Thursday, June 5, 2014

Like You Were There: Heath Holland at Wonderfest 2014

This is the true story of how Heath Holland and JB took on the monsters of Louisville, Kentucky and lived to tell the tale…OR DID THEY?

If there is one term that defines the entire weekend of Wonderfest, it has to be “Monster Kid.” I have no idea how many times I heard that moniker over the weekend, but trust me, it was a lot. Like, A LOT A LOT. I even have it on a T-shirt now. Monster Kids are the lifeblood of Wonderfest.

Wonderfest turned 25 this year, but it was my first time attending and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. JB has written columns about the 2012  and 2013 conventions, so I knew enough that I was looking forward to some cool documentary films about monsters and model kit building, and I knew that there were usually some interesting celebrity guests. I also knew JB was going to be in attendance. The day before I left, I got e-mail from Adam Riske saying that he was ALSO going to be there. Wondefest 2014, celebrating a quarter-century of monsters in the basement, was set to be the greatest event of the year! Maybe the best Wonderfest ever!

It was not.

And it’s all Adam Riske’s fault.

When I met up with JB on Friday, I got the bad news: Adam wasn’t coming -- something to do with his car, national security, and the film Maleficent. Crestfallen and more than a little deflated, Mr. B and I resolved to enjoy the convention anyway, not just for Adam, but for America…for the entire world! For Planet X!

So Friday evening around dinner time we made our way to the lobby and got tickets before we headed to the Wonderfest official merchandise table where we could see this year’s T-shirt design unveiled. It’s a big deal. Sometimes people cry. It turns out that one of the shirts sported an awesomely stylized Godzilla with his foot menacingly hovering over the silhouettes of fleeing children… pardon, Monster Kids. This same Godzilla was the featured art on all the admission badges for the entire weekend and was the work of Belle Dee, whose delightful art you can check out at and who specializes in awesomely cute and quirky renditions of iconic horror characters. I adore her work. The other shirt sported a 25th anniversary motif by noted artist William Stout and featured a bevy of classic monsters from the last 100 years. We were off to a good start!

We made our way to the theater for a screening of a documentary by Cortland Hull and Bill Diamond Productions, the team behind Phantom of the Opera: Unmasking the Masterpiece and The Aurora Monsters, a film about the monster model kit movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The promise was that we’d get to see their new work in progress.

When we arrived, they seemed to be in the middle of an apology (via a puppet hoisted over Bill Diamond’s head) about footage not being ready or something accidently getting erased or something. So instead of seeing a finished film, they showed random clips of interviews with classic horror film stars and other talking heads such as Leonard Maltin, who didn’t seem to know what exactly he was being interviewed ABOUT. But that’s okay because I’m not sure the filmmakers knew what they were interviewing him about either. To further apologize, they began to screen the 1946 French-language Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bete), a favorite of one Mr. Bromley. I have not seen this film and would very much like to, but sitting in a dark room late at night after I’d driven through three states seemed to make my mind up for me. We retired for the night. So Friday’s film was a disappointment.

And it’s all Adam Riske’s fault.

Saturday morning, we lined up a little before 8 a.m. because we had purchased the early bird option, allowing us to enter the dealer's room a full two hours early, theoretically allowing us to scoop up all the cool merchandise before the poor schlubs who opted for general admission were allowed through the door.

The dealer's room was wonderful. Imagine a flea market consisting entirely of obscure, geeky horror and science fiction paraphernalia, floor to ceiling. If you can imagine this, then some dealer on the floor was likely to have it for a not-quite-nominal fee. There were niche books about the films of Todd Browning, busts of monsters I could not identify, kaiju toys from Japan, board games from the 1960s, handmade horror-themed arts and crafts, and original theatrical posters of films fifty years old or more. Just walking those aisles was like walking through the corridors of time, and I found myself wishing with each step that I had grown up a Monster Kid.

In one area we found Joe Alves, the production designer of the original Jaws and director of Jaws 3-D; Mr. Alves was surrounded by actual Jaws film props such as Quint’s jacket and hat, one of those familiar yellow barrels, and the air tank that gets thrown into the shark’s mouth. And yes, Jaws himself was in attendance.
After nap time (I know what you’re thinking: separate rooms?) JB and I attended the twelfth annual Rondo awards, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The Rondo Awards celebrate the best in genre entertainment during the year, from books and articles to short films and even outstanding members of the community. If I hadn’t attended the Rondo Awards then I would never have discovered this Homemade Dracula 1931 Trailer, winner of best short film.

