They're Coming to Get You, Texas!
The dead have taken over the Dallas-Grapevine area of Texas. Reports are that people are dying and returning as walking corpses. The dead are then attacking and eating the living! But wait... they're also signing autographs!
Okay, anyone who's read my DVD reviews should quickly realize I'm a huge fan of zombie movies, specifically those made by the godfather of the undead, George Romero. So when I found out that the good ole state of Texas was hosting a zombie-themed convention at the Texas Frightmare, I had no choice but to go. And after all was said and done, I'm jazzed that I did.
The trip started out on a really bad note that had nothing to do with the con itself. Loyd, who runs the con, got his hands on the theatrical film of Night of the Living Dead, in 35mm print no less, and I was going to see it on a big screen! My plane was supposed to touch down in Dallas at 6:30; this should've given me more than ample time to show up at the theatre, which was a mere 7 minute trip from the Dallas Love Field airport. Unfortunately, Continental Airlines did a job on me; my connecting flight from Houston was delayed for more than three hours, so my plane didn't touch down til 10:30, a half-hour after the celebrity night cap party I paid for had started (Don't worry. I'll have my revenge, and a reimbursement from said airline!). So my Thursday festivities were not to be. Frustrated and annoyed, I arrived at my hotel and slept it off. A suggestion to convention goers: if traveling far for a con, it's definitely best to arrive a day or two early, if you can. This way you won't miss a thing.
After a night's rest at the Super 8, I swung by the DFW Hilton on Friday afternoon to pick up my press pass. Joined by my Icons cohort Beth and her boyfriend, I downed a little liquid refreshment at a local Tex-Mex establishment and then returned to the convention. I didn't know it, but I was in for what may rank as the best convention I've ever been to.
A number of factors go into making a successful convention, but after all is said and done, the guest list is what will make or break a show. With this con's list of celebrities, I was impressed, and I don't impress easy. The main attraction was the Night of the Living Dead 40th anniversary tour. This included most of the surviving stars, and the modern day rock god of zombies, George Romero himself. For this past Christmas, my buddy X bought me a huge vinyl banner of the original NOTLD poster, specifically to get them to sign. None of them had ever seen the banner. It's always a joy when I present someone who's signed 67,000 things with something novel; the smile on his or her face is priceless. I was fortunate to get all 8 to sign it, even Marilyn Eastman on Saturday; she'd fallen and broken a hip and some ribs, and when the con's promoters offered the humane solution of sending her back on the next plane, she persevered and stayed for the fans. This was an act of true class.
George Kosana and John Russo
Having made my way through the living dead, I then realized I had a slew of other celebrities to conquer. The most crucial of these was Harvey Stephens, the Anti-Christ himself! The Omen's always been my favorite horror movie. It scared me as much when I watched it in Texas as it did 25 years ago when I first saw it. To meet Damien in the flesh and have the opportunity to interview the man behind the face of all evil was awesome.
With a few hours until closing and a lot more celebrities to grab, I traveled the room and got autographs from Kathleen Kinmont (Bride of Re-Animator) ; Jason Lively (Night of the Creeps); Kelly Maroney (Night of the Comet); and the legendary Malcolm McDowell, once his line slowed down (at the start of the night, it was longer than Romero's; fortunately, when I got on with less than an hour until close, only 5 or 6 people stood before me). I'd never seen any of them at a con before; Texas Frightmare was offering me things no previous con ever had.
I added Greg Nicotero, who only does 2 or 3 cons a year. And I topped the night off with an old favorite of mine: Dee Wallace. There is a handful of celebrities who I will get every time I see them. Dee is among them. Not only is she in The Howling, one of my top 5 horror flicks, but in person she is sweet beyond sweet. She remembers me every time I see her, and I feel like I'm talking to an old, dear friend instead of the star of E.T.
With Beth and her boyfriend in tow, I left the con and headed to Whattaburger. I don't eat meat, but I let myself go and enjoy a triple Whattaburger, among other things. Unfortunately, all that meat transformed into Whattavomit the next morning. Undaunted by my physical unease, I returned to the convention center. As the dead ruled the day, I got autographs from Lynn Lowry, who cut me a deal on two 8x10's; Joe Pilato and Antone Dileo of Day of the Dead (if you ever get the chance to have Pilato scream his "I'm the one running this monkey house" speech full throttle in your face, by all means, take advantage of it!); Robert Joy, the sympathetic Charlie of the underrated Land of the Dead; Hell, I even threw in the two young stars of Diary of the Dead, so I'd have autographs from all five of Romero's Dead pictures.
Shawn Roberts and Michelle Morgan
With my pile of autographs slung over one shoulder and threatening to turn me into a hunchback, I believed myself done. Until I saw the one thing that could coax more money out of my wallet: Danielle Harris. Remember that handful of celebrities I always get at cons? She's on it. Because Kristina Klebe and Scout Taylor-Compton seated next to her, I had no alternative but to get a group shot 8x10 for all three to sign.
As you can probably tell from my enthusiastic review, this was an awesome con. That extends beyond the guest list. The staff was helpful and extremely kind. When I introduced myself to Loyd at the celebrity party, he patted me on the back, shook my hand and said, "Come on in, buddy!" Every celebrity I met (wow, was it really 24?) was genuinely enthused to meet the fans that weekend. The pricing was stabilized- $20 bucks for an 8x10, $15 for my own item- so I had no figuring to do on how much I could afford from celebrity to celebrity. The only drawback was the actual layout of the hall. The celebrities and the vendors were all in one big room. Every con that follows this layout suffers from the same problem: crowding. Once Saturday rolled around and there were 3 massive lines, for Elvira, Romero and McDowell, movement throughout the hall became a major issue. Navigating from place to place was problematic. In fact, when Danielle Harris showed up, I was hard pressed to find the end of her line, among the labyrinthine tangle of so many others. Still, even with that, Loyd Cryer and company hosted an excellent convention.
