Sometime last year, a young woman started a blog called Cannot Escape Hampton Roads. She was pretty great at the nascent format of blogging. Daily updates with a good balance of information, personality, and occasional whimsy. Then, silence. Who knows, maybe the lady escaped Hampton Roads. So I was very excited to see this blog pop up, and enthusiastically responded to her solicitations for local-related content. Then, I blew it off and procrastinated for a good month or so. We love to say Virginia is for Haters, but I think its pretty important in understanding our collective character that Virginia is just as much for Lazers, that being lazy people and not colorful sci-fi gunshots, although we also love those (and, you know, we have a problem with gun violence, whatevs). So by the time I actually e-nterviewed Jim Blanton over at Fantasmo for her blog, it had already gone quiet. You may know of my admiration for Jim's work from some of my recent posts. Well now, you are here to witness the belated premiere of my now badly dated e-mail conversation with him.
what is fantasmo?
Fantasmo (aka Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion) is a monthly film program celebrating the best and worst cult filmdom has to offer. It pulls from many different genres (although horror is definitely a focus), and attempts to recreate some of the hoopla and gimmickry that surrounded actual theater screenings of the films in their heyday. Additionally we (being myself and intrepid co-founder Rob Floyd) also try to provide some history/commentary to give the audience perspective, and have in the occasional special guest (which has in the past included critics, scholars, and actors/writers).
who started it?
Fantasmo was started by me and my contractual friend for life/library volunteer Rob Floyd. Rob and I met through separate programs we were working on at the library that involved the themes of horror (Monster Fest) and science-fiction (FantaSci). We agreed that our yearly programs just weren’t enough to meet the demand of participants, thus the idea of a monthly series was formed.
how long has this been going on? which show are you on?
Fantasmo began in April 2005, and we are now up to our 40th(!) episode in September.
can you discuss your next double feature?
Our next double-feature is going to be one of our “special editions.” The theme for the month is “Fantasmo Prom,” and we’ll be screening Carrie and Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II. Being that we get to highlight both 70’s and 80’s horror (our favorite decades for horror), this is a bit of a bonus for us. In addition to the films we’ll also be creating a true prom atmosphere. We’re going to be taking prom photos, putting up prom decorations, crowning a king and queen, etc. As with practically every other “special edition” Fantasmo we’ve never done anything like this before, so it should be pretty interesting . . . and wildly unpredictable.
what are a few of your favorite fantasmo bills? which have you found to be the most inexplicably popular?
It’s hard to choose, but a few come to mind as favorites. On a sheer coolness level, our tribute to The Destroyer was a highlight. We screened Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins and had Destroyer author Warren Murphy in to talk about the adaptation of his long-running character into big screen hero. It was all the more interesting in that he wasn’t necessarily pleased with the end result, which made for an insightful discussion. But it was just an amazing feeling to be watching Remo with the man who created him, and to hear the audience applaud loudly when his name came up in the opening credits. Very cool. A favorite Fantasmo for outrageousness was our “Dueling Chainsaws” episode. We screened Motel Hell and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 which are of course great films. Better still though we cooked up chainsaw chili which featured some very unusual ingredients!
In terms of inexplicable popularity, the hands-down winner is the 1980 Village People film Can’t Stop the Music. We screened this as part of our first anniversary all-night marathon, and it really touched a chord with the audience. I think initially people responded enthusiastically to the kitsch value. Let’s face it, the film is an epic spectacle directed by Nancy “quicker-picker-upper” Walker, starring Village People, Steve Guttenberg, and Bruce Jenner . . . that’s quite a roster. It was so popular though that we have since made it our annual holiday show in December. The thing is, after now having seen it numerous times over the years, I think people have formed a new respect for it as a truly entertaining piece of filmmaking. It’s still horrendous, but it’s a textbook example of a “so bad it’s good” sort of cult film.
Another film that also proved inexplicably popular, although not to the extent of CSTM, was the 1985 kung fu/gymnastics misfire Gymkata. The film was helmed by the director of Enter the Dragon so it’s well-mounted, but foolishly attempted to make an action star out of gymnast Kurt Thomas. While Thomas was undeniably a great gymnast, he was no Bruce Lee. Furthermore, the notion of gymnastics being a deadly art in and of itself did not translate well to the big screen. The film labors to produce situations that require his talents (e.g. a pommel horse showing up in the middle of an Eastern European farming village), which result in a lot of unintentional humor.
besides showing movies, what do you do to create an appropriate atmosphere for fantasmo?
Well, on a general level we try to decorate the place with posters and memorabilia to give it a theater-like atmosphere. But in many cases we’ll do things beyond that. For example, when we screened Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse, we decked the place out like a funhouse and had in carnival performers. For a screening of John Carpenter’s The Fog, we actually pumped fog into the auditorium. In terms of gimmickry, we’ve done things like the chainsaw chili night that tap into zany promotional efforts of the past. Other examples have included screening William Castle films such as Thirteen Ghosts complete with ghost viewers (which worked incredibly well), handing out false mustaches for our celebration of the Smokey and the Bandit trilogy, holding a Clue tournament prior to a screening of the film, etc. And of course our most recent example is the upcoming prom night.
what are some notable presentations or guests you've had?
