Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Nightmare in Cherry Hill

Is the sight of Malcolm McDowell, Dario Argento, Tom Atkins and Eric Roberts occupying the same space a sign of the end times? I can't say for sure, but I saw exactly that at Monster Mania 14. Held in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the horror convention featured an astounding lineup of horror, cult and B-movie actors (including both Jake AND Gary Busey) signing autographs and meeting fans. It was my first horror convention, though it won't be my last - for a lifelong horror movie geek, Monster Mania is better than Christmas.

After a six-hour drive to Cherry Hill, a shower and room service, my travelling companion Annabelle and I headed down to check out the many vendors selling horror collectibles. There were out-of-print, R2 and bootleg DVDs, lobby cards, posters and stills, t-shirts and other apparel, and back issues of Fangoria as far as the eye could see. I was particularly impressed by the vendors selling horror-inspired art of their own, from paintings of Pinhead to horror-themed jewelry to my personal favorite, a Barbie redesigned to look like Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic (those in the Philly area should check out the Twin Peaks-inspired show, featuring work by 20 artists, at Piranha Betty's). Working on a limited budget for the weekend, I grabbed a Night Breed DVD for Annabelle but decided to think some more about what needed to come home with me. The best part of the night was the visible excitement on the faces of Annabelle's young cousins, who couldn't wait to tell their classmates they'd met Michael Myers. Indeed, witnessing Myers posing for pictures with Freddy Kreuger, the Predator and a Na'vi ranks high on the list of the most surreal things I've ever seen.

On Saturday morning I returned to the vendors, snagging a region-free DVD of Santa Sangre and two t-shirts from Fright Rags - a Wicker Man tee (Christopher Lee, not Nicolas Cage) and an absolutely gorgeous Let the Right One In shirt. I chatted for a few minutes with the Fright Rags crew; they're supercool and, in my opinion, way better than Rotten Cotton.

Then we headed to our first panel, a reunion of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 stars Mark Patton and Kim Myers. The Q&A actually led me to reevaluate my feelings about Freddy's Revenge; while I'd always assumed the film's blatant homoeroticism was unintentional and assumed the questions would dance around this, I was surprised that Patton was eager to explain why, as he put it, "Nightmare 2 is the gayest horror movie ever." The openly gay actor, who was out when he played Jesse (a rarity among young actors in 1980s Hollywood), was very aware of the film's gay subtext and insists screenwriter David Chaskin was as well. Patton talked candidly about his decision to leave acting, motivated by the pain of losing many of his friends to AIDS and frustration with the homophobia (often from closeted actors and executives) that closed doors for him in Hollywood. As he talked of tiring of the "fag-bashing" he found in many Nightmare 2 reviews on the internet and the increasingly positive response his performance has received from gay and straight horror fans in recent years, I found myself reflecting on how strange it must be for an actor primarily identified with one role in a genre movie to have his life defined and identified by that role. Patton, who owns an art gallery in Mexico and hasn't done any convention appearances or Elm Street interviews before this year, decided to meet his fans after a positive experience being interviewed for the upcoming series retrospective documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (the footage we were shown by the producers looked very promising). He expressed sincere gratitude for his fans, particularly those who told him that Freddy's Revenge helped them come to terms with their sexuality. I never expected to be genuinely movied by a Freddy's Revenge Q&A. You rock, Jesse Walsh.

After the Q&A I got in line to have my Inferno one-sheet signed by Dario Argento. The prospect of meeting one of my favorite directors, horror or otherwise, had me a bit nervous; luckily, Argento was extremely kind and, if anything, a bit shy himself. He was curious about my poster, asking what country it was from. I told him I wasn't really sure; he examined it again and said in his pronounced Italian accent, "Ah, Turkey, I think," he said, pointing to the image of a snake slithering through a skull's eye sockets. "In Turkey, they add snake. This not enough. They need snake. Yes, Turkey." I thanked him, told him Inferno is one of my favorite films - original, I know, but as Inferno is his most underrated film, he seemed to appreciate it. My limited budget kept me from meeting more people directly, so special mention must be made of Bill Mosely, who enthusiastically chatted up fans regardless of whether they were buying anything or not. That Chop Top is a class act.

More room service and cable, than the Malcom McDowell Q&A, who started off by requesting intelligent questions only; when the first was "What was it like to work with Stanley Kubrick," he groaned "Christ, here we go..." Luckily, after getting the usual anecdotes about "Singin' in the Rain" and eye torture out of the way, McDowell was filled with hilarious stories about filming the William Tell orgy scene (he kept giving one actress the ol' in-out to after Kubrick called "cut" to irritate the perfectionist director), hijinks on the set of Caligula (I had no idea Peter O'Toole was [is?] a pothead!), and injuries sustained while filming the nude wrestling scene in if... When asked about working with Rob Zombie, he referred to the director as "brilliant" and insisted he could be a successful director of non-horror movies (I hold out hope for Zombie - Halloween II was often ridiculous but somehow difficult to dismiss completely). McDowell had the audience cracking up and seemed to really enjoy talking directly with fans, particularly a young woman dressed as a Droog - "Look at you there, all dressed up as Alex and with your bosoms out! That's great."

Next was Argento, aided by an interpreter, who apologized early on that "I am not as funny as [McDowell]." He started by telling the audience that he'd travelled with his brother to the American premiere of Suspiria in Philadelphia (near Cherry Hill), where it got a very enthusiastic response, and the city has been dear to him ever since. When asked where he studied film, he responded "I studied in the cinema. Godard is my teacher. Bergman is my teacher." While his recent films have been disappointing, it was clear that Argento hasn't lost touch with his love of cinema, leaving me with hope that he still has more great movies left to make. The best moment was when a fan asked about the monstrous title character of Argento's Masters of Horror episode Jenifer, Argento said "I love Jenifer. I want to make love to Jenifer."

We took another quick look at the vendors the next morning before leaving; I thought about how good it felt to be among so many fellow horror fans. While I love all cinema, horror was definitely my gateway into film appreciation, and I'll always feel loyal to the movies that gave me nightmares when I was a kid, forever burning themselves into my frame of reference. While I don't want to overanalyze it, I suspect that horror fans are bonded by a more macabre outlook on life than most people have. For all the times I've been asked why I could possibly enjoy such grotesque movies, it felt good to be surrounded by people for whom the question was obvious. Also, after three days of being surrounded by alternachicks in clingy horror apparel (including the one by my side), I must say that horror fans are generally sexier than the average geek. I can't wait for my next con, and after seeing how kid-friendly the con actually was, it's safe to say that Luna and Tommy will be attending their first Monster Mania pretty soon.