Even in this post-Mystery Science Theater 3000 world of ours, you’ll still sometimes find a person who simply doesn’t understand, Why bad movies? Why on earth would a smart cinephile waste time watching a bad movie when there are so many good movies to watch? I have an answer to that question, as it turns out, which is that you can learn a great deal more about how movies function when you pick apart one that doesn’t work than when you praise one that does – a point of view maybe better-suited for filmmakers than filmgoers, but that’s as may be.
My greater point, though, was a concession: I have of late come around to the idea that perhaps bad movies aren’t so benign as all that. See, this past weekend was B-Fest 2010 – B-Fest, long-time readers know, being an annual 24-hour bad movie marathon hosted at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois every January – and it is a direct result of that marvelous event that so often is the highlight of my year that I am currently sitting around with the worst cold I’ve had in so long I can hardly remember how long it’s been, for reasons that will shortly become clear. Not a coincidence, maybe, that this year had, pound for pound, the worst movies of any B-Fest I’ve attended (I’m up to 9, now): usually, there’s one or maybe two flat-out incomprehensibly terrible movies – Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?, Jungle Hell, Invasion of the Star Creatures, and their ilk – but this year, there were five, out of 14 total features. And some of them were a whole lot of fun, in all their curdling awfulness, but there was a lot of bad cinema pouring off the screen, and well… I’m fucking sick, that’s all I know.
The 2010 B-Fest was marked by two other things, besides an unusual number of truly awful movies: A&O (the NU student group that runs the show) has finally and, one assumes, irrevocably embraced projecting DVDs, rather than digging up the increasingly rare and costly 16mm (and the odd 35mm) prints that used to be the Fest’s standard. if I didn’t mis-count, only two features, two shorts, and one trailer were projected from film this year. I am not terribly happy about this development, but it’s not something that can be helped much at all: thus I blame no-one but the encroaching march of time.
What I can and do blame A&O for is the layout of the Fest’s schedule, which seems all the more clumsy coming after last year’s unusually elegant schedule. Consider: within the first three films, we’d had two martial arts pictures and two ’80s movies; both of the ’50s monster movies (not enough, but last year was pretty black-and-white heavy, so I’m not inclined to complain that loudly) came after lunch; the most boring film of the year came second-to-last, when we desperately need something hugely peppy and insane, like last year’s penultimate Megaforce. I’d also like to know if they couldn’t or just forgot to find a Godzilla movie for the last slot, but that’s something of a different issue.
Anyway, enough of that. On to the films!
Friday, 29 January, 2010 – 6:23 PM
It took a long time for them to figure out how to manage this new DVD projection thingy, maybe the longest delay I can ever remember. Finally, though, they got things started with Crippled Masters, a marvelously incompetent Shaw Bros. knock-off (made either in Taiwan or Hong Kong, depending on who you trust). It tells the story of two kung fu fighters who are punished by their evil boss by mutilation: one gets his arms chopped off, the other gets his legs melted by acid; but they get their revenge by becoming better fighters than ever before, learning how to use their individual talents together.
The two leads were genuine kung fu artists with the same disabilities as their characters (though I don’t think they came by them the same way), and to my knowledge, they made three films together: the third (I haven’t seen the second), Fighting Life, is in my opinion even more outlandishly delightful, with its afterschool special morality and a character named, in the English dub, Landlady – an hypnotically awful caricature of screaming womanhood. But Crippled Masters sure does get the job done: from its “high schoolers with a video camera in the back yard” fight choreography to some ludicrously dis-continuous editing, and a villain whose evil plot is never even vaguely clear, this is high cheese from start to finish, and a pretty ideal way to kick off B-Fest: transparently bad, and so impossible to follow that it doesn’t matter that the crowd is too noisy to pay attention to the script.
