Spooky Empire 2009
Somehow the name Spooky Empire just doesn’t sound as impressive as Screamfest but the title Ultimate Horror Weekend would be misleading. Since another convention in Los Angeles apparently owns, and legally defends, the Screamfest name, we’ll just have to refer to this event as Spooky Empire from now on.
This was my fifth year attending this horror convention and I have learned a few things in that time. The first is to always check the celebrity guest list as often as possible prior to the event. Guests at this show tend to drop out faster than teenage victims in a slasher film, so it is important to make sure the ones you want to see are really going to be there, especially if there are not that many to begin with. The guest list this year started out weak and never improved much all the way up to a month or so out when the remaining tables were doled out free to just about anyone. I have also learned not to bother with advanced tickets since there is no discount on the price and it usually ends up being faster to buy them at the door anyway. You also never want to ask a regular staff member anything because the best answer you will get is directions to one of the senior staff and the worst is a blank stare or shrug. With all this in mind though, I was set to give the 2009 show a look.
For the second year in a row, Byron and I scheduled a visit to Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights on the same weekend as Spooky Empire to double up on the fright fun. We left Jacksonville around 5:45 on Friday evening and rendezvoused with our friend in Orlando, John Thrailkill. John and his son Joe met us at our usual spot, Alfonzo’s, around 8PM and we strategize for the weekend over pizza, wings, and beer. John had planned to attend Spooky Empire for the first time this year with his daughter Amy, who loves horror movies. Unfortunately, a late scheduling change for Amy’s rowing team sent both of them out of town for the day. We were, however, joined by Brandon “The Trivia Man” Tomasello and Jeanine Holmes, Jacksonville friends who were also going to Universal with us.
On Saturday morning, following our traditional breakfast at Ponderosa, Byron and I headed over to the Wyndham hotel that has served as the host for Spooky Empire for the last four years. Last year, the general admission time for the show was pushed back to 11AM so this year we relaxed and drank coffee in the restaurant rather than standing in the hot sun outside the hotel waiting to get in. Byron was kind enough to drop me off at the door as he headed off somewhere deep in Egypt to find a spot in the under equipped parking lot. Byron normally only gets a marginal value out of his Spooky Empire admission with a hit or miss visit the dealer’s area and a casual stroll through the rest of the show. This year he tried to increase his enjoyment and help the promoters by offering to run any combination of over a dozen horror themed board games for the event. Even though he needed little more resources than a standard banquet table and a few chairs to host this activity, the promoters shot him down flat pleading a lack of space. Byron decided they could do without his admission this year and sat the event out in one of the lounge areas. He did note in passing through the halls that there were multiple rooms with more than enough unused space for the gaming to have been added. Ironically, Spooky Empire dedicated one entire room this year to video games. It seemed to me that the last thing most of the people at this show needed was another excuse to sit alone in the dark and lose themselves in anti-social fantasies!
For 2009, Spooky Empire increased the Saturday admission price from $25.00 to $30.00. This is the first rate hike I can recall in the years I have been attending but, with the economy in the situation it is and their guest list in a slump, this was not the year to do it. At 11AM, as soon as it was announced that the doors were open to general attendees, I paid for my admission and immediately headed to the guest area to see who had actually made it there. I noticed the standard dealer and tattoo rooms along the way and the new room for people playing video games. There were the usual tables in the hall from independent horror themed enterprises and a few people in costumes. I was surprised that fewer people seemed to be dressed up for the event and those that were had less impressive costumes than in previous years.
