I hope my recent extended absence didn’t get anyone scared. No, I did not have a five-day flu! This weekend was instead the latest edition of B-Fest at Northwestern University, America’s oldest – and I daresay finest! – celebration of the worst that cinema history has to offer.
Last year, regulars may recall, was a bit of a rough go for me, which had a profound impact on my celebrations this year. My decision not to use any sort of stimulants – not even a good old all-American bottle of Coca-Cola – meant that there was a precisely 0% of my making it through all 24 hours of bad movies, and for the first time since 2002, my very first year (making this my 10th B-Fest! Huzzah!), I made a deliberate point of napping.
It was hard to do that, though in retrospect it shouldn’t have been: there were an awful lot of appealing titles this year, though only one or two films so legendarily awful that I just knew they’d make for a legendary time (and, truth be told, though it was altogether one of the nicest B-Fests I’ve ever been to, there was no particular highlight, and the riffing throughout the whole audience was very surprisingly subdued). Still, the A&O people – the student group that runs the show – did a good job at mixing the tone up well, blending genres with great care, if not eras: 1950s cinema was essentially unrepresented, a act of frankly criminal misjudgment. Though there was a ’40s social message picture, it’s just not the same as seeing a mad scientist in a cardboard laboratory or a rubber monster with giant sequins for eyes in all the glowing loveliness of black-and-white. Still, the “modern” emphasis was fairly well-mixed between the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and since this is only going to get worse as the kids putting on the show keep getting younger (or rather, he admitted with a sigh, as I keep getting older), I’m happier with something like this than a heavier ’80s orgy than we’ve been getting for most of the last five years.
(Mitch, you really outdid yourself this year)
Friday, 28 January, 6:20 PM
Like last year, things were unusually slow to start off, which I am inclined to blame on the new all-DVD/VHS line-up, perhaps unfairly. No matter, the first film was the 1980 Italian superhero botch The Pumaman, in which a terrifically dense American learns that he is the heir to a centuries-old tradition of Aztec warriors who put on a magic belt to become Pumaman, a hero with all the powers of a puma. Such as flying, and warping through walls. Donald Pleasance is on hand as the villain, snarling and pronouncing “puma” as “pyooma”, and a splendid time is had by all.
The film was featured on a well-regarded episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but it very quickly became its own thing at B-Fest. It helped immensely that it was the first movie; the first movie is usually drowned out by the sound of the crowd simply being gassed about being back, and the stupid, bubbly music and generally Italianate giddiness of the whole affair was exactly what the first slot had to to be. The film itself is goofy more than bad, though the increasing desperation with which a field outside of Rome is made to stand in for Great Britain is awfully funny, and the profound ineptitude of Pumaman as a superhero certainly lends the film a baseline of idiocy that you could never, ever mistake for the demented artistry of an actual good Italian genre film from the era. All in all, a hell of a lot of fun, even without its familiar MST3K trappings, though I found myself singing “Pu-ma-man, fights like a moron” quite a lot to myself.
The ever-popular Chuck Norris slot went to his 1995 endeavor Top Dog, a ghastly weak film even by the standards of the dodgy “cop with a dog partner” subgenre. It’s Chuck vs. white supremacists in a PG-13 comedy, and while there’s no denying the appeal of seeing Norris in the right setting – and B-Fest is, bar none, the best place in the world to see a Chuck Norris movie – most of that appeal is gone in a PG-13 movie. It’s a magnificently cheap piece of crap, with inane dog-related jokes jumping off the screen with joyless abandon, and I know I’m not the only person who was happy when it was over, opportunities to semi-ironically cheer every time the hero kicked a villain notwithstanding. Bonus: Erik von Detten – Sid from Toy Story! – as a remarkably androgynous young person who keeps popping up to annoy and stop the plot, and to add a weird complication to the third act that goes absolutely nowhere.
After Mama Dracula, my friend and I had this little conversation:
He- “I don’t know if I loved it or hated it.”
I- “I know that I loved it, but I’m not sure why.”
Oh. My God. No doubt what was the highlight of my B-Fest: this fucking peculiar Belgian/French horror parody in which Oscar winner Louise Fletcher plays a thinly veiled version of Countess Elizabeth Bathory. Brothers Alexander and Marc-Henri Wajnberg play her twin vampire sons, Jimmy Shuman plays a crazy scientist named Professor Van Bloed, who looks too much luck Harold Lloyd for it to be an accident, and ’70s art-house darling Maria Schneider plays the girl who gets in the middle of all of it.