And then the brakes kicked in, and we screamed to a halt, with the first of the Unholy Five: Heartbeeps. A massive bomb that I was delighted to learn premiered the same day I did, 18 December, 1981, Heartbeeps stars Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters as Val and Aqua, two humanoid robots who end up in the GM robot repair shop on the same day, and for incredibly obscure reasons decided to trek off into the woods with a monumentally obnoxious Borscht Belt comedy-bot named Catskil (voiced by Jack Carter), who chomps on a robot stogie while mouthing jokes written by none other than Henny Youngman.
Nothing about this movie makes sense: not the function of robots in this tremendously ill-defined future society, nor what in hell Val and Aqua are looking for – we can assume it’s some sort of hunt for humanity, but that’s bringing our knowledge of other robot stories into the film, and not working off of what the film gives us. It’s a romantic story, after a fashion, but neither of the protagonists ever seem to express romantic emotions; or any emotions either, thanks to a weirdly cartoonish performance by Kaufman (no! really!) and Peters just being stilted and awful. A peculiarly good John Williams score and some rather convincing Stan Winston make-up (Oscar-nominated make-up, at that!) aren’t nearly enough to save this movie from being off-putting and strange and worst of all, completely boring. Do you know what it sounds like when an audience is stunned into silence by dullness? You learn how to identify it at B-Fest, and it was deafeningly quiet in that room.
A fun note: my seat-mate whispered at one point that he just knew that it was going to end with Val and Aqua having a robot baby. False! The robot baby came less than a minute after he whispered this prediction. I didn’t forgive him all festival.
A former B-Fest mainstay that hasn’t shown up since my very first dance, 2002: Gymkata, the gorgeously silly Reagan-era tale of an Olympic-class gymnast named Jon Cabot (Kurt Thomas, an American Olympic gymnast) who is trained by some sp00k group or another in the martial arts (hence “gymkata”: gymnastics + karate), so that he can win The Game, a deadly cross-country run in some central Asian country which usually has no survivors at all, but if there ever is a survivor, he gets to ask the Kahn of that country for any wish. The U.S. wants Cabot to win and ask the Kahn for the rights to put a base in his country, since it is a geographically perfect spot for a Star Wars anti-missile platform to be launched.
YES! It is a crazed martial arts action film about the Star Wars program. What screams “1985” more than that precise combination? Especially with the bodyguards dressed suspiciously like ninjas? It’s not enough to make-up for the disappointing absence of either a Golan-Globus film or a Chuck Norris vehicle this year, but it is zanily enjoyable for the same reason both of those subgenres are: a plot that is both paper-thin and horribly complicated at the same instant, with stupidly big action that makes no sense. And that’s before it gets to the strange third-act “now we are in an Italian horror movie” sequence, as Cabot must navigate a town of insane villagers.
This is old-hat to most of the B-Fest crowd, and we lapped it up with hoots and cheers, the way you’d greet any dismally stupid old friend.
The annual raffle – and it briefly looked like this was going to be a red-letter Fest for me, since I finally won for the first time in nine tries! Ironically, the DVD I got, House on Haunted Hill, happens to be a movie I just received for Christmas in the excellent William Castle Collection. But still, it’s nice to finally win something.
The night’s first short film. Now, the shorts are often not that “bad”, nor that “B-picture”; last year’s “The Concert” is a great example. And even the features are often not bad, either: a couple years ago, there was quite a to-do about King Kong screening at the Fest, as being both a masterpiece and not at all a B-film, even if it was a creature picture (it was quite expensive back in 1933). And of course, the blaxploitation films are usually pretty damn great, if you’re willing to concede that such a thing as “great blaxploitation” exists, and if you’re not, I can’t imagine why you’re reading this blog.
Still, I cannot recall any film in my experience or in the years I’ve read about that is so flat-out a masterpiece of the art of filmmaking to ever screen at B-Fest as Chuck Jones’s 1955 “One Froggy Evening”. I mean, it’s great to see it, by all means, especially on film. But what the living hell was this doing at B-Fest? I still haven’t even started to figure it out.
