Thursday, April 2, 2009

Video Vista Reviews Famous Monster

Famous Monster: Forrest J Ackerman
featuring: Ray Bradbury, John Landis, and Roger Corman

director: Michael MacDonald

48 minutes (tbc) 2008
Kaleidoscope DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Andrew Darlington

Video Vista

If you're going to be a geek, why not be the über-geek - the greatest geek of all time? Forrest J Ackerman was the 'the nerd-zero from which every sci-fi and horror fan sprang fully deformed'. Forry - as he was universally known, the Acker-monster, Mr Ack-Ack, or - anticipating texting - 4E, was 'a lightning rod for like-minded fans who enjoyed a good scare'. He was 'the ultimate collector', one of the coolest guys on the planet. As John Landis points out, "he shook the hands of H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Ray Bradbury. You name it, Forry was there."

Screams! Trash! Horror! Creature-features! Low-budget exploitation! Scary monsters! Things that go bump and whirr in the night! - this biog-DVD opens with a dazzling collage of cinematic-terror's finest moments from Fay Wray in King Kong, through Max Schreck as F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, and James Whale - director of Bride Of Frankenstein, all the way into George A. Romero's Night Of The Living Dead - a kaleidoscope of celluloid shockers that excited the impressionable Acker-eye.

Born on the 24th November, 1916, a native Angelino, Forry loved science fiction before it even had a name. He was gravitationally drawn by the cover of the October 1926 issue of Amazing Stories on a newsstand at the northwest corner of Santa Monica and Western boulevards, a cover showing what looked to be two lobster-like aliens ushering a ragged human into their cylindrical spaceship... or maybe it was the man who had emerged from that cylindrical submarine? Whatever, "in those days, magazines spoke, and that one said 'take me home little boy, you will love me'." And sure enough, that purchase "would influence, orient and govern my entire life." Hooked, he had a fan-letter published in Science Wonder Quarterly, and formed the 'LA Science Fantasy Society' fan-group soon after. They met upstairs at Clifton's Cafeteria in LA's Broadway theatre district, where an intimidated young Ray Bradbury came to join.

If Forry was working today he'd probably be writing a sci-fi blogspot. But when he started out the technology of delivery was cruder - mimeograph sheets stapled together into flimsy fanzines with titles like 'The Time Traveller' or 'Futuria Fantasia'. Yet the levels of ferocious energy and dedicated 'fan'-aticism were, if anything, more powerful. He not only attended the first-ever 'World SF Convention' dressed as a character from the H.G. Wells/ Alexander Korda film Things To Come (1939), but paid for Ray Bradbury's bus-ticket enabling him to get there too. He tried his hand at fiction, and sold a few, including respectable tales in the British 'Nebula' and Authentic SF (becoming known to British readers through his obsessive 'Report From Hollywood' columns, too). In fact, he published some 50 short stories under a variety of odd aliases.

Then he became the literary agent representing some 200 activists across the spectrum from L. Ron Hubbard to inspired eccentric movie-maker Ed Wood, from Isaac Asimov to Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone. He opened up genre-warfare by coining the term 'sci-fi' in 1954, a variant of hi-fi that he claimed was found "tattooed on the end of his tongue." In another version of the tale, he was merely popularising a term Robert Heinlein first uttered. Whatever, it was an apt term. For although he started out with SF pulp magazines, his enthusiasms simultaneously enveloped all of fantasy's other low-brow formats, on celluloid and beyond. And if science fiction defines print, sci-fi is the term appropriate for those other manifestations. Eventually Arthur C. Clarke declared a truce, and accepted both terms as interchangeable - after all, his own genre-contributions were pretty cross-media too! But it was as a fan - a super-fan of the genres of fantasy and horror that Forry achieved his greatest fame. His eighteen-room 'Ackermansion' was crammed with beautiful trash. Located on Glendower Road in the Lincoln Park area of L.A., not far from the Griffith Park Observatory, his preferred address was 'Horrorwood' or 'Wholly-Weird', 'Karloffornia'. His obsessive hoarding of SF and movie-memorabilia became not only the stuff of legend, but of research too when his collection was plundered for the Famous Monsters Of Filmland magazine.

Consciously looping back to Hugo Gernsback's elision 'scientifiction', Forry first played around with the title 'Scientifilm World' until publisher John Warren's intervention. Their first issue of Famous Monsters Of Filmland sold 200,000 copies. The first-ever magazine of its kind, it was playful but well-informed, with a learned focus on behind-the-scenes movie-crews and obscure lost gore classics. With the orb-popping cover of each issue targeted to have that 'take me home little boy' effect on new devotees. Surfing in on the 1950s' revival of scary-movie re-runs on late-night TV and the new atom-threat monster-mutation films, the magazine persisted for 191 issues spread between February 1958, and 1983. To Robert 'Freddy Kruger' Englund, it made Forry "the Hugh Hefner of horror." A 14-year-old Stephen King once submitted a short story. And with his penchant for monstrous punning fun Forry appeared as both 'Dr Acula' and 'Claire Voyant' in its pages!

He enjoyed his growing celebrity, appearing in walk-on roles as himself in a range of bizarre low-budget movies - including Amazon Women On The Moon (1987), and Nudist Colony Of The Dead (1991), as well as The Howling (1981), and the 1976 remake of King Kong. He's also a character in Philip José Farmer's Blown erotic-SF novel. Never the stern intellectual, interview footage shows him, even in later life, burbling with a contagious sense of fun. Later, a contentious and litigious Famous Monsters Of Filmland re-launch from 1993 is best passed over. Better to point out that Forry is the guy in the Thriller video sitting behind Michael Jackson in the movie theatre eating popcorn. Forrest J Ackerman was a teenager until he died. Less slasher or Saw torture-porn, more a preference that remained with the pre-DVD pre-eBay pre-'Planet Hollywood' adolescent days of Universal horror, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, not only as a fan-boy, but as a historian, turning those pubertal dreams into a kind of mutant academia. Eventually he was forced to downsize to a smaller Acker-mini-mansion in Los Feliz, L.A., where he died on the 4th December 2008, after covering pretty much of a century of imagination. As A.E. Van Vogt observed, Forry never did "live within the same world or time as most of the rest of humanity." But this brilliant DVD ensures that he's not so much dead, as an undead presence, still very much with us.

DVD extras: a silent tour of mini-Ackermansion, blooper reel, and Dan 'Dr Shocker' Roebuck (actor from Lost) on a 'Hall of Horrors' tour of his own SF and fantasy collection.

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