We’ve been very fortunate to have some extremely generous folks donate their time to Fantasmo. As I mentioned we had Warren Murphy host our Destroyer tribute, but there have been many others. A few include noted genre scholar John Kenneth Muir, dark fantasy novelist Tony Ruggiero, actor Greg Wolcott (Plan 9 From Outer Space), actress Jacqueline Scott (Empire of the Ants), Seagalogy author/outlaw film critic Vern, etc. We have some great ones lined up for this year as well that we’re very excited about, but they shall remain nameless for now.
what is beautiful or important to you about cult cinema?
Cult cinema is important to me personally, as it is largely responsible for instilling in me a lifelong love of film. The small town I grew up in had a couple of theaters which would always show midnight movies on Friday and Saturday nights. Cool sounding titles such as Eraserhead, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, etc. I was a little too young in the late 70’s/early 80’s to actually attend the screenings, but I was always fascinated by the fact that people would strike out at such a late hour to see a movie . . . so they had to be pretty special. I made it more or less a mission to see them, along with a steady diet of genre films, and that interest has continued to this day (and ultimately led to the creation of Fantasmo).
In terms of importance to the world of cinema, I’d say that cult films have been significant in spurring the independent film movement. Generally when you look at successful cult films such as Chain Saw, Eraserhead, Pink Flamingos, etc., they were essentially independent efforts. That allowed them to break out of the traditional filmmaking mold and transcend conventional storytelling. As a result they were one of a kind experiences that featured wild energy and imagery that could not be duplicated (i.e. translated into a formula). Of course there are plenty of cult films that came out of the studio system (e.g. Rocky Horror), and we show them regularly at Fantasmo. As for their beauty, I would say that they are beautiful in the sense that they provide us with glimpses of worlds we have never seen before . . . as all truly great films should.
my viewing experiences at fantasmo have ranged from amazing to great to good to transcendently attrocious to bad...and its rarely easy to tell the difference. what are you trying to do, man? destabilize my illusions of aesthetic objectivity? or is it just fun?
Yeah, emotions can really run the gamut at Fantasmo! I think you’re on to something with the destabilization theory. Part of what we’re trying to do is to give often neglected films a little more credit than they might otherwise receive from the established community of film criticism. You’ll never see for example Remo Williams on a glitzy AFI top 100 list, but at Fantasmo we will celebrate it and treat it like an important contribution to cinema worthy of analysis and discussion. By treating “B-movies” as the equals of so-called classic films, we’re hopefully making folks aware of another branch of cinema that they might not have fully considered. So George, I would say that if you’ve come away with the impression that Death Race 2000 is just as worthy of admiration as Citizen Kane then I consider it a job well done on the part of Team Fantasmo!
That being said, we hope you have a lot of fun during the process rather than it being A Clockwork Orange/Alex type situation : )
it sure is cool of the chesapeake library to let you show unsavory hard R movies instead of banning harry potter or something. to what do you attribute this refreshing tolerance?
Well, since my first day here as a librarian what I’ve loved about Chesapeake is that ideas and creativity are strongly encouraged and supported. That stems in large part from a commitment to the library ideal of intellectual freedom, which promotes the right of patrons to have access to information (be it Shakespeare or J. K. Rowling). Basically there’s a recognition that we are here to serve a wide variety of interests and needs, not just offer “traditional” programming such as book clubs and tax seminars. Programming is really a focus now of public libraries, and Chesapeake has been a local leader in recognizing that need. I should also mention though, that the recognition extends beyond Chesapeake. Fantasmo won the Virginia Public Library Director’s Association award for Best Adult Library Program in 2006. So clearly Chesapeake isn’t alone in seeing the importance of a program like Fantasmo.
how is fantasmo related to monsterfest? also, what is monsterfest?
Actually Fantasmo is related to two programs, FantaSci and Monster Fest. In 2002 I started a sci-fi/fantasy themed program here at the library called FantaSci, modeled after conventions that usually take place in larger venues. There didn’t seem to be anything around here like that, so it seemed like a good idea. As it turned out, my instincts were right and the program was a huge success which drew thousands of people. The third year of FantaSci a library patron/horror aficionado named Rob Floyd saw how it was doing and thought a similar program focused on horror/monster movies would be great too. So from that sprang Monster Fest, a yearly convention celebrating horror movies and literature.
As Rob and I started to work together on those programs, we thought it would be fun to do something more frequent in nature. Being huge fans of cult cinema, the idea of a monthly film program was sort of a natural conclusion. We actually labored a bit on the name before hitting on the idea of combining the names of our two programs. Fantas (from FantaSci) + Mo (from Monster Fest) = Fantasmo.
can a public library get an abc license?
Maybe in Europe : )
what local organizations, businesses, artists etc. mean the most to you?
The ones that mean the most to me on a personal level are those that have played such a significant part in supporting the efforts I’ve been involved in. That would include fan clubs, comic shops, local theaters, genre authors, etc. Folks that have recognized the importance of the types of programs like Fantasmo, and lent their time and energy to promoting and participating . . . and that constitutes a pretty long list I’m happy to say. In my opinion we’re all part of a team working to provide experiences that will enrich this area in which we live. I know that probably sounds a little lofty given that we deal in chainsaw chili, but I have seen firsthand how these events have allowed a community to form in which people gather and discuss shared interests. In this day and age where we communicate so much electronically (which don’t get me wrong I embrace wholeheartedly), I think it’s important to still have venues in which we can get together and share experiences face to face. Fantasmo and its brethren have provided those opportunities, and it’s been very rewarding to receive such tremendous support over the years from so many corners (present company included).