“The Wizard of Speed and Time”. An annual tradition, and still as magnificent as ever.
Saturday, January 30, 12:00 AM
Plan 9 from Outer Space. The other annual tradition, and I’m really, really starting to get bored with it. This year in particular, it would have been a good idea for me to follow my impulse and take a nap.
The good folks at Stomp Tokyo, who every year do so much to get B-Fest together, didn’t have the money to sponsor screen-printed plastic cups this year. So the A&O kids came out and gave everyone in the audience a little red solo cup that they’d written “B-Fest” on in black marker. Tremendously cute.
Another short: I would swear it was called “Ego Trap”, my friend would equally swear it was called “Ego Trip”, and either way I can’t find reference to it on the internet. It was actually a fun little cartoon about an airplane designer whose maniacal boss kept making him redesign a new model until it was totally unflyable, and looked just like the boss. The art style was much like a UPA film, but I am sure it wasn’t UPA. As with most B-Fest shorts that aren’t wickedly bad, the audience mostly milled about or watched silently.
The second of the Five, and one of the biggest deals at B-Fest 2010: The Room, a 2003 romantic drama of literally incredible ineptitude. This one has been a cult favorite for a couple of years at least, but weirdly, B-Fest people tend not to be cult movie people in the midnight movie sense, so virtually everyone I spoke to or overheard was seeing it for the very first time. It was written, directed and produced by Tommy Wiseau, who also stars as Johnny, in one of the most indescribably dysfunctional performances ever given in the English language (though, to be fair to Wiseau, it is altogether possible that he is not a native speaker; his biography is maddeningly opaque).
There is so damnably much wrong with the movie that your brain simply refuses to acknowledge the possibility that it wasn’t done on purpose. It starts with a ten-minute concept drawn out to ten times that length: Johnny’s fiancée, Lisa (Juliette Danielle), no longer loves him, so she seduces his best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero), who feels quite guilty about it. Add in Denny (Philip Haldiman), the teenage orphan that Johnny has taken in, who keeps saying things that can only possibly be interpreted as meaning that he likes to watch Johnny and Lisa having sex. Add dialogue that seems to have come from a computer translating out of a non-Indo-European language that lacks verb tenses. And film it using a style that indicates that the man behind the camera has never watched a movie, let alone attended film school. Again, I almost need to believe it’s an elaborate joke. Certainly, Wiseau seems to be in on it (he attends midnight screenings whenever he can). Whatever the case, this is eye-popping anti-cinema at its most delirious. I can’t really describe it. You need to see it, preferably with an audience.
The bad news: about three-quarters through the film, I started to get some stomach pains. “Damn, shouldn’t have skimped on meat protein at dinner”, thinks I, assuming it’s just the gas pains that sometimes happen when I have too many carbs and not enough of anything else.
For the third year running, we see the trailer for the 2000 rapsploitation drama Black and White. A&O must own it, or something – nobody at the Fest really responds to it, and other than the list of forgotten rappers in the cast, there’s nothing remotely interesting about it.
The first-ever B-Fest appearance by director Andy Sidaris, known for his sexy action pictures: Hard Ticket to Hawaii – and I was starting to feel pretty damn bad by this point. Bad enough that I did something I’ve never, ever done: I left the theater to go lie down. All I’d seen by that point was some cutely cheesy credits involving stencils on boxes, and a marvelously fake snake puppet. My seat-mate stayed for all of this film, as well as Greydon Clark’s Black Shampoo, and he’s promised to provide a write-up of those two films; I’ll update this post when that’s done. Neither of us managed to make it through The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, but we’ve each seen it a number of times – and frankly, it’s a bit too knowingly campy for my tastes for it to be at B-Fest anyway.
