It’s easy to forget that every field has its pioneers. Even movie fandom, which may seem trivial to most people, had its trailblazers. Long before fan conventions, Internet chat rooms, and self-satisfied movies that telegraph their in-jokes (e.g. Scream), someone had to do the heavy lifting of actually defining what it means to be a fan of the fantastic. Forrest J. Ackerman, who passed away in early December of 2008, was one such devotee. He amassed what must have been the world’s largest collection of movie memorabilia, and let complete strangers into his house every Saturday to view it, free of charge. In addition, in 1958, the colorful Ackerman founded Famous Monsters of Filmland, the prototypical horror movie magazine. As he generously shared his love of all things horror and sci-fi, he singlehandedly inspired an entire generation of budding American filmmakers.
John Landis and Joe Dante in particular knew how to show their appreciation. Landis had Ackerman make appearances in Kentucky Fried Movie and Beverly Hills Cop III, among others, and even put him right behind Michael Jackson in the Thriller video. (Landis himself can be seen among the theater patrons, as well.) Dante, meanwhile, gave Ackerman a cameo in Hollywood Boulevard, his 1976 directorial debut. Then, five years later, Ackerman memorably cropped up in Dante’s The Howling, as a cranky patron in an occult bookstore.
Ackerman’s silent but expressive presence is just one element in what amounts to in-joke nirvana. Dante veteran Dick Miller is Walter Paisley, the proprietor—Miller had played characters with that name in both A Bucket of Blood (1958) and Hollywood Boulevard, and he would do so three more times after The Howling. In a fittingly macabre touch, Paisley has decorated the premises with the withered armchair corpse seen in Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Nice! And of course, as Ackerman browses the shelves and displays, the sneaky devil is clearly clasping a couple of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Sadly, the magazine would fold only two years later, after a steady, decade-long decline.
The last 15 years of Ackerman’s life were no picnic. A relaunched Famous Monsters of Filmland brought a lawsuit and financial woes, and his health deteriorated. Adding insult to injury, he had to sell most of his impressive collection and the mansion that had housed it. But through it all, as this LA Times article from early 2003 shows, he kept his spirits and enthusiasm up. (Ackerman’s LA Times obituary is also worth a read.) And as long as people like you and me are captivated by the darker and more fanciful movies out there, the immeasurable influence of Uncle Forry will live on.