BY DON STRADLEY
Do you believe in ghosts? I do. Sort of…
It’s not that I have any compelling evidence, but I find it more fun to believe than to not believe. Of all the skeptics I’ve known, none have been fun at a party. Give me a roomful of believers, and I can almost guarantee a nicer bunch of people, not to mention tastier stuff at the buffet.
Watching The Life After Death Project, a 2- disc DVD set collecting a pair of made for TV documentaries that aired on ScyFy last year, didn’t sway me one way or the other, but I look forward to more by director Paul Davids. I watch a lot of documentaries, and most of them eventually lapse into cuteness or self-indulgence. A lot of them are 90 minute selfies. Davids won me over because he simply allows people to talk, to describe what they’ve experienced. He doesn’t bother with cheesy recreations, and doesn’t try to scare us. What Davids does is create a mood as if we’re sitting around a campfire telling stories. What’s better than that?
Disc one is the winner. It’s about Davids’ relationship with Forrest J Ackerman, the editor and publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland, a fun magazine that had a curious impact on a certain faction of male children born after 1955. Davids knew Ackerman, and is convinced that his old friend and mentor is haunting him. Davids interviews some other people from Ackerman’s circle, and they, too, have experienced odd happenings that suggest a possible close encounter of the Forry kind. Apparently, the man known to his closest admirers as “Uncle Forry” still enjoys a good practical joke, even from beyond the grave.
Where the movie really kicked in for me was when Davids enlisted the help of various psychics. The trio, all female, each took a crack at speaking to Ackerman. The outcomes were fascinating. One psychic in particular described Ackerman perfectly. I’m aware that the psychic scenes could’ve been rigged in the editing, but so what? I was entertained, which is a rarity these days. And if Ackerman’s friends say that he visits them in their dreams, I’ll take them at their word. (After all the money I spent on FMOF back in my childhood, I’m expecting a visit, too. Forry, if you’re out there, I’m in Rockport MA, and I usually go to bed around 1:00 AM. Stop on by.)
Davids was obviously very passionate about the Ackerman story, so disc two suffers a bit in comparison. It's mostly a series of talking head sequences where various people discuss the subject of life after death. Even though it’s not as fun as the first disc, some of disc two is quite interesting, particularly when Davids talks to nurses and hospice care workers who have some amazing stories to tell.
There are allegedly some extra features on the first disc, including some interviews with Ackerman and more spooky talk, but they weren’t on my reviewer’s copy. Perhaps this was another of Forry’s post life practical jokes.
For a better understanding of Forrest J Ackerman’s life, you could do worse than watch Uncle Forry’s Ackermansions, now on DVD from Novemberfire.com. It’s a 70 minute labor of love from November Fire founder Strephon Taylor and Tom Wyrsch, combining a lot of home movies, plus some old interviews where Forry sat with Northern Ca. horror host Bob Wilkins to tell stories about Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and others.
Ackerman was the original fanboy. He created science fiction fanzines, organized fan clubs, amassed what is probably the largest collection of sci-fi and horror memorabilia in the world, and was eventually hired by publisher James Warren to helm Famous Monsters of Filmland. He had a generous side, often opening his home to the public, allowing other fans to come in and enjoy his collection.
What drives a collector? Is it a kind of gluttony? Does it stem from adolescent desire to have more than the other kids? Is at overcompensation for something lacking in a person's life? I’ve known some collectors, and their tunnel vision can be off-putting. A few are downright unhinged. A study should be done. Unfortunately, this particular documentary doesn't tackle any serious questions about the inner-workings of obsessive collectors. It's just a fun jaunt through Ackerman's various homes.
Ackerman is at his most likable when he talks of his 1920s childhood, when he attended as many as seven movies in one day. He sounds humble when he discusses how he fell in love with “fantastic films,” and even as an old man he still seemed smitten by the robot from Metropolis. Those years must have had a profound impact on him, for he spent the next five decades trying to relive them. This is the Ackerman I wish I had known, the one I might have called “Uncle.”