So here’s the deal: it turns out that my gas pains were actually a gallbladder attack. And while a small enough gallbladder attack isn’t going to send you to the hospital (five hours of sleep, and I was good enough to go), it’s not the kind of thing you’re just able to get up and walk away from. For most of the Fest that followed, I was pretty well wiped out and often not as attentive to the films as I should have been; it didn’t help that two of the remaining six features were so damn boring that I’d have been hard pressed to keep my eyes open even if I wasn’t feeling weak.
Incidentally, we’re not sure what caused the attack: I had a lot of greasy fat at lunch, but it was more than 14 hours later that I got sick. The last thing I’d put in my body, about 50 minutes prior, was a 5-Hour Energy; but my doctor doesn’t think that could possibly have been the trigger. All I know is that I’d been fighting a cold for over a week by this point, and the lack of sleep, plus the massive amount of wear on my body, including GROSS-OUT ALERT the ten minutes I spent puking up bile END GROSS-OUT ALERT left me wobbly enough so that the damn cold virus just swept through me like a wildfire; and here I still am.
I woke up from restive sleep just in time to see the third of the Five: Claudio Fragasso’s legendary Troll 2, making its very first B-Fest appearance. This is, to me, one of the truly Great Bad Movies of all time; my seat-mate would disagree, violently. He’d never seen it, and didn’t know what to expect; this was my third trip to this particular well, and it seemed fair on those grounds to lie down in our empty aisle and just listen to the crowd while the unspeakably idiotic proceedings unwound. Have you not seen Troll 2? Then shame on you: for there is hardly a more mesmerising cavalcade of terrible ideas, terribly executed (Fragasso is one of the all-time dreadful Italian horror directors: he was responsible for Zombi 4: After Death, and helped – without credit – on Bruno Mattei’s epochally wretched Hell of the Living Dead), all of it bone-shatteringly hilarious. The audience, for the record, seemed to respond to it in the spirit it deserves: jaw-dropping incomprehension mixed with laughter.
“Nilbog! It’s ‘goblin’ spelled backwards! This is their kingdom!“
A DVD of the next feature included two trailers for British rocker pictures in the early 1960s: The Leather Boys and The Yellow Teddy Bears. I really want to see the latter of these: every new cut seemed to introduce some brand-new plotline, and I cannot conceive of how it all fits into one feature.
In the tradition of last year’s surprisingly intriguing time capsule Don’t Knock the Rock, we now got a 1963 film about the burgeoning rock scene in England: Live It Up! My God, was it ever boring. As a history lesson, it is valuable mostly for showcasing what the state of English rock music was right before The Beatles came along and, well, were The Beatles: it turns out that The Beatles stepped into a fetid wasteland of tepid boy groups that made even the miserable interregnum in the States between Buddy Holly and 1964 look like a fountainhead of musical excellence. The plot is absolutely perfunctory, as it should be; the songs are also absolutely perfunctory, and that is what made this, to me, one of the biggest chores to sit through at this year’s fest.
Lunch! Or, as I called, it “40 Minutes of Nap, Because Goddamn, I Am Not Enough of a Fool to Put More Food in My Stomach Right Now”.
I think it safe to assume that Fiend Without a Face is the only film from the Criterion Collection ever to appear at B-Fest; and thanks to the new DVD policy, we even saw the Criterion logo! The film itself is a weird chimera: a British-produced film about what Canadians thought about the American military presence in Canada during the Cold War. For the most part, it’s just a standard-issue 1950s sci-fi monster movie about some unseen killer that is killing people unseen, though three-quarters through the Fest, it was about damn time for even a standard-issue 1950s monster movie.
But oh Lord! the last 15 minutes! Made up for everything and then some with these really awesome monsters that turned out to be crawling brains with spinal cords, realised through fairly good stop-motion animation, and killed in what must have been an unthinkable level of graphic gore for 1958. I think I might have enjoyed those last 15 minutes as much as I enjoyed any other stretch of this year’s B-Fest; but then, I am a right whore for 1950s B-movies, and this turned out to be a real corker. I still have no idea at all why it ended up in the Criterion Collection.