I can offer Loyd and Texas Frightmare no higher compliment than this: I live a long way from the Lone Star State, but I want to attend many Texas Frightmares beyond this one. It was an unforgettable trip, in all the best ways for this horror fan.
I've never been to a celebrity party at a horror convention, but once Loyd told me my press pass privileges extended to this meet and greet, I knew I owed it to the loyal Icons of Fright fans to go and report on it. Generally these things are expensive; this one ran $65 per person. As per usual, there was a buffet. The drinks were not included. So logistically, the bill after all is said and done cuts seriously to autograph money. Still, I wanted to stay objective. So I used another press pass privilege- I cut the line- and kept my mind open.
The party suffered from two main problems: seating and crowd volume. I'd always thought the idea behind these parties was for fans and celebrities to mingle, to meet and greet without a table full of autographs in the way. Unfortunately, this gathering reminded me of my high school cafeteria. It was the cool kids vs. the normal throng all over again, as the celebrities sat in groups at tables, and the fans sat with each other at other tables. Only one table broke this rule; two fans sat with George Romero and a group of Dead stars, without a single word uttered between the two cliques. If I had harbored any ideas of getting to know some famous people, I'd have been severely disappointed. Even worse, though, was the crowd situation. If I thought it was bad in the autograph hall, it was magnified here. So many fans came in within less than an hour from start that I literally couldn't move. It got so bad that I had to leave just an hour into the party.
The one positive experience of the party was that I did get to taste some Texas meatballs before I left. I don't eat meat anymore, but I grew up with mom making meatballs in tomato sauce. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I found these ones drenched in a barbecue sauce. Certainly a different culinary experience, but also an enjoyable twist.
Though I'm sure the celebrity party was a financial success, it failed as a meet and greet. A simple solution would be to sell less tickets next time, and maybe encourage the celebrities to mingle a little more. Fortunately, it did give me an early night. So off I was to indulge in the two non-horror things I set out to accomplish on my first trip to Texas: sampling authentic Texan barbecue and riding a mechanical bull. But those are stories for another day, as they don't really relate to the convention.
All in all, the celebrity party confirmed what I had always suspected: these gatherings are not for me. Don't let me discourage you from attending one; just go in with the knowledge of some of the complications that I encountered. And try the Texas meatballs!
BONUS: An Interview with the Anti-Christ
I've been frightened by Damien Thorn for the last 25 years. The Omen is one of those rare flicks that continues to scare me every time I watch, even though I know what's going to happen. And Damien is at the black heart of that. Over the years, every time I have a discussion about The Omen, people say the same thing I've always said: Man, that kid was creepy!
So what is the son of Satan like in real life? Astonishingly, a rather nice guy. I met Harvey Stephens this weekend, and he was gracious enough not only to sign a few things and take some pics with me, but to grant me an interview. And don't let his kindness fool you: Damien Thorn is still looking to overthrow God, even if he likes your Omen shirt!
Phil: So how does it feel to be recognized as the face of evil to so many horror fans all around the world?
Harvey Stephens: Yeah, you know, it's pretty cool, but I don't get recognized unless they're looking at me like here. They won't see me down the street and go "Oh look, there's this..." you know, I've changed too much.
How'd you get involved in The Omen in the first place?
My sister used to do modeling, and basically went to an audition and they said they were looking for people my age. So off we went and, it went from there, really. Two auditions, a quick right hook later and the job was mine!
Do you have any memorable moments from the film?
Basically the best one that sticks in my mind is the baboons. The baboons stink. They had one in the car, it was disgusting. So that's probably the biggest... Yeah yeah, then you get a mouth of baboon in the back of the car with a guy with a gun. You get scared at times.
So what exactly does frighten you in real life?
Real life interviews.
Do you have any memories of working with Gregory Peck or Lee Remick?
Not really rock solid ones. All I can say is she was really nice. Nice people.
So you didn't really return to acting after THE OMEN. Why was that?
It just wasn't something I was overly interested in doing, to be honest. It was a case of, that's about it, I'm young, I'm gonna go to school, and that was it.
So what have you been doing for a profession?
I was trading in the city for 12 years. I still do a little bit of trading, but I've got a chauffeur company with two partners and that's it really. We do that.
But obviously you're on the convention circuit now. How is that going for you?
Yeah, this is good. This is my first one, I've enjoyed it, in America. But I, you know, could have a couple more. They've all made it painless.
What did you think of The Omen remake? You were part of that, right?
Yeah, very shortly I was out there. I thought it was okay. They were up against it, really. I think they struggle to do remakes. I don't know why they do them, but I just think they really haven't got much upside. Not many people, especially horror fans, come out saying "Oh, that was much better than the original." You know, they're just not gonna say that.
They're really looking for name recognition from the older fans and get in the younger fans who don't know anything about the original.
Yeah, yeah, it's good they updated it, if you look at the old, but that was what, sort of, people liked about the movie, I suppose, but difficult, isn't it?
I heard you had an interesting interview process with Richard Donner.
Yeah, Richard sort of got a right hook. And that was my interview process. Once he learned the pain of Stephens, he was okay. I got the job.
Thank you very much, Harvey.
No worries. Cheers, mate!