Wednesday, 15 June 2011


What an interesting find, LETS SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) screened first up, late morning. In the introduction to the film Tony Earnshaw (Festival Director) explained how horror aficionado Kim Newman (In an interview on his career) was asked what his favourite film was and this was the answer, an obscure early seventies low budget affair that has gained cult status over the years but hasn’t really gained major recognition. After an extensive search, Tony tracked down an old discoloured 35mm print of the film from Paramount pictures dusty library.

What a find! If you like 70’s paranoia movies, this will be right up your street. Apparently influenced by THE HAUNTING, director John D. Hancock (Twilight Zone, Hill Street Blues) first movie should have gained him more recognition than it did. Only now does it seem to be getting the acknowledgment it deserved. A really interesting movie taht make a virtue of its low budget and never really gives you solid answers to the complexities of its plot. What starts out as a story about a couple leaving the rat race for a backwater town and an empty old house, moves into psychological territory as we discover that Jessica has recently been released from a psychiatric hospital. When spooky things start to happen around the house and then the locals start acting very oddly, were wrapped up in a quagmire of themes, each hinting and suggesting at a different outcome. Is there a conspiracy to ‘Scare Jessica to death’? Why does the strange traveller girl look just like the ancient fading family picture in the attic? Why do the locals all sport weird scars and act as if they are possessed? LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH is like THE HAUNTING meets INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS with a healthy chunk of Lynchian obscure weirdness thrown in for good measure. See it if you can!

Choices, choices! Next up I chose THE STUFF, Larry Cohen’s (Q THE WINGED SERPENT, IT’S ALIVE) mid eighties schlock piss take parable on modern consumerism is actually rather satirical and pretty funny, despite its exploitation movie facade. THE STUFF is a tasty yet deadly living organism that overcomes the mind and takes over the body. Somehow this highly addictive substance has become the top selling, vigorously marketed dessert in the US. Ex CIA agent Mo Rutherford is hired by a rival company to investigate what dubious secrets lie behind its success. I was pleasantly surprised at THE STUFF’s spin on genre classics like THE BLOB and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Quirky performances from Michael Moriarty and Paul Sorvino make it really quite cutting edge in many ways. This film made me laugh with it not at it.

THE BEAST MUST DIE (1973) is really an AMICUS ‘B’ movie and not one of their best BUT with , as is so often the case withAMICUS, a really interesting cast. Peter Cushing (Of course), Anton Diffring, Charles Gray, a very young Michael Gambon and Calvin Lockhart. Heres the cheesy concept (And thats all you really have to know!) A big game hunter invites a motley group of guests to his remote home, convinced one or more are werewolves. BUT and this is the cheesy fun part, before the end of the movie we are forewarned that we, the audience, will be given the chance to guess who we think the wolf is. A clock ticks down as you consider briefly the clues given, just before the truth is reveal. Did you guess correctly? What fun! Interactive media before the xbox was even a glint in Microsoft’s eye. Great concept but overall the plots a bit naff really. Fun while it lasts though.

Missed Hammer’s COUNTESS DRACULA and new horror shorts unfortunately, just can’t see everything. Managed to get a little time to investigate the museum itself and discovered a great section on the history of animation and some interactive stuff on optics, moving images, photo techniques, etc, great for kids and big kids alike. Tried to check out the new Ray Harrehausen collection but failed (the archive was closed on Sunday).

So onto the evening’s entertainment. I mentioned in the last blog that there is also a classic TV section to the festival and the highlight of Sunday’s selection was a screening of Jonathan Miller’s 1968 BBC film WISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU based on a classic M.R. James ghost story and a post screening audience with the man himself, interviewed by my very own college tutor (Too long ago to mention) and well known art historian Christopher Frayling. A fascinating and quite unexpected session that covered Miller’s intellectual theories on, well, all sorts of things. Frayling tried to keep it on track, referencing his TV work on ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1966) and the connection between Miller the physician and Miller the director of Film, Theatre and Opera but the good doctor did have a tendency to take his answers in whatever thought provoking directions that sprang to mind. Miller was fascinating and often humorous with among other things, anecdotes on working with Peter Sellers and Peter Cook. The M.R. James adaptation, starring Michael Horden is considered one of the best produced although I personally found it rather slow. You imagine Horden is an older version of Miller himself (He was only 34 when he directed it for BBC’s Monitor programme), an intellectual who holds a healthy scepticism for anything considered remotely otherworldly. He theorises and ponders on the human construct that lesser minds describe as ghosts only to find himself seriously disturbed by a series of events that alternatively could be passed of as bad dreams or supernatural happenings. It’s as if Miller is discussing and critiquing James’s writing while also (Loosely) adapting it.

In sharp contrast to the intellectual complexities of Miller’s mind, we closed the festival with a 35mm uncut version of Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR. It’s been many years since I last saw this film and I have to say it holds up against modern schlock horrors pretty damn well. It’s confidently written and performed and blackly funny. Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, the medical student with a new procedure that can reanimate the dead is wonderful. The grizzly consequences of his actions unravel in darkly humorous but rather gory mayhem. As a film maker myself, what struck me was how well structure but simple the plot was and the limited locations. This was a cheap film to make but it’s avid pace and visceral nature keeps you totally involved so as not to notice its budget limitations. Many contemporary low budget horror film makers could learn a lot from this! Me included!

So that’s it, all over. A great weekend. If you check out Ozzy Beck's blog you’ll see that he basically did everything i didn’t do and he still had a great time. Hats off to Tony for putting on such a full and engaging line up of films. If you check the Fantastic films facebook page, you’ll see he’s plotting next year’s line up already!!! For more new horror movies later this year, check out GRIMM UP NORTH festival this October in Manchester.

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