Late January can only mean one thing around these parts – yet another visit to B-Fest, the annual bad movie marathon held on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. 24 hours of the worst that cinema has to offer, coming just frequently enough that a body can survive it year in and year out.
This particular B-Fest marked a special milestone: it was the first of my second decade of attendance (I first went as an NU sophomore way the hell back in 2002), with which I believe that I officially become an old hand. And as such, I get to indulge in the crabby old man sport of complaining about how much better everything used to be, and goddamn all these DVDs they’re project and for $35 I damn well expect to see some 16mm prints, dammit. Though, as has been the case, the jump from all-film to very nearly no film at all has had one extremely good side-effect, which is that A&O (the Northwestern student group that puts B-Fest on every year, and deserves more thanks for it than one blogger can ever provide) has been able to scrounge up some considerably rarities, including more direct-to-video trash. Indeed, as much as I would love to complain about the lack of celluloid, I can’t help but be honest and admit that B-Fest ’12 had just about the finest mixture of titles of any year I’ve attended, finding space for movies from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, multiple countries, multiple genres, a good mix of black-and-white and color, and finding just the right cross between obscure and famous bad movie classics. The schedule itself wasn’t perfect – the best stuff came during the wee hours of the morning, and it felt like it took forever for things to pick up after a solid opening film, but all in all, I have no real complaints. Not a blockbuster B-Fest, but there wasn’t a single overarching problem with it, like there have been in other years.
Okay, maybe one problem: not a single short other than the annual Wizard of Speed and Time. In most years, the weirdest and most inexplicable bits of B-Fest are the strange little short films the A&O folks are able to scrounge up; for no reason I can quite make out, they didn’t bother to this year.
The diary and reviews below the jump.
Friday, 27 January, 6:05 PM
It took all of this long for things to improve over the last couple of years; for the first time since 2008, B-Fest actually started more or less on time. And it started well, too, with Best of the Best, a 1989 picture about the world Tae Kwon Do championship between the underdog United States and the world-renowned team from Korea. As you would probably be able to guess, we follow the American team, coached by an inordinately shouty James Earl Jones and a washed-out Sally Kirkland as… I never quite got what Kirkland was there for, actually, other than to provide one single speaking role for a woman.
The team includes Eric Roberts, Chris Penn, James Spader look-alike John Dye, and Phillip Rhee, who co-wrote the story and produced; I presume he is related to the Simon Rhee who played the villain and did the film’s fight choreography. Accordingly, Rhee manages to snag the film’s densest character arc (away from Chris Penn! I know!), though BotB ends up playing much more as an ensemble piece than I would have predicted, especially given how much it otherwise leadenly copies Rocky.
It is a terrific B-Fest opener, on account of being so relentlessly simple that you can’t help but stay about 20 minutes ahead of the plot, and on account of having almost nothing but dumb rah-rah action sequences, and best of all, on account of having James Earl Jones deciding that the best way to cope with this particular humiliation was to double down on the bellicose shouting. “TEAMMMMM!” he shouts at one point, and thus gave the crowd its first chant that would last throughout the rest of the night, despite my couple of weak attempts to keep “sweet bellybutton”, a hugely noncommittal appreciation of a woman’s body in a wildly homoerotic film, in the mix.
Then things drove off the cliff for a little while, with The Astro-Zombies, a legendarily awful 1968 effort from the legendarily awful fringe filmmakerTed V. Mikels. If I am not mistaken, this is Mikels’s first film at B-Fest since The Corpse Grinders back in 2002, which happens to make it the first movie I ever slept through at the fest, on account of it being so irritating and dull. Astro-Zombies turns out to be a pretty dull affair itself, plagued by scenes that go on too long and then some, most notably a sequence in which John Carradine gamely conducts cinema’s longest experiment on a dead body, for every bit of 15 minutes of sizzling non-action.
The plot, I can barely guess at: Carradine plays a scientist making the titular Astro-Zombies, who look uncommonly like men in plastic masks (the design is actually kind of cool, undone by epically bad fabrication); there are some good scientists trying to figure out what’s causing all of these deaths; there are some criminals led by Tura Satana who are hoping to steal the zombies for their own use. Or something like that.
It all ties together, eventually, in the most strained and confused manner, and coupled with the longueurs of the whole thing, it made for a sub-optimal B-Fest entrant, especially this early on; it is the kind of bad movie that would, I think, be excellent with a couple friends and a few beers, but not with an auditorium full of people who, at this stage in the game, are still a bit over-stimulated and eager for something broad and stupid to tear into.