In 2008, Spooky Empire made some major improvements in their guest selection and really seemed to be putting some thought into who horror fans would like to meet. For 2009, they took a detour in the wrong direction. One of their lead guests was Shannon Doherty, the 90210 star who, aside from starring in the slightly supernatural soap opera Charmed, has had very little to do with the horror genre. The majority of the guests were repeat offenders, many whom seem to have been there almost every year. Even worse than this was the inclusion of close to a dozen professional wrestlers and musicians who had very little to absolutely nothing to do with the theme of the event. I have said it before and I will say it again, even if these people are appearing for free, attendees assume that some amount of resources have been dedicate to their inclusion and taken away from more appropriate guests. With the exception of Linda Blair, who has appeared multiple times at this event but is a horror icon, I saw almost no one at any of the tables for these guests in the three hours I was there. Actor Jake Busey, who at least has been in some genre films, was so bored that I saw him leave his table and walk around the show several times. If Spooky Empire has any intention of actually qualifying their self imposed “Ultimate Horror Weekend” title, their guest list is going to require an overhaul in the future.
The celebrity guest area was divided among three rooms this year with no particular reasoning as to who was where unless there were multiple guests from the same film. At next to the last minute, it was announced that there would be a mini Night of the Living Dead reunion with director George Romero and multiple cast members in attendance. Almost immediately thereafter, both Romero and actress Marilyn Eastman canceled. Thankfully this still left a few new faces from the cast in addition to Bill Heinzman who seems to be there every year.
Russ Streiner, who played Johnny in the original Night of the Living Dead, and John Russo, who played a zombie and wrote the novelization as well as many other great horror stories, are two of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet. I mentioned to Streiner that I had recently screened a 16mm print of the film from my collection and we were off on a conversation about the cultural impact it has had in the past forty years. I spoke with John Russo about his association with Al Adamson and Sam Sherman from Independent International and the, in name only, film adaptation of his sequel, Return of the Living Dead. Also on hand was George Kosana, a name perhaps not as familiar as the other two, but his character, Sheriff Mclelland, had some of the best dialog in the film including the famous “shoot them in the head” line. Mr. Kosana and I talked about some of the props from the film. He originally owned the Winchester rifle Ben uses and still has the custom made rifle he carries in the film. I had all three gentlemen sign my original one sheet for Night and also purchased a poster for the film Midnight, featuring some great Grey Morrow artwork, from John Russo. This was the only one of three poster styles for this film I did not have and Russo even tossed in a vial of dirt that is guaranteed to have come from the cemetery where Night of the Living Dead was filmed!
Over the years, I have heard some less than complimentary rumors about special effects wizard Tom Savini’s behavior at conventions. I have met the man on numerous occasions, he is another one of the Spooky Empire repeat offenders mentioned above, and I can honestly say he was pleasant to speak with every single time. This year, I had an opportunity to push my luck that I couldn’t pass up. I had recently acquired a poster for the infamous 1981 slasher film Nightmare (aka Nightmare in a Damaged Brain). The film hit theaters not too long after Dawn of the Dead and the releasing company, 21st Century Films, decided to cash in on Tom’s name by plastering a sticker on the poster saying the special effects were done by him. Director Romano Scavollini supports this version of history and Savini is listed as “Director of Special Effects” on the original film prints. According to Tom Savini, he only stopped by to give a few opinions on the effects work and never did anything hands on. He was forced to sue the film’s distributor to have his name removed from the posters and the credits. True to my previous encounters, Savini cheerfully signed my poster “To Ed, I had nothing to do with this @X#0*! film – Tom Savini”. Now that is one cool autograph.
In the next room over were Jill Whitlow and Jason Lively, two of the stars of one of my favorite films from the 80’s, Night of the Creeps. My friends and I just about wore out a VHS tape of this movie when we were in college and I can’t wait for the DVD release later this month. Jill told me that she is a Florida native, born in Miami, and now lives in Tampa. According to Jason, Steve Marshall, who played the third lead in the film, gave up acting and is now a successful lawyer. I had Jill and Jason sign my Night of the Creeps one sheet, the harder to find style with the artwork of the two of them fighting zombies on it. After they had finished, Jason actually insisted that I get a picture with them and grabbed someone off the floor to take a picture with my camera.
