Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Fantasmo: The Blog

Welcome to the inaugural post for (drum roll)
Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion: The Blog!

Just what is Fantasmo you ask? Fantasmo is a monthly cult cinema program hosted by the Chesapeake Public Library in Chesapeake, Virginia . . . and pretty much the coolest film program in the Hampton Roads metro area (in my humble, not at all unbiased opinion).

And who am I? I'm Jim Blanton who, along with fellow film fanatic Rob Floyd, co-founded the program and host the regular installments (which occur on the first Friday each month).

And why does this blog exist? In addition to hoping you'll join us and our dedicated Fantasmo community, we'll be writing and commenting on our upcoming films, and cult cinema in general . . . and we hope you'll join us in the discussion!

To kick things off and give you a little background on the program, I'm posting a brief history of Fantasmo that I put together as an entry for the best adult library program (in Virginia) of 2006 (which the program ultimately won . . . shameless plug . . . tried to resist . . . couldn't : ) This will give you some idea of what we do, and why we have such a blast doing it! Enjoy!

Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion is a monthly film program hosted by the Chesapeake Public Library, celebrating obscure foreign and domestic cult movies. The program is held in the Chesapeake Central Library’s large screening auditorium, and regularly includes a double-feature of two thematically similar films. The program’s aim is to re-create the atmosphere of the rapidly disappearing drive-in theater and midnight movie phenomenon, as well as educate attendees on the history of cult filmdom. To this end, Fantasmo often features lectures from in-house experts, as well as guest authors and critics.

Fantasmo began as a joint effort between reference librarian James Blanton, and library volunteer Rob Floyd. Blanton has orchestrated the library’s FantaSci science-fiction convention for the past four summers, while Floyd has spearheaded the library’s Halloween-themed Monsterfest program for the past two years. Having observed the success of the two programs, Blanton and Floyd felt that a monthly program with the same appeal would be of great interest to library patrons. As such, the two devised a simple format. On the first Friday of each month, Fantasmo features two films that share something in common. These similarities include details such as originating from the same genre, being produced by the same director, sharing key plot elements, etc. However, the duo recognized that in order to draw patrons in from the comfort of their homes to watch movies that are readily available on video (a trend that is certainly affecting movie theaters presently), they would have to add something special to the mix.

With this in mind, Blanton and Floyd utilized their encyclopedic knowledge of cult movie history and film advertising gimmickry, in order to re-create the theatrical fanfare that was prevalent from the 1960’s-early 1980’s. Firstly, the two emcee each Fantasmo, providing a lively banter and background on the films. As part of these introductions, they promote videos and books in the library’s collections that are likely to be of interest to attendees. Also during this time they give away door prizes (usually off-the-wall items that fit in with the films), and promote other film happenings in the local area. In addition to their snappy introductions, Blanton and Floyd decorate the auditorium to the hilt with memorabilia, photos, lobby cards, and posters for the films being screened. Along the same lines, they produce props and effects to enhance the films. For example, at a screening of the 1980 film The Fog, Team Fantasmo (as Blanton and Floyd are referred to in all publicity) pumped fog into the auditorium to create the appropriate atmosphere. Yet another Fantasmo happening saw them decorate the auditorium like a carnival tent (complete with carnival performers) in celebration of a screening of the 1981 horror film The Funhouse.

As mentioned previously, in addition to introducing the films themselves, Blanton and Floyd also regularly have in guest speakers. These have included individuals such as vampire fiction author Tony Ruggiero, award-winning film scholar John Kenneth Muir, and well-versed fans such as Virginia Beach resident (and horror film expert) Tony Mercer. The guests offer literate commentary on the films/directors being highlighted, which casts a scholarly light on works that are often dismissed as schlock.

While the above ingredients all go toward making Fantasmo a great deal of fun, perhaps what is most unique about the program is the audience. Over the course of a year, the program has attracted quite a following, and has generated a true community atmosphere. A core group of fans (between 40-50) regularly attend the program, with new faces turning up each month (record attendance thus far was for the all-night Fantasmo Monsterfest Horrorthon in which 112 eager fans stayed throughout the night to watch some of the wildest horror films of all time). As a consequence returning fans have gotten to know each other, supporting Virginian-Pilot reporter Eric Feber’s assertion in a recent article that it’s like “getting together to watch a bad movie” with “40 or 50 of your closest friends.” This community experience contributes to a boisterous atmosphere in which running commentary from the crowd accompanies the on-screen antics (much like a live version of the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000).

Another unique aspect of the program is the manner in which Blanton and Floyd have been able to utilize various sources for publicity. Not content to simply distribute flyers within the library, they have reached out to a number of community venues to get the message out about Fantasmo. This has included placing flyers in local businesses (e.g. comic and hobby shops), forming a relationship with a local art house cinema (which allows the placement of flyers and also announces Fantasmo happenings at monthly screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and partnering with legendary local television horror host Dr. Madblood (who advertises Fantasmo on his television program, Web site, and email list). Additionally, articles on the program have appeared in the local Virginian-Pilot newspaper and national genre magazine Scary Monsters, and fans and former guests (e.g. John Kenneth Muir) regularly promote the program on their Web sites and blogs.

The above elements have made Fantasmo the place to be on the first Friday of the month, drawing audiences of all ages. And perhaps that is the most special aspect of all. Teens, adults, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters all attend the program and respond enthusiastically. They can learn about wild cinema from around the world, wax intellectual about the films, hurl insults and jabs at the screen, or simply sit back and enjoy the goings on. After a recent screening of the 1977 film The Mighty Peking Man (a horrible Hong Kong rip-off of King Kong), a mother brought her young daughter up to Team Fantasmo so she could thank them and proclaim that the movie was “awesome!” That is an excellent word to sum up a one-of-a-kind program that brings together young an old to hoot and howl, truly showcasing the manner in which the library can serve as a dynamic community gathering place.

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