn’t a committed fan of oddball cinema was awake at this point.
The two shows were solidly attended and everyone there seemed to enjoy it – but it felt ultimately like a thankless task, in the sense that no one from the festival thanked us for doing it. If anything, we were the red-headed stepchild of the event and no one wanted to acknowledge us at all. That might have been a sign, but nevertheless, a year later I was ready for another go.
By the time the 1992 festival rolled around, I’d split with Headpress and launched Divinity, and agreed to do another all-nighter. My memories of this are vague in the way that all repressed bad experiences are – my own description of it in Divinity afterwards is “a fiasco”, and while we certainly showed Nigel Wingrove’s Visions of Ecstacy, a couple of Richard Baylor shorts and Stephen Sayadian’s Dr Caligari, everything else is a blur. All I remember is faulty equipment, a terrible room and packing the entire thing in midway through. At the end of this night, I was done with it all. While I have raged at the Festival in the past, looking back now I can see that it was just a clash of cultures and a mutual misunderstanding – one that we were never going to come away from as winners.
We had big ambitions for these film shows, which paid us nothing and cost time, money and energy – but I’m not sure it ever really worked. Piggy-backing a subversive film event onto a very traditional middle-of-the-road affair was never going to be successful. Ironically, in subsequent years, the Festival opened up considerably – they even had Buttgereit as a guest. It’d be nice to think that our subversive little screenings helped with that, but I very much doubt it. Nevertheless, the desire to inflict odd and offensive movies on crowds of unsuspecting people has never quite left me – from Scalarama to weird one-off shows, I’ve continued to dabble, and post-Covid it might be fun to give it another go. Watch this space…
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