One thing I will give Spooky Empire credit for this year is putting signs outside the guest rooms that listed the major celebrities inside. They still need to put a sign by the ticket booth listing the celebrities who canceled, especially at the last minute, so potential attendees who may have wanted to see them can decide if they still want to pay to get in or not. I saw one of these signs listing director John Landis and immediately headed into that room. He turned out to be just as outgoing and humorous as he seems in interviews. I had brought along a one sheet from the re-release of Animal House, one of my all time favorite comedies, for him to sign. I told him I was about eleven when the film came out and was fortunate enough to have my mother take me to see it. I was a god in school for months after that and constantly asked to describe scenes from the film to my classmates.
As I was leaving the room John Landis was in, I saw Brandon and Jeanine in the hallway and realized they had finally arrived. They had only been there long enough to make a quick run through the dealer’s area looking for me. As soon as I told Brandon that the last celebrity I had on my autograph list was Adrienne Barbeau, he insisted on helping me find her. I hadn’t seen her name on any of the signs but we did finally locate her table when we saw her posing with fans. I had a movie poster from Creepshow for her to sign and I took the opportunity to query her about some photographs I had seen floating around on the Internet. Brandon asked if I wanted him to take a picture of the two of us together but I declined saying I had taken up enough of her time and a line was forming behind me. To my surprise, Ms. Barbeau said “Oh, don’t worry about that. Let’s get a picture” and stood up and walked around the table. I must say that what the Spooky Empire guests lacked in originality or appropriateness this year, the ones I talked to certainly made up for in class!
After I finished with the autographs, Brandon and Jeanine and I headed for the dealer’s room. It was crowded both due to the amount of people walking around and the fact that many of the artists and lesser guests were housed in the same area. The promoters of this show need to seriously consider splitting these two factions in the future. The merchandise on display was about 85% modern. There were a few vintage items and a lot of reproduction pieces but very little in terms of hardcore horror collectibles. I saw only a couple of original movie posters and no older horror magazines like I have at previous shows. While I have to give them credit for creativity, I passed on the opportunity to have my picture taken while being spanked by a neo-Nazi dominatrix (it seems like that is the kind of thing you pay to NOT see photos of!). There were plenty of t-shirt vendors and the anticipated bootleg DVD dealers this year but vintage material was on a conspicuous decline. Needless to say, this was a no purchase year for me.
I parted company with Brandon and Jeanine and headed over to see the Godfather of Gore, Herschell Lewis. We had planned to have lunch that day but Herschell had a panel scheduled from noon to 1PM and didn’t want to leave his table vacant for such a long stretch. I don’t blame him but I had second thoughts about his decision when I saw the lame hotel pizza he was forced to eat as a consolation! I arrived just in time to watch Joel Wynkoop interview Mr. Lewis and fellow Fanboy Chris Woods and I stood on the sidelines and talked while I waited. After the interview, I got to visit with Herschell for a few minutes and bemoan the lunch situation. I presented him with an original pressbook from his film The Prime Time and we joked about his divorce in the 70’s when many of his mementos from his film days disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
It was past time for lunch for me, so I said my farewells to Herschell and headed out to find Byron and some food. On my way to the hotel lounge area, I ran into Chris Woods again and my knees nearly buckled when I heard him say “Hey, what are you guys doing for lunch?” It’s been a running gag between Chris and I that every time I see him at a show, he is always too busy with something else to do lunch with the guys. He finally broke his streak this year as he joined Byron and me directly across the street at TGI Fridays. We were all starved by the time the food arrived but I know the sizeable sandwich I had was less than what a couple of pieces of cardboard pizza and a can of soda would have cost me at the hotel.
After lunch, Chris returned to the hotel and Byron and I headed back out to Egypt in search of our car. Spooky Empire definitely needs to find a place with better parking for future shows if they have any plans of expanding. They are also going to need to work on increasing the size and variety of their dealer’s room and, most importantly, developing some long term focus for their celebrity guest list. The show still has promise, but I suspect they are going to see a marked decline in admissions if they continue with the trend this year of offering less for an increased price. If Spooky Empire really wants to be the “Ultimate Horror Weekend”, they need to concentrate on horror and develop a long term plan for advancement.