The long-running Monster-Mania Convention knows how to show horror fans a good time. For 3 days every March and August, genre stars and a wide variety of vendors descend upon Cherry Hill, New Jersey (just over the Ben Franklin Bridge) for a celebration of macabre delight.
Over the past decade, I’ve attended at least one MM con per year, and have never been disappointed. Between the guests (usually a mix of new blood and returning fan favorites) and the vendors spread across several rooms, this truly is a holiday for horror-hounds – a combination of celebrity wish-fulfillment and a cornucopia of dazzling material goodies awaiting discovery.
There are certain things that MM newbies should be cognizant of: Even if you get to the Crowne Plaza early, you may want to pack your walking shoes (or something that doesn’t lace up to the thigh). My best friend and I arrived at noon on Saturday, and were greeted by a mile-long backup of vehicles waiting to chance the packed parking lot. As veterans of the con, we had never seen MM this busy.
After an odd winter of wildly fluctuating temperatures (from balmy 60s to well below freezing), the day was a mix of sun and wind, the type of slap-you-in-the-face cold that Calvin’s dad would insist “builds character.” As we walked from our faraway parking spot, we speculated on the reason for the turnout (John Cusack being the headliner guest; our later arrival; the parking lot being taken up by out-of-towners in for the whole weekend) and stopped at a delicious* pit barbecue place for lunch.
Upon passing through the automatic lobby doors of the Crowne Plaza, we faced a scene of (mostly figurative) chaos: the extensive foyer/lounge area was packed with people. On first glance, it was overwhelming and obnoxious – a mass of bodies like something out of a Clive Barker novel – but my excitement over being there eventually trumped a sinking feeling of not enjoying the show on account of being unable to move.
The line for tickets moved with great efficiency (with at least 3 or 4 volunteers keeping on top of things), and good news for everyone whose favored ATMs were on the fritz prior to driving over (like me): the admission table does take credit cards. Following the acquisition of the much-coveted wristband, I progressed to the line for the lobby ATM. While a longer wait (maybe 15 minutes), those around me had a good sense of humor whenever somebody would sincerely ask, “Who are you in line for?”
Following my ATM adventure, I met my friend in the room where a majority of the celebrity guests were gathered. Forming a border along the wall, the center section was a swarm of fans looking to get up close and personal with stars as varied as Oscar winner Louise Fletcher, original “Buffy” Kristy Swanson, guys who played Jason Voorhees (Ted White and C.J. Graham), Lucas and “Toothless” from Stranger Things, and even con mainstay Doug “Pinhead” Bradley (whose line seemed permanently stretched halfway across the room).
We both had clear ideas of who we wanted to meet, and began with the lovely Ashley Bell (from Carnage Park and The Last Exorcism, among others), who possessed an energy and enthusiasm that was infectious. MM 36 was her first proper convention, and she was elated to meet her fans. She had nothing but glowing things to say about her collaboration with director Mickey Keating and co-star Pat Healy in Carnage Park, and told me of Psychopaths’ (another Keating project) April premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. After graciously posing for a picture, she suggested making a phone call to Billy Crash (proprietor of this fine site!) and concluded by pointing me in the direction of Love and Bananas – an elephant documentary she’s involved with (also her Twitter handle). Though I committed a faux pas that I will take to my grave, Miss Bell embodied everything a fan could want in a convention guest – down to earth, energetic, and clearly passionate about the genre.
Years ago, my friend had a great alternative poster from John Carpenter’s The Thing, which was unfortunately damaged beyond repair in a house fire. Needless to say, he acquired a reprint for MM, which hosted a mini-reunion of the men of Outpost 36 – Thomas Waites (Windows); Peter Maloney (Bennings); con newcomer Wilford Brimley (Blair); and a nearly-missed Richard Masur (Clark).
In addition to first-time convention guests Bell and Brimley, cinematographer Dean Cundey (who shot Carpenter’s most well-remembered films) was also on hand. Keeping within the same universe, synth wizard Alan Howarth was there with a diverse selection of scores, and also closed out Saturday night with a free concert.
At the end of the day, my friend accumulated five signatures for his The Thing poster – not too shabby.
Nestled within the same corner of the room was the wonderful Barbara Crampton, who has worked in (Re-Animator; From Beyond; Castle Freak) and out (various daytime soap operas) of the genre over the years, and has been enjoying a career renaissance as of late, with efforts like You’re Next, We Are Still Here, and Sun Choke expanding her fan base even further. A line of about a dozen waited patiently for her to return from lunch; when she did, she paused to address the fans: “Thank you so much for waiting! I had to get something to eat!” (I suspect that Mrs. Crampton was really visiting the Fountain of Youth – we should all hope to look so amazing at 58.) When it was my turn, my photo choice was a no-brainer – a still from 2015’s Sun Choke, which I told her was her best performance, “Better than Emma Stone in La La Land,” to which she gave a good-natured (yet doubtful) laugh. Mrs. Crampton asked me what I did for a living as we posed for a photo, and revealed that her sister in Vermont was also a civil servant, to which she recited the line that led me to state government: “It’s a steady paycheck, and you get benefits.” ** It was a very human moment that recalled my meeting with Ashley Bell, and another testament to how down-to-earth genre stars can be.
With our usual approach of getting autographs out of the way, we engaged with Phase Two of our MM experience: slowing our pace to a zombie shuffle to be dazzled and lured by the varied wares in the vendors’ area. Everything from horror-based fridge magnets, original art prints, vintage posters, enamel pins, DVDs and Blu-rays, and custom apparel – among many other tempting items – were available in this extensive section.
One of the things I enjoy most about MM is that many vendors are mainstays, so there is a predictability to the layout that is comforting. Troma Films, for instance, takes up permanent residence at a corner table, complete with an alcove for photo ops with Toxie, Sgt. Kabukiman, and the Troma Girls.
After collecting some new pins and magnets, I picked up an out-of-print copy of Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (from a consistently reliable used-DVD & Blu-ray vendor), and dropped considerable coin at the Severin Films table (who were giving away free DVD copies of Richard Stanley’s Hardware with multi-disc purchases). My last stop was Vinegar Syndrome, where I complained about how abysmal Massage Parlor Murders is, and made humorous small talk with one of the slightly inebriated guys, who told me, “When the ATM runs out of money, it beams a signal to the guy who has to put money in the ATM” and – regarding his cell-phone’s cracked screen: “I threw it at a guy once, that’s why it’s cracked; you laugh – it’s true!” If the celebrities started my experience off on a high note, this encounter brought MM 36 to an entertaining close.
Some cons champion quantity over quality, but insofar as personality is concerned, MM has the consistent feeling of a curated exhibition – by fans, for fans. Despite the added stress of an overcrowded hotel this time around, even that tension was fleeting in the name of the wonderful community that descended on Cherry Hill for yet another horrifically satisfying weekend.
(* = Billy Crash can attest to this.)
(** = CC: Karen “Plate of Shrimp” Rice-Young)
(Photos of Barbara Crampton and Ashley Bell via Twitter.)
Crash Analysis Support Team:
Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.