I’ve been trying for a while and failing to articulate just how massively strange the film is. It’s at heart a perverse anti-comedy that more than anything reminded me of Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula; the plot takes forever to start making sense (though once it has, it actually hangs together well, or at least better than the intensely hostile B-Fest crowd seemed to think), the jokes are manic and simple and crude, the cast is having an ecstatic time being weird – Fletcher especially, whose cartoon Transylvanian accent must be heard to be believed. It’s also so warped, and brazenly aware that it’s completely dysfunctional as a movie; I can’t help but want to sing its praises as a brilliant piece of outsider art. The crowd would certainly not agree with me on that, but nobody would dare deny that this was one of the most… memorable films at B-Fest. Awful lot of nudity, though; this would have been a perfect 1:30 AM film.
Don’t be surprised if it pops up for a full review sometime down the line.
The raffle. After my uncharacteristic spot of luck last year, I was of course back to winning nothing, while the number immediately higher than mine was the second-to-last called. For a poster of Scary Movie, so who’s actually the loser?
The Wizard of Speed and Time, which is now and ever a short of such incredible enthusiasm and creativity that it remains my favorite 10 minutes of every single B-Fest.
Saturday, 29 January, 12:00 AM
And… it finally happened. I’ve done Plan 9 from Outer Space every January for nine straight years, and it has finally lost all of its charm for a little while, and I needed sleep. So I slept.
After the raffle we were back on schedule, so Blackenstein was ready to go right on time, and I was pumped. Blaxploitation horror has done well at B-Fest before, and I’d never seen this one, and even though it would have been nice to sleep right on through, I couldn’t miss it.
I should have missed it. Blackenstein is noteworthy mainly for the degree to which nothing happens, and the barbarically incompetent directing with which it does not happen. Not to mention that the Frankenstein is himself white; but Frankenstein’s Black Monster doesn’t pair well with Blacula. Anyway, the film was a stultifying bore, the audience wasn’t into it at all, and it was all in all the low-point of the fest.
The next MST3K veteran: Manos: The Hands of Fate. It’s a hugely classic episode that I’ve seen several times, and the movie is so horrible that even the treatment it gets there barely makes it watchable; I was damn well not going to subject myself to it naked. Nap #2
A perfectly delightful Canadian public service cartoon: Hot Stuff. Basically serving to point out that unattended electronics with faulty wiring can start fires, it’s a fluffy exploration of man’s relationship to fire throughout the ages done in the shaky, charming style common to many early-’70s Canadian animated shorts. Look, I’ve made no secret of my weakness for Canadian cartoons, alright? And though this was perfectly silly, it was fun.
This, though, was not fun at all, even though it was the film I was most excited for going into the fest: The Manitou, a ’78 Exorcist knock-off in which Tony Curtis faces off with the ghost of a Native American medicine man. An evil medicine man. The first half, culminating in a visit to Crazy Burgess Meredith, has a healthy splash of bad-movie energy with several over-qualified actors trying to put over some very stupid material, but the air goes out of it like a switch was flipped, and the rest of the movie, despite some effects too cheap to match their ambition, simply drags. Maybe the problem was the time slot – I was desperately tired. Anyway, the last bit, with a naked woman shooting laser beams out of her hands at the Indian god of chaos, is certainly weird enough to make you take notice, but it’s too little, too late.
After that, it was definitely time for more sleep. So I missed Undefeatable, and to judge from the prattle in the room, I wish I hadn’t.
I also meant to sleep through I Accuse My Parents – been there, watched the MST3K episode – but there was too much noise, so I gave up. And it wasn’t half a bad thing to have done: though the movie itself is just a sleepy ’40s message picture (“parents, don’t let your kids join the mob”), the screaming urgency with which that message is presented, in a most incredibly inorganic way, got the audience more than revved up. It’s probably not bad enough for B-Fest, just like it wasn’t bad enough for Joel and the bots, but it was a fast hour.
One of my favorites of all the Nature Gone Amok subgenre: Night of the Lepus from 1972, in which colored beakers of Science! turns pesky bunny rabbits into man-eating giants the size of Volkswagens. Janet Leigh and DeForest Kelly are on hand to embarrass themselves; stuntmen in bunny suits (only barely glimpsed, it must be admitted) embarrass themselves more; and all in all the movie mostly serves to prove that even when you drench a rabbit in stage blood, it’s still an ickle cute-ums. I’m sure most of the crowd had seen this one before – it’s by far the most classically Bad Movie of everything in this year’s line-up – but with most of us re-energized from a sleep of whatever duration, this got a strong response. How can it fail to? Man-eating giant rabbits! If part of you isn’t at least somewhat interested in seeing this one, I don’t know that I can help you.
