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Fangoria's  June,  2005  Weekend of Horrors:  A  Reminiscence

A confession: I like FANGORIA, and ain’t afraid to admit it!

     I know it’s become chic among many of my colleagues to trash FANGORIA and its yearly conventions.  Their reasoning seems to be that the mag has lost its “independent spirit” in recent years, with its overwhelming emphasis on big studio product (which is to say: empty headed sequels and remakes).  Ditto the conventions, which are apparently corporate driven events in direct contrast, so the “wisdom” goes, to the East Coast based Chiller Theater cons.

     In answer to the above charges I’d argue that FANGORIA does support independent films then and now; it was through FANGORIA’S pages that I learned about vital off-Hollywood productions like Augustin Villaronga’s 99.9 and Frank Grow’s LOVE GOD, and the mag furthermore features decidedly independent-minded contributors like DEEP RED’S Chas. Balun and SHOCK CINEMA’S Steve Puchalski.  Sure, I wish FANGO wouldn’t devote so much time to big studio loafs like FREDDIE VS. JASON and VAN HELSING (and that its overseers would drop the wallet-busting $7.99 cover price), but then I also realize the greater readership clearly doesn’t share my unconventional tastes in movies.  The fact is that FANGORIA, the number one horror movie periodical in the land, remains a—indeed perhaps the—vital and invigorating presence on the modern genre movie landscape.

     Regarding the conventions, I’ve never attended a Chiller Theater show and so can’t say how it stands up (I’m located on the West Coast).  I can, however, vouch for FANGO’S programs, the So Cal ones at least, which I’ve made it a point to attend every year from 1992 onward.  The above mentioned Chas. Balun is a frequent exhibitor, as is former BLACKEST HEART editor Shawn Smith, Tempe Video’s J.R. Bookwalter and even FILM THREAT’S Christian Gore (never mind that his publication and subsequent website has long been one of the loudest voices criticizing FANGO).  The black t-shirt and Dock Martin wearing attendees I see year after year—according to author David J. Skal, they comprise “what Manhattanites call a bridge-and-tunnel crowd (the monster-troll connotations duly noted)”—are a far cry from corporate America, as were the con’s ’05 sponsors, the staunchly independent Lion’s Gate Films and the equally independently minded Anchor Bay Entertainment.

     Fangoria’s L.A.-based Weekend of Horrors have provided me with quite a few unforgettable memories, from the sight of Chas. Balun pouring beer on Christian Gore’s head at the ‘92 con to Quentin Tarantino causing a near-riot by blowing off an autograph session in ‘95 (thankfully I wasn’t standing in that line!).  I’ve just returned from Fango’s ‘05 show held in the exhibitor’s hall of the Airport Hilton in muggy Burbank, CA (a.k.a. The End of the Universe) on Saturday June 4 and Sunday June 5, supposedly their “biggest con ever.”  What follows is my fond remembrance of the event, of which I made it a point to attend both days (usually I only bother going on Saturday). 

     First, there was the Saturday morning line outside the hall, which means standing in the Burbank heat (about as fun as it sounds) where I chatted briefly with a middle aged gentleman who claimed to have founded Fangoria magazine.  He dropped just enough telling hints to be convincing, including the fact that FANGO began as a paltry offspring of STARLOG and then grew to surpass it in popularity, and that he’s no longer with the magazine (the reason he was waiting in line to get in) but still keeps in touch with its current staff.  I stupidly forgot to ask the guy’s name, but if he founded Fangoria and is no longer with the mag then that would make him either Kerry O’Quinn or Bob Martin.  Again, though, our chat was a brief one, as the line moved surprisingly fast.   

     All in all a memorable start to a memorable two days.

     For those who’ve never attended a Fango convention, the format is thus: an auditorium in which actors, writers and/or directors plug their upcoming projects, field questions from audience members and screen clips and trailers on a fairly big screen, all moderated by Fangoria’s perpetually cheery (if harried-looking) editor Anthony Timpone.  There’s also a tiny film room that shows movies, which this year was actually a bottom floor hotel room with the curtains drawn, and of course the all-important exhibitor’s hall, where vendors hawk their respective horror-themed wares.  These include “latex rubber body parts—arms, legs, heads, whole hacked-apart torsos, laid out for sale like so much human sashimi” (Skal, again), certainly, but for me the exhibitor hotspots are those selling DVDs, where this year, as always, I managed to procure quite a few long sought-after rarities, including the 1958 American Playhouse adaptation of “Heart of Darkness” with Boris Karloff and the legendary uncut print of Ken Russell’s nunsploitation classic THE DEVILS.  Another staple was the hotel food bar outside the auditorium selling vastly overpriced snacks ($4.00 for a crummy hot dog?).