The Rondo Awards seem like an incredibly important part of the Monster Kid community, which is why I’m a bit befuddled that there wasn’t a better attendance for the event. The room was half full, at best. And in what was quickly becoming a theme for the weekend, not much attempt at professionalism was made by those behind the awards themselves. Acceptance speeches submitted through e-mails had to be located on an iPhone and then clumsily relayed to the gathered attendees. No one seemed to know how to run the equipment that the entire operation depended on. It felt, as it did so many times during the weekend, that the attitude was “close enough is fine.” Thankfully, the gravity of the awards themselves and the hard work of the nominees saved the event.

Next we attended the premiere of That $#!% Will Rot Your Brain, a documentary by Robert Tinnell (whose biggest credit seems to be director of the 1997 film Frankenstein and Me) about “How the Monster  Kids Transformed Popular Culture,” which sounds interesting and promising, no? Perhaps it would have been, were the film finished. That’s right, once again we were shown something that wasn’t quite done. This could be excused if the content of the documentary had been compelling but there was really no through-line other than “Monster Kids are awesome and important.”

There were flashes and glimpses of something engaging. For instance, why were the Monster Kids a product of the ‘50s when the movies that they loved (such as the Universal Monsters films) were over two decades old? Why then, at that time, and not earlier? That’s interesting to me, as is the origin of monster fandom among baby boomer kids through the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland and the Aurora model kits. The “film” does ask these questions, and I was eager to explore these areas.

But any ideas that it might have on its mind quickly meander into more talking heads with no real focus. It’s a lot like being at a family reunion and listening to all your older relatives reminiscing about the old days. They hop from subject to subject without coming to any conclusions before they’ve moved on. For so many of the people interviewed, time seems to have stopped a long time ago. Many of the featured interviewees simply discuss how much they loved sneaking downstairs to watch King Kong at midnight on public access. It sounds great, but it doesn’t SAY anything. Strangely enough, perhaps the most focused person in the documentary is Billy Bob Thornton, who is fiercely passionate and darkly comic at the same time. I’d like to watch a movie consisting mostly of his interviews because I think he might have more insight than a lot of the people who appear only to shake their Larry Talbot/Wolf Man cane at everyone younger than them.
The director stood up both before and after he showed his incomplete documentary and said some things that really bothered me. If I wasn’t quite sure that his opening remarks conveyed an arrogance and exclusivity, his film certainly affirmed it. As someone relatively new to this community, I sat in the audience feeling alienated, and like I did not belong and was not wanted. The message that the director and his film conveyed over and over again is that this is an exclusive club, and we don’t want new fans. I think Tinnell would argue that point, but the proof is in the pudding. There’s even a segment of the film about an exclusive hotel room at Wonderfest where the most elite gather behind closed doors to screen monster movies and go eat sushi together. There appear to be fewer than 20 of members. And this is touted as a good thing, as if having only a few members left who really love this stuff is ideal. Again, that’s probably not their intention, but the message is loud and clear. There probably IS a good documentary somewhere within all the footage filmed for That >$#!% Will Rot Your Brain but I’m not sure we’ll ever see it.

And it’s all Adam Riske’s fault.

The final event of Saturday night was “Kaiju Smackdown with Doc Gangrene” at 11 pm. Dr. Gangrene is the alter ego of Larry Underwood, a Nashville-area horror host and purveyor of genre kitsch. He had a public access show and also plays in a horror-themed band. He’s cultivated a devoted following and, though my exposure is very limited, seems like a really cool and creative guy. Therefore one would think that a Kaiju Smackdown would consist of film clips from a variety of Japanese monster movies with a heavy reliance on audience interaction.

Nope. It was a screening of Godzilla vs. Megalon. About 10 minutes into the film Doc Gangrene paused the film, turned on the lights, and made his way to the front of the room where he introduced his friends Frankenstein and Wolf Man; there was the beginnings of a fun bit for about three minutes, but it was over as quickly as it had begun and we were back to watching the film (which has been on DVD for almost two years, and which anyone can watch whenever they want to).

A little dejected and disappointed at the slipshod direction that events had taken since…oh, 8 a.m., we quietly called it a night and agreed to try once more the next morning. Saturday had started out with promise but it was obvious that it was too late for Wonderfest 2014 to fully redeem itself. It felt like a big ship slowly drifting off course and into dangerous waters; it was hard not to feel like someone was asleep at the wheel.