I’d hoped to get at least a couple more hours of sleep over the night than I did, and it took its toll during American Ninja. Which is a crying shame, since Michael Dudikoff’s first outing as the army punk fighting ninja mercenaries and taking down a Philippine strongman was exactly the crazy-ass ’80s action movie that Top Dog so badly wasn’t, with notorious B-movie gods Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus doing all they could to pander to the most savagely ignorant 12-year-old boy that 1985 could produce, at least during the best parts of what I saw; but the two-thirds I was awake for didn’t include most of the finale, which I’m sure would have had all the ninja action that was only intermittently popped up during the rest. As it was, I got two amazing scenes, a lot of build-up, and a foggy impression of how much idiotic awesomeness I was missing. A pity.
Pretty clearly the unanimous pick for Best in Fest was Skidoo, Otto Preminger’s notorious hippie satire from 1968, and the last film of Groucho Marx’s career. I’ve seen it argued that this simply has to be a more cunning movie than it seems, that Preminger absolutely could not have done something this bad; but yes, this is exactly what a stodgy old conservative trying to make a movie that would appeal to the counterculture looks like. It happened a lot, just never with a director of such clout behind the wheel.
It’s a hypnotic mash-up of famous people from Jackie Gleason to Mickey Rooney, some really good Harry Nilsson songs (his entirely sung-through end credits were greeted with absolutely honest, legitimate cheers of delight), and a plot of gangsters and hippies. Not gangsters versus hippies, not really, and that’s just one of the film’s problems: a whole lot of shit happens, but nothing really happens. And the jokes are peculiarly aggressive in their unfunniness, and the copious drug references were clearly not the result of first-hand experience, with Preminger executing an LSD trip that feels almost like a parody of the many horrible drug scenes in movies of the era. Which brings us back to the “Skidoo is subversively brilliant!” argument, and I’m not going there.
Lastly: Carol Channing strip-tease. That alone tells you if you want to see this movie, ever in your live, or not.
The best ’80s movie of the early 1990s: Cool as Ice, a powerfully ill-conceived vehicle for lightning-hot rapper Vanilla Ice, who here plays the leader of a motorcycle gang that gets stalled in some L.A. suburb or another, where Mr. Ice falls for a rich kid played by Jennifer Connelly look-alike Kristin Minter. It’s often noted as being a crypto-remake of Rebel Without a Cause, though Nicholas Ray wasn’t filmmaker enough to imagine the magnificent rap-scored montages in which Mr. Ice and Ms. Fake-Connelly cavort in a construction site. Nor did James Dean’s “iconic” leather jacket sport such hip and with-it terms as “Sex Me Up”, “Deep”, “Ice”, and “Down by Law.”*
Almost painful to look at it in its explosion of lurid ’90s white kid rap colors; even more painful when you find that it was shot by Janusz “Schindler’s List” Kaminski. It is tacky and profoundly stupid and the acting hurts and Ice is even more deeply obnoxious than the alleged Snobby Rich Chode he’s competing with, and despite my general annoyance with the modernisation of B-Fest, I’m always ecstatic when this one shows up.
It’s not a Japanese kaiju, but at least the fest ended right, with an East Asian big monster movie: the Shaw Brothers’ Mighty Peking Man, a Hong Kong ripoff of King Kong and a film much loved by one Quentin Tarantino. Even by Kong knock-off standards, this one is pretty damn brazen; but the few new details – primarily that the Fay Wray character is also coming to the developed world from the jungle, replete with barely-there animal-hide bikini – add enough spice to make it fun.
And what fun! The film is cheesy; the film is ridden with plot-holes; the film includes way too many shots of a clearly drugged-up leopard being mauled like a ten-week-old kitten for comfort; but the film is pure delight from start to finish. The filmmakers clearly loved what they were doing, and Mighty Peking Man makes up for in childlike glee what it lacks in logic or competence. A lot of these movies drag when the monster isn’t stomping through downtown Whatever City; here, the lead-up is so loopy that the carnage is practically an afterthought. The weird flirtation between the wild girl (Evelyne Kraft) and the lost adventurer (Li Hsiu-Hsien) who finds her animal paradise, has more than enough giddy bad movie energy for another whole picture.
No, it’s not a rubber moth destroying Tokyo, but it was an awfully nice cap to a B-Fest that more than made up for the personal implosion I suffered in 2010. Though it swung from one minor point to another, the whole fest, it was, pound for pound, one of the most enjoyable B-Fests I think I’ve ever been to; but then, none of these are ever truly bad.