     I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the countless celebrity signing sessions.  I used to be an autograph hound but the urge has long since departed, and so, following my standard practice, didn’t bother standing in the long signing lines endemic to this and every other con I’ve attended.  You can argue that by shunning the signings I’m missing out on an integral part of the Weekend of Horrors experience, but I don’t agree.  Besides, many of the celebrity attendees charged money for their signatures that I didn’t feel like shelling out; for Bruce Campbell and Steve Railsback, the price was $35.00!  My response?  YEAH, RIGHT!! 

     The dealer’s room for this show, voluminous enough that it spilled over into the surrounding hallway, apparently sold out early; advance ticket sales were likewise far above average, which explains the massive crowd that turned out, certainly the largest I’ve ever experienced at one of these events.  The crowd was naturally bigger on Saturday than Sunday, but both days saw quite an impressive volume, which often made it difficult squeezing through the packed-to-the-rafters exhibitor’s room and main entrance, around which the SEED OF CHUCKY people insisted on holding some sort of raffle every few minutes that invariably drew a couple hundred people and made the simple act of crossing from end of the auditorium to the other quite an ordeal. 

     I escaped the crowds by spending an inordinate amount of time in the main auditorium, sitting through over a dozen presentations (definitely unusual for me, as I normally only manage one or two).  The fun started around 1:40 PM on Saturday, with FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH director Sean Cunningham reminiscing about the making of that “classic” together with the film’s star Adrienne King—the presentation was NOT the most exiting half hour I’ve ever experienced and so I hit the dealer’s floor before it was over, chatting with those dealers I knew and attempting in vain to talk the guy manning the Anchor Bay table into selling me the FREAKED DVD they had on display.  He was adamant, however, that I’d have to wait until its official July 25 release date--%*@&#$!! 

     Using the restroom around this time, kept admirably clean and uncrowded both days, I couldn’t help but reflect on all the miscellaneous fliers, stickers, buttons and other stuff I’d grabbed.  Every year I make it point not to accept hand-outs yet somehow always end up accumulating a ton of promotional junk, much in the way a rotting corpse accumulates flies.  Sorting out my free-stuff haul from this year, I find I’m stuck with three cheaply designed Weekend of Horrors tote bags, numerous stickers for the ROCK ‘N RULE DVD, fliers for the upcoming FREAKED, HENRY Special Edition and FLESH EATERS DVDs, several WAR OF THE WORDS and MANSON FAMILY posters, HIGH TENSION and DEVIL’S REJECTS buttons, NIGHT WATCH patches, a flier for the “very first official LOST convention” and paperback novelizations of FREDDIE VS. JASON, FINAL DESTINATION and JASON X, none of which, I’m certain, I’ll ever read.

     Anyway: I ducked into the film room but couldn’t work up much interest in what was showing, a boring documentary about alleged real-life hauntings, and so headed back to the auditorium.  I arrived just in time to catch “Stephen King’s favorite adaptor” Mick Garris promoting his upcoming made-for-Showtime adaptation of King’s DESPERATION.  Mick generously showed us the opening fifteen minutes, which, I must say, were quite a grabber, featuring a grown-up Henry Thomas driving through the desert with wife Annabeth Gish and getting pulled over by a redneck cop, who drives them back to the station and…I won’t tell what happens then, but will reveal that it definitely left me wanting more!   

     Even cooler were Mick’s surprise guests, which he unexpectedly called onto the stage about halfway through his presentation: directors John Landis, Joe Dante and Larry Cohen!  All three are legends to those of us who care about horror movies, and I really wish they’d stayed longer.  The occasion was Mick’s upcoming “Masters of Horror” cable series, to which the three above-mentioned gentlemen contributed (along with John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Tobe Hooper, Roger Corman and many others).  I learned that Dante’s episode has a heavy political subtext (who’d have thought, from the director of PIRAHNA and LOONY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION?), but it was the irrepressible Landis (about whom a vendor complained to me that “he always walks by but never stops”) who dominated the conversation, enthusiastically plugging the series, raging about the current state of big studio filmmaking and speaking frankly about shooting in Canada. 

     If I learned anything from this year’s Fango panels, it’s that most American-produced horror movies these days are “runaway productions” filmed in Canada and, even more frequently, Romania(!).  As for Landis and co., they weren’t onstage long before being ushered off to make way for Rob Zombie and the cast of his upcoming DEVIL’S REJECTS.