Sunday morning offered no early bird option so we waited until 10 a.m. for our last chance at deals, steals, and things we just couldn’t pass up. You’d be amazed at how quickly time passes when you lose yourself among the stacks of aging ephemera (which is also the name of my senior citizen punk rock band) and darkly seductive dioramas.
After we cleaned up in the dealer room, we made our way to the model room, which was a large display area for model makers to display their countless hours of meticulous labor. The unassembled model kits available on the dealer floor had been calling out to me and I was seriously considering giving one of them my best efforts, but after visiting the room full of finished models I abandoned that idea because the work was almost uniformly incredible. Almost every single model or bust looked like something from a film set or a museum.

And with a whimper, not a bang, my Wonderfest experience was over. It’s hard to convey what I was feeling, but there was a sadness and heaviness in the air throughout the entire weekend. Monster Kids and the things they love and stand for are awesome. JB is a Monster Kid, and it was his love for classic horror that inspired me to step outside my comfort zone and give those old Universal films a spin. And I, like he did many years ago, fell in love with those silent horrors and the classic films of Lugosi and Karloff. I want to be a Monster Kid. I want an encyclopedic knowledge of the works of Conrad Veidt. I want to be a part of this community and see it grow even bigger in the years to come.

But that’s not the direction things are headed; Monster Kids are getting older and many of them are passing on. Eulogies appear to be something with which the Wonderfest community is becoming familiar. I heard on several occasions over the weekend that things were going better than ever, that it was passing from generation to generation, but it isn’t. Classic horror is dying, and that upsets me immensely. For all the lip service about Monsterfest being a family-friendly event, I can’t have seen more than 10 or 15 children all weekend long, and most of those were Sunday morning. Women seemed just as scarce. For the Monster Kid movement to continue, things are going to have to change because at the moment there is no future generation.

The generation after mine has no interest in physical media, and they don’t have any new movie monster heroes to discover and fantasize about. We live in the age of the superhero, and it’s superheroes that command the attention of our youth, not monsters. And superheroes will be the next thing to go. We need to all work together to figure out how to broaden the audience and, God forbid, modify how we do things in order to draw new fans into the community so that it can continue for years to come.

Hope is not lost. I plan on going back next year, and I’d love to take my step-daughter, who will be 9. She already watches Godzilla movies with me and knows all the Universal Monsters by name. She likes to collect things and has her own stash of movies, books, and posters in her room. I’ve inadvertently taught her by example, and I plan to continue to teach the importance of the past because, for the things we love to have any lasting future, we’re going to have to embrace the next generation.
It’s possible that this was just a bad year for Wonderfest. Certainly I’ve loved reading about the last two events through JB’s own columns (though he does note that the crowd seemed subdued last year) and I wonder if something happened behind the scenes that threw things off. For one thing, it’s no longer on Memorial Day Weekend, meaning that the Monday after the convention is a workday for most attendees. This could be easily corrected and boost attendance, but alas, next year’s convention will be held once again the weekend AFTER Memorial Day. This wrong-headedness is easily corrected; the tools for greatness are there, and from what JB has seen over the last 20 years, Wonderfest has indeed been wonderful. Now I’m hoping for change so that the label "Monster Kids" is no longer another term for something that existed decades ago but is also something that thrives and welcomes new fans with open arms. Here’s hoping Wonderfest 2015 gets the ship back on course. Believe it or not, I’m really looking forward to it.

JB ADDS: There isn't a whole lot more than I can say. Heath not only got the details right, but more importantly conveyed the mood of the event. I was embarrassed all weekend long because I was Heath's de-facto host; I wound up inviting him to the worst Wonderfest ever.

And then Adam bailed. Adam is either smart or psychic.

I too do not like to be shown documentaries that are not yet finished, documentaries that are not really documentaries at all, but only a superfan's expensive piece of signed memorabilia-- "Look, I spent time with my heroes."

I worry that all the monster kids are aging and passing away. I worry that my hobby is dying.

It was a hoot and a half hanging out with Heath. We visited D.W. Griffith's grave together. We ate fried cheesecake at the Big Boy together. Together for two days, we walked around a State Fair of Monsters, as if we were both twelve years old.


  1. Sorry for bailing but this story has a happy air conditioning is working great again in my car!

    1. You're remarkably calm, Adam, considering it was ALL YOUR FAULT.

      Seriously, it's too bad that this turned out to be so disappointing.

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  3. Unmasking the Masterpiece and The Aurora Monsters, a film about the monster model kit movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The promise was that we’d get to see their new work in progress.