The fourth of the really bad movies, 1978’s Sextette: in which 85-year-old Mae West delivers several of the same naughty one-liners that she was famous for back in the pre-Code days, forty years earlier (I was going to call them double-entendres, but there is really just the one entendre).
It’s not fair to West to say that the problem with the film is that she looks like a god-damned mummy spouting off sexually suggestive jokes; but life just isn’t fair at times. And that is exactly the problem with Sextette, which goes from being a hectic, joyless farce to a mind-splitting Bad Movie on West’s brittle, octogenarian shoulders. There’s a certain nobility to the project, trying to prove that West still had that sexy oomph all those years later; and I dig that the film turns around the usual “old man with a young trophy wife” formula, by centering on West’s honeymoon with Timothy Dalton. But nobility only takes you so far.
Oddly, the best thing about the film is probably that West still had the coming timing of her youth, though there’s absolutely no reason not to just go and watch all her old movies where the same jokes were fresher and directed by better filmmakers. Because everything else is beyond a train-wreck: it’s a damn mid-air collision of awful farce, bizarre political satire, inexcusable characters and the absolute worst musical numbers you will ever see; the ones that jump out are Dom DeLuise singing Paul McCartney’s “Honey Pie” to a cardboard cut-out of West (this came out the same fucking year as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – who was watching the store at Apple Records in the 1970s?) and Dalton and West “duetting” on “Love Will Keep Us Together”, which really means Dalton crooning terribly, while West just says “stop!” occasionally. The audience, meanwhile, was screaming “Stop!” as loudly as we could.
Naturally, for something so crass, and ill-conceived, Sextette enjoyed by far the most energetic riffing of anything that screened at the fest. A dead necessity for fans of kitsch.
The last of the terrible five, an Italian sci-fi movie called The War of the Robots. This is often called a Star Wars rip-off, but it isn’t, not so baldly as many Italian Star Wars rip-offs; once you get past the glowing light swords, the princess with funky hair, and the evil Empire, the plot is actually quite different. And that plot? Well… I’ll get back to you on that one. It involved someone being kidnapped and other people rescuing them and one character who we thought was evil turning out to be good and then being evil again, and an army of robots that don’t seem all that robotic.
What sets this one apart from every other outlandishly designed, insensible Italian sci-fi picture of the era is the excruciating final third, in which the heroes’ ship keeps fighting off enemy fighters, wave after wave, over and over again, without stop, unceasing in its monotony, one after the other unending… I fell asleep and then woke up five or ten minutes later to find that absolutely nothing had changed. I have not been that abysmally bored at a movie in a very long time, indeed. The audience seemed harsher on this film than anything else, largely because it was so freaking monotonous, but for my money there were so many more absolutely insane films that I’d call it the least terrible of the Five.
If they couldn’t give us a Godzilla picture, at least the ended with a giant beast that laid wreck to models: The Giant Claw. This movie is famous for two things: it’s oddly specific lack of knowledge about subatomic particles, and one of the stupidest-looking monsters in ’50s moviedom, a giant space vulture that wouldn’t look terribly out of place in Fraggle Rock. This is another one of those “of course you’ve seen this. You haven’t? Well, jeeze, go out and see it, then!” movies that every B-picture lover should know; my favorite part, besides the monster, is a witty [sic] banter scene between the two romantic leads where they’re talking about sex using baseball as a code that gets so complex that by the end, you’re pretty sure they’re actually just talking about baseball. That, and the ludicrous French Canadian homesteader. Gotta love those cartoon French Canadians.
And there it ended. A pretty good slate of films, maybe a hint too modern, but almost all worthy of B-Fest; I only regret that I had such a terrible go of the last two-thirds. Not my worst personal B-Fest of all (for Christ’s sake, I found out I had a tumor in my lung at B-Fest 2005), but it deserved more than I could give it.