Broad and stupid, that is, like To Catch a Yeti, a Canadian TV movie from 1995 (the newest film at this year’s B-Fest) starring Meat Loaf as the world’s greatest big game hunter, Big Jake Grizzly. Better yet, it’s a TV kids’ movie, which finds Big Jake Grizzly yeti-hunting in the Himalayas to fulfill an order placed by a supremely wealthy New Yorker – he lives in a for-real castle – whose spoiled son wants one.
Of course, in a comic mix-up, the yeti (about three feet tall with huge feet and a face like a Furby) ends up in upstate New York with a mountain climber, and befriends his daughter, which leads to the expected conflict between the family trying to keep the creature safe, and the rich evil folks and hunter trying to capture it back. E.T. it ain’t. It’s hardly even Mac and Me.
What makes it work, beyond the general insanity of the notion that you can sell a three-foot creature as a yeti just because, is Meat Loaf’s weirdly committed performance, which both sets off the silliness of the whole thing and is in turn made all the more absurd by the contrast; a perfect blend of mismatched tones that ends up making the whole thing odder. That, and the horrible rich child, so miserable that even his awful parents end up fleeing the country to get away from him, and resulting in the inexplicable sight of a movie with a 10-year-old target audience that gets most of its humor, indeed most of its plot, from scenes of nasty physical abuse towards a child. Oh, and the way it briefly turns into Straw Dogs at the end. And the fairly total way that Canada does not look in any way like New York City or Nepal.
I sort of adored how idiotic it all was, but until the last third or so, the crowd didn’t seem much into it. Oh, well.
The raffle, which I lost, as I do. Not a huge fan of the tiny tickets they handed out this year, but money has to be saved where it can be, I guess
After being cozily ahead of schedule for the first quarter, things broke down entirely with The Wizard of Speed and Time, the first of only two movies shown on actual film. I suspect it was the first 16mm that the projectionist had ever been obliged to deal with, and it took forever to get things off the ground; but at least it happened, and we all got to enjoy that most wonderfully creative and technically accomplished indie film.
Incidentally, the schedule never recovered until the very end.
At this point, having seen Plan 9 from Outer Space so very many times,and wanting to load up on sleep, I decided to take a nap. This did not work out well (thanks, people having a loud conversation in the middle of a lobby full of sleeping people!), and I trickled in about 10 minutes before the end to find – horrors! – they’d foregone film for Plan 9 itself, and whatever copy they had broke up a couple times.
Saturday, 28 January, 1:32 AM
The blaxploitation slot was filled this year by Disco Godfather, or Avenging Disco Godfather if you prefer, a late example of the form (1979!) starring the stalwart Rudy Ray Moore, and teaching us all about the evils of Angel Dust, also known as PCP, or Angel Dust. That is totally an example of the dialogue from the film itself.
I won’t lie: this didn’t do it for me, as much as I was excited going in. Partially because of how much it feels like a PSA, and partially because Black Saturday Night Fever isn’t an idea with that much of a draw to it. The PCP freak-outs littering the movie, anchored by a kabuki witch of some sort, kept it from sinking too far into outright boredom, and Moore got to demonstrate some of the absolute worst fight choreography I have ever seen near the end, when the movie was in dire need of something that gaudy, so that was all helpful. But generally, I prefer good blaxploitation films to bad blaxploitation films, and Disco Godfather is really, really bad.
Death Bed: The Bed That Eats got some play in a Patton Oswalt routine that I was previously unfamiliar with, and there was a pretty obvious division between the viewers who were excited for the film because of that (the young hip folks) and those who responded more to the title and the overwhelming ’70s-ness of the opening shots (the B-movie aficionados). What none of us were expecting, to judge from the crowd noises – and this was the first point where a good number of people had gone to sleep – was how inscrutably artsy this was going to be.
It is a film about a man in a painting who taunts the demon living inside a bed that eats the people who, for no obvious reason, lie down for a nap in an abandoned manor house somewhere in God knows where. It is silly as shit, but played with aching seriousness, and lots and lots of voiceover (cheaper than sync-sound), and several shots of the bed’s digestive juices looking like a pool full of urine with plastic skulls in it.
I’ve got to say this for it: it’s memorable as hell. Shitty and inscrutable (though at least, unlike The Astro-Zombies, it all makes sense in the end, thanks to an awkward infodump), but memorable.