     This particular presentation drew a huge crowd, with damn near every seat in the house filled and just as many folks lined up standing against the back wall.  Once again we were treated to the opening fifteen minutes of the film, which consisted of a massive Sam Peckinpah-esque shoot-out between gung-ho cops led by William Forsythe and a deranged family apparently descended from Rob’s movie debut HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES.  Unlike the majority of the crowd, who clearly relished every minute, I wasn’t all that impressed, although this film at least looks a bit more assured and coherent than the previous one.  As for Rob himself, with his cowboy hat and dark glasses, he comported himself like, well, a rock star, and the crowd ate it up.  He claimed the new film will be “more realistic” than the last and dismissed a question about his unmade CROW sequel with a blunt “who cares?” 

     From there I took another quick jaunt through the dealer’s room and was back in time for the lovely Kelly Stables, the freaky ghost chick from THE RING and its sequel.  A perky and petite blonde, Kelly couldn’t have been more different in look and manner from her onscreen character; an accomplished stage performer, she ended her spiel by singing “Happy Birthday” to a guy in the audience.  I think I’m in love (with her NOT him, Mr. Anonymous Wise-ass!). 

     I was excited to see the following presenter, the skilled independent filmmaker Lucky McKee (MAY).  McKee plugged his three upcoming releases, which include THE WOODS, his directorial follow-up to MAY, as well as ROMAN, which he stars in and scripted, and which MAY’S Angela Bettis directed(!), and the Jack Ketchum adaptation THE LOST, which McKee produced.  Clips from all three films were featured, of which THE WOODS appeared the most promising.  What was shown of THE LOST appeared subpar--its limited budget was glaringly apparent and the performances seemed shrill, but, as I’m a BIG fan of Ketchum’s fiction, I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve seen the finished product.  ROMAN appears to have stylish visuals, but otherwise seemed like a redo of MAY with the sexes reversed.  McKee also showed a hilarious clip from his very first film project, a shot-on-video no-budgeter called ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE which had me laughing my ass off.  The man himself, alas, was extremely soft-spoken and had little to say.  Again, I’m a Jack Ketchum fan, and what I remember most vividly was McKee telling a questioner he’d “love to adapt” Ketchum’s lacerating 1989 masterpiece THE GIRL NEXT DOOR.  Me too! 

     Next I sat through a LAND OF THE DEAD preview, which, I’m sorry to admit, didn’t look all that great.  Sure, I, like most of you, am looking forward to George Romero’s return to the living dead genre, but the clips we saw made it seem like a low budget redo of last year’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake.  Again, however, I’ll reserve judgment until actually seeing the thing.  Romero himself was nowhere to be seen (apparently he’s still working on the movie!), nor was the film’s scheduled-to-appear star Phil Fondacaro, who was reportedly “stuck in Fresno.” 

     That leaves Wes Craven, whose appearance marked Saturday’s final presentation and rounded the day out on a decidedly somber note.  He seemed unhappy, discussing at length the two year ordeal of making CURSED, an experience as unpleasant, apparently, as being a victim in one of Wes’ films.  He had harsh words for Dimension Films (“a hard studio to work for”), with whom Wes was so upset he refused to record an audio commentary for the upcoming CURSED DVD; it was Dimension’s penny pinching that he claims stifled his proposed remake of the Japanese flick PULSE (the film is currently being made by another director and, according to Wes, “right now they’re torturing him!”).  He also showed a trailer for his upcoming thriller RED EYE (yawn) and all-but begged us to show up for it, pathetically repeating “I really hope you’ll go…”  He closed out his presentation by decrying the censorship crippling the industry and urging us horror fans to band together and complain to our congressmen and women--sound advice, although I don’t see that happening anytime soon.  Wes further claimed he was “completely unaware” of any plans to remake THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, although he did disclose that the film’s producer Sean Cunningham recently requested a lunch meeting… 

     That was Saturday.  No, I didn’t stay for the Costume Contest (I never do), but was back bright and early on Sunday for another day of panels.  Actually, I wasn’t that early; my girlfriend insisted on stopping off at a nearby Fry’s prior to hitting the convention, and I purposely skipped the 12:30 PM Tempe Video panel with J.R. Bookwalter and his bevy of washed-up “Scream Queens” (put succinctly: I’m not a fan), entering in the middle of the 12:50 presentation for something called BOO, with the film’s director and producer.  Also in attendance was the film’s star Dee Wallace Stone, from E.T. and THE HOWLING, about whom one audience member gushed “you still look hot!”  He wasn’t kidding, either. 

