A new horror and sci-fi film festival hits the Valley of the Sun this October, created and facilitated by one of Phoenix’s most beloved and knowledgeable cinephiles, Hal C F Astell, author, critic and curator of the popular cult film commentary website, Apocalypse Later.
The debut of the Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival (ALIFFF) happens on Saturday, 15th October, 2016, at the Phoenix Center for the Arts. Mr. Astell took a break from his festival preparations to answer some of our questions about his show and how it all came to be…
What was the impetus of the Apocalypse Later movie site and how long have you been writing it now?
After I immigrated to the US in 2004, I was stuck at home for six months waiting for permission to work. My better half had cable so I used up a lot of time watching Turner Classic Movies.
I took a lot of notes so I could keep track of little details like which otherwise forgettable episode of which forties crime series had which great performance in it. By 2006, I was posting these online on my website, and by 2007 I felt that they had become substantial enough to become their own blog. I really hit my stride in early 2010, finding the format that has worked well ever since.
I named the blog Apocalypse Later after a book I’d been writing on the IMDb Top 250 list that I never finished. That book had a working title of Apocalypse Later because it seemed like a fun idea to do Apocalypse Now last.
Tell us about your transition from fan, to film commentator and author, to festival programmer?
I’ve been a fan of cinema as long as I can remember, especially genre film. I used to watch Hammer horrors in my sister’s room on late night television and, when I got a TV of my own, picked up a double VCR and was off and running. I devoured film magazines of the time, like Fear and The Dark Side, and bought as many fanzines as I could afford.
This was the video nasty era in the UK when people were actually going to prison because they sold the wrong VHS tapes out of what Americans would call corner stores or gas stations. I read about these things in the magazines but couldn’t watch them because they were illegal. There were only so many I could buy illicitly from market traders. I ended up catching up with a lot of those much later here in the States.
I didn’t go to a film festival until in 2007, when I was googling for things to do in the Phoenix area and found the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival. My better half and I went and thoroughly enjoyed it but, more importantly, we were accidentally introduced to Andrea, the Midnite Movie Mamacita, because one of her friends overheard me talking and thought I was a Kiwi like her.
From there, we went to pretty much everything she did down at Chandler Cinemas and elsewhere, an era that culminated with the closure of her theatre in Mesa, the Royale, after a glorious year. During that time, we got involved with a lot of festivals, especially the one we found first, as we’ve been screening submissions for them for many years.
When you first began Apocalypse Later, did you ever envision you’d be hosting your own festival?
No way. I was happy watching films and reviewing them. Once I found them, film festivals were things that I went to and wrote up. I felt that I had the best job in the world, because I’d get in on a press pass and all I had to do to justify that was write.
The earliest thoughts about running my own came in 2011, when a set of sad circumstances led the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival to be folded into its big sister, the Phoenix Film Festival. That year, while it featured some amazing films, felt like a punch in the gut, as there was so little genre content and it was all screening at the same time. The event that I’d built my year around was suddenly a shadow of its former self.
A lot of regular fans felt the same way and there was a lot of talk that year about combining forces and setting up a genre film festival to replace it. We honestly believed that it would be gone by 2012 and we wanted something ready to pick up where it would leave off. Nobody actually put firm plans together and the idea fizzled out, especially as the IHSFFF started building into something more substantial again.
Even back then, I never thought I’d be the one to run a film festival, just help out with whatever someone else set up. Fast forward to 2016, though, and most of those people have retired from the scene or have started up their own events.
There are a couple of reasons why I decided to start up a film festival now. One is that I feel much more capable of doing so than in 2011, as I have a lot more event coordination under my belt, having worked many conventions and film festivals over the last decade. The other is that I came to the realization that we’re still without a dedicated, annual genre film festival and that’s ridiculous for the sixth biggest city in the States.
That’s not to say that there aren’t great events out there. The IHSFFF is still around and relatively stable nowadays; 2016’s event was the best scheduled yet and festival director Monte Yazzie is doing an awesome job; I still screen for them and I’m there every year seeing as many films as I can and covering the event as press. I even wrote a book about it, reviewing every feature and every short shown from 2011 to 2013. However, realistically it’s never going to be a separate event again; you can’t buy an IHSFFF pass and it’s not inviting genre guests any more. It’s the PFF’s genre track, not a film festival of its own, and it’s likely to stay that way.
There’s also what used to be called Phoenix Fear Film Fest but which evolved into Fangoria FearCon, which is the week before my festival. Again, it’s a fantastic event and I’ve been heavily involved with it over the last few years (festival director Jim McLennan is also one of my judges), but it’s a convention with a film track nowadays rather than a film festival and its far from annual, with only seven events over the eleven years since 2006.
So I decided that I’m ready to put my money where my mouth is and bring back a dedicated, annual genre film festival to the sixth biggest city in the states!
Will the festival feature a specific genre of films or a specific theme?
This year’s event will include one set of horror shorts and another of science fiction shorts.
I plan to expand to include features next year and widen the scope to genre films that aren’t horror or sci-fi. I’m actually screening one short film as a bonus this year, out of competition. It’s a crime film which should appeal to horror fans but isn’t a horror short.
Some of the best cult films aren’t easily categorized and I don’t want to miss out on being able to screen them because they aren’t strictly horror or sci-fi. So expect the scope to grow over the next few years to encompass other genres that will play well to a cult audience.
It’s one reason why the key word in the festival name isn’t ‘horror’ or ‘sci-fi’. It’s ‘fantastic’ and I chose that because it has two distinct meanings. These films will be imaginative films, whatever their genre, and they’ll be damn good to boot.
What are a couple of the festival’s films you are most exited to share with attendees?
I’m not going to call any titles out in particular, because most of them are in competition and the judges haven’t picked their winners yet. I can say, though, that I’m really happy to have a wildly diverse set of films to screen, both in subject matter, approach and nationality. I put ‘international’ in the festival title deliberately too.
There are two local Arizona films in competition, with a host of others from across the USA. There are also three from Spain, two from France and one each from Israel, India and the UK.
There are family friendly comedies and edgy experimental dramas. There are tense thrillers, atmospheric ghost stories and explorations of the classic monsters. There are a few different takes on post-apocalyptic ideas. There’s even a silent movie, shot in the style of the German expressionistic horror films of the 1920s. There’s surely something for everyone.
Besides the great films, what else can attendees expect at the Apocalypse Later festival?
Free popcorn and free parking! I’m all about value for money, whether it’s for filmmakers submitting their work or attendees showing up to see the films on the night. I want everyone to go away happy and think I have a pretty good chance of achieving that!
Other than that, not a heck of a lot. I want this film festival to be just that, a film festival, albeit a great one that will run for years and build into something synonymous with quality.
I will have my books available for sale at the back and I’ll be pushing the events that my judges run: Fangoria FearCon, Cult Classics and the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival. But this isn’t and won’t ever be a convention, because there are other people doing that sort of thing in the valley. What we’re missing is a genre film festival, so that’s what I’m providing.
Is this going to be a one off event, or do you expect that the Apocalypse Later festival will become an annual show?
Definitely an annual show. How much I can expand in 2017 will depend on how well I do in 2016, but I hope to make it a full weekend event with features and shorts spanning a wider scope of genres.
Longer term, I’m aiming to bring out guests to introduce notable films from their careers and showcase features outside of the competitions. I can’t put the cart before the horse though: I have to make this year as successful as possible and build it sustainably. Hopefully I’ll be able to commit to more when you talk to me this time next year!