The Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival and Marathon has been a home for weird, wonderful, campy and creative flicks since long before binge-watching was a household term.
On February 10, the curtain goes up at the Somerville Theater for the 42nd annual Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival and Marathon, an 11-day science fiction celebration that—much like the Blob and other monsters that refuse to die—has survived a fire, multiple relocations and even a blizzard that shut down the MBTA.
Garen Daly, executive director of the festival, has been involved since its third year: SF3. As a manager at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge—where the festival originated in 1976 as a 24-hour movie marathon held on President’s Day weekend—the veteran motion picture exhibitor helped ensure that the one-of-a-kind event could survive and thrive well into a second century, making it one of the oldest genre festivals in the world. (He also began the tradition of numbering them— this year’s event is SF42.)
In 1986, Daly had moved on to run the Somerville Theatre. That May, a fire shut down the Welles. At the time, it was thought the theater would eventually reopen. “When the Welles burned down, there was concern that the marathon was done,” recalls Daly, who’s working on a documentary about the Welles and its unique place in movie history. “If the Welles came back, they would get it.”
Daly arranged to hold the festival at the Somerville Theatre in 1987. But the Welles didn’t come back, and when Daly left the Somerville Theatre he took the marathon with him. It ended up spending several years at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, but the theater then had only two screens, and studios objected to losing the main theater on a holiday weekend. The marathon had brief sojourns at the West Newton Cinema and the Dedham Community Theatre before finally returning to Somerville.
“Ian [Judge, Somerville Theatre director of operations] and I ran into each other one day and he said, ‘You should bring it back,” said Daly, who says working with the Somerville team has been a pleasure. “It’s one of the best relationships I’ve had in the business.” The feeling is mutual. “We love the event … Garen is an old-fashioned showman,” says Judge. “In exhibition, there’s not a lot of showmen left.”
Since settling at the Somerville Theatre, Daly has looked to expand the event. Several years ago, he began running a (slightly) more traditional film festival that would lead into the 24-hour marathon, which features classics like Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as recent hits and occasional turkeys and obscurities. The festival sometimes features rediscoveries, but it tends to favor new filmmakers as well as showcasing short works.
Suzzanne Cromwell, co-curator of the festival, focuses on the shorts with the help of a number of volunteer judges. Cromwell says the filmmakers “simply want their work to be seen by an audience,” and Daly notes that every year, 10 to 15 films that played the festival end up with some sort of distribution deal so they can be seen by an audience far beyond Somerville. While many more films are submitted than the schedule has slots to fill, judges don’t highlight the glitziest and glossiest of the bunch. “We’re looking for quality in the storyline,” Cromwell explains, acknowledging the limited budgets featured filmmakers may have. “We don’t look for super high production values.”
The attendees of the annual event are—obviously—fans of science fiction films, but they come from all over. People have traveled from as far as Seattle and even Dublin, Ireland, to attend, and filmmakers will also travel in support of their movies. The audience is a mix of veterans of the festival and newcomers. One veteran is Frank Urbano, who has been attending since SF3 and whose contribution has become one of the marathon’s traditions. For several years, Urbano, who lives in Holliston, owned a collectibles store, and he would donate some of the prizes that were handed out during the event for various contests. When he closed the store, he had a lot of overstock, and he started making up grab bags of comics, books, DVDs and other items of fan interest.
“I don’t make money on this,” he says. “I just like doing it.” With somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 comics books still on hand, it’s a tradition that’s likely to continue for some time.
The 24-hour marathon changes from year to year—although it always starts with a countdown and a screening of Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a 1/2 Century as attendees ingest their complementary Atomic Fireballs. Some movies are greeted with reverence, as when Blade Runner (1982) was shown the year after it had flopped. “See it with the right audience this time,” the program notes read. Others provide unintentional laughs, whether from a shoutout from the audience or just plain clunkiness. Often, there’s also the thrill of discovering some long-forgotten film or viewing something obscure that turns out to be a real find. Actor Nicholas Brendon made a splash a few years back with Coherence (2013), a movie that combines a suburban dinner party with quantum physics. It never got a general theatrical release but has become a cult favorite that’s available on DVD or through streaming services.
One of the biggest challenges was two years ago, when a weekend storm shut down the T just as the Marathon was readying a 40th anniversary celebration. “That was a nightmare,” recalls Judge. By Sunday morning, roads were plowed and the snow had stopped. “The big challenge was: How we get people there?” Daly says. With 24 hours worth of movies queued up at the theater, there was no way to rebook the event. So when word came that the Alewife parking garage was open, Daly arranged for shuttle service from the garage to Somerville. Amazingly, nearly 300 people found their way to the event.
The list of SF42 titles is still being finalized, but Daly has announced the U.S. premiere of a 1993 film called Energy! starring Dr. Timothy Leary; The Landing, a fake documentary about the Apollo 18 moon mission; and Without Name, an environmental horror story from Ireland.
For tickets, schedules and more information on SF42, head to bostonscifi.com.
This story originally appeared in the January/February print edition of Scout, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.