     Next up: more DEVIL’S REJECTS, with stars Bill Moseley, Sid Haig, Matthew McGrory and Steve Railsback (though no Rob Zombie this time around).  You’ll remember Steve from the original HELTER SKELTER, THE STUNT MAN, ESCAPE 2000 and LIFEFORCE, and he spoke highly about Rob Z. (“a class act”), although it quickly became clear that public speaking ain’t his forte. 

     Much of the voluminous crowd attracted by THE DEVIL’S REJECTS left as the next presenter ascended the stage, the rotund Spanish director Alex De la Iglesia, creator of one-of-a-kind horror-comedies like ACCION MUTANTE, DAY OF THE BEAST and PERDIDA DURANGO.  For me Alex’s appearance was one of the highlights of the show; together with his scriptwriter Jorge Guerricaechevarria, he offered tart and hilarious broken English-laced commentary about the making of DAY OF THE BEAST, whose commercial prospects, he claimed, were sabotaged by an unscrupulous producer.  He also regaled us about his attempts at making a film in Hollywood, an undertaking rendered impossible by the endless meetings one has to undergo, which grow so monotonous, according to Alex, that one loses all interest in the idea he’s attempting to pitch (true).  Alex had his small but enthusiastic crowd in stitches throughout the presentation, and I was sorry to see him leave.

     I left again, but was back to catch the tail end of another FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH panel, with directors of several FTT flicks attempting to defend their practice of regurgitating the same shit over and over again, all in apparent deference, of course, to “the fans.”  Blah!  The one dissenting voice was that of Tom McLoughlin, the writer/director of part VI--remember that FTT, the “funny” one?  He bitched endlessly about how Siskel and Ebert panned his installment without even seeing it.  I say it was a good thing they didn’t view the thing, as they would have probably trashed it even worse if they had. 

     Of course, the REALLY BIG act was coming up: an appearance by Bruce “Ash” Campbell, who over the years has made an art of horror convention appearances.  Quite simply, NOBODY can work a crowd like Bruce Campbell, and the auditorium was overflowing with ravenous fans who lapped up his every word.  Bruce’s appearance was ostensibly to promote his directorial debut THE MAN WITH THE SCREAMING BRAIN (which had screened in its entirety in the film room earlier that morning), but he mostly made jokes, gave away posters for his new opus, used an audience member’s cell phone to stage a mock call to Sam Raimi and generally worked the crowd into a frenzy.  Actor Tony Todd (from CANDYMAN) had the misfortune to follow Bruce, and his presentation, for a movie called SHADOW: DEAD ROT, was naturally quite a letdown. 

     Things picked up, though, for the SEED OF CHUCKY DVD panel, with Jennifer Tilly and the film’s director Don Mancini appearing.  They spent a few minutes posing for pictures before a large SoC backdrop (making me sorry I’d left my camera at home) that was quickly put together onstage by a couple stagehands and then just as quickly taken down for the chat session.  Jennifer looked GREAT in her skimpy mini-dress and spike heels, so much so that I really didn’t pay attention to what she said, much less the nerdy Mancini.  Correction: I did listen to Mancini’s rap about SoC co-star John Waters and his all-encompassing terror of dogs, which reached paralyzing heights during CHUCKY’S canine-infested European shoot, but otherwise I pretty much zoned out. 

     That left one more presentation: the MORTUARY panel, the last one my GF and I sat through before taking off, as by that point our brains were fried.  MORTUARY is a new zombie flick by Tobe Hooper, who appeared onstage with the film’s screenwriting team.  I was excited to see Tobe, if only because he made the immortal TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  Tobe, whose public speaking skills are about on par with those of Steve Railsback, told how he originally planned to feature trolls in place of the chainsaw-wielding maniacs the film made infamous, but unfortunately had little else to say about his first and greatest work.  He did heavily praise the performance of Angela Bettis in his TOOLBOX MURDERS remake and reveal that he conceived the look and style of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD during the brief period when he was slated to direct, but mostly concentrated on MORTUARY, which, frankly, doesn’t sound that cool. 

     And so ended my June ’05 Weekend of Horrors experience, a colorful, surreal, pleasantly exhausting couple of days that one simply must live through to fully understand, and which I strongly suggest doing so if you haven’t already.  The next one's a three-day affair occurring on June 2-4 of ’06, which you should definitely attend.  I know I’ll certainly be there.