At one point, I had expressed the hope that Tarkan vs. the Vikings would be boring enough that i would be able to sleep through it. Hah! On the contrary, it was the peak of the whole fest, and perhaps one of the five best B-Fest films I have seen. Which is, of course, not the same thing at all as being a good film – no, not at all. A deliriously bad film, rather: a Turkish historical epic – the first subtitled movie I can ever recall seeing here – in which warrior Tarkan (Kartal Tibet) has to fight the Vikings – all of the Vikings – to rescue the “Hun Turk” princess Yonca (Fatma Belgen) and avenge the death of his adored dog. Also, there are a cabal of evil Chinese assassins in there. The Vikings are played by Turks in shitty wigs, and the Chinese are played by Turks in shitty wigs with terrible makeup; Tarkan is also played by a man in a shitty wig, probably so that he didn’t feel lonely.
There are films that can only be properly described as “giddy”; this is one of them. I’d heard legends of the dreadful special effects on display in Turkish genre films, but there’s hearing and there’s seeing, and with a flimsy inflatable octopus standing in as the Kraken, Tarkan vs.the Viking has quite a lot to see. A damn pity it showed so late, for its crazy energy and ludicrous script would have gone over well with a bigger crowd; but the copious nudity and violence probably sealed its fate.
And now, I really did need to sleep, and stayed awake through just enough to assure myself that 1987 DTV picture Mutant Hunt wasn’t going to be worth it.
I sort of woke up for Guru, the Mad Monk, but was awfully talky and didn’t make it easy to stay focused. It’s something of a Hammer knock-off about evil Father Guru (Neil Flanagan), who extorts and thieves and murders to increase his power and the power of his wicked church; he is aided in this by a hunchback and a woman wearing giant clothes who may be some kind of vampire (like I said, I wasn’t very focused), and thwarted by a pair of young lovers. Considering how cheap the whole thing had to have been, its re-creation of pre-industrial Europe was pretty convincing, and there was enough of a nasty, seedy edge that I’d sort of like to see it again in a better frame of mind, but it was boring as hell, and I was relieved it didn’t even break the one-hour mark.
Something to refresh a weary soul: 1957’s The Brain from Planet Arous, a magnificent entry in the “killer alien brain” subgenre, featuring the very best performance of John Agar’s career. It was one of only two movies I’d already seen at this year’s fest, but there’s no such thing as a bad time with this movie, which demonstrates as well as anything why the bad movies of the ’50s are so much better than the bad movies of any other decade: more commitment to weirder concepts, with actors who don’t seem to care about how loopy the dialogue or effects are.
Agar plays Steve Marsh, a scientist hunting nukes in the desert, at a site irresistibly named “Mystery Mountain”; there he is taken over by an alien brain called Gor, and starts to threaten the human race with nuclear annihilation unless he is granted… power, I guess? It mostly only matters that Gor is evil, and that there’s a good brain, Val, who helps Steve’s girlfriend (Joyce Meadows) and her dog save him and the whole world. Though really, even with a tremendously goofy plane explosion, we never get the sense that the whole world has much to fear.
Anyway, it’s a classic of the form, and very welcome, particularly at this hour of the morning.
Here was something so weird, I can’t quite decided what it even was: Stunt Rock, an Australian exploitation picture in which Oz stuntman Grant Page plays himself, American theater-rock group Sorcery plays themselves, and a nosy newspaper reporter gets to hear all about how movie stunts happen, and also how magic tricks happen, and look! Sorcery combines both stunts and magic tricks, and really bland early-’80s rock!
It’s not exactly good, and not exactly bad, just really fucking weird. There is no conflict to speak of; there is, in fact, no plot to speak of at all. Just Grant talking about stunts and doing stunts, with music interstitials. It’s hard to say whether this was more of a commercial for Australian stuntmen working in LA, or for Sorcery itself; what is unambiguously the case is that, at less than 90 minutes long, it didn’t have a chance to get boring simply on account of how inexplicable the whole thing was. And it was directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, of Megiddo: The Omega Code 2!
Weirdly, this was shown, not just on film, but on an anamorphic print.
Following the lunch break, we rejoined with a classic piece of 1980s cheese that I had never managed to see: beloved Patrick Swayze vehicle Road House. Perhaps it was just my sated stomach talking, but it was quite a delight in every possible way: incredibly serious about an incredibly dumb concept (a nationally famous bouncer fighting corrupt civic leaders while cleaning up a violent bar), with a number of overwrought, hugely unconvincing action sequences, and a huge crush on Swayze.
There’s almost nothing not to love about this film, from Kelly Lynch’s static performance as the love interest to Ben Gazzara’s suavely hammy performance as the villain; and it was a perfect B-Fest candidate as the one Big ’80s Movie of the year (a genre that has been over-worked some years, but as a once-per-slate thing, works wonders). A touch long, undoubtedly, but far too much silly fun to really care about that too much.
Particularly since the 1961 Italian film Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory followed, which was not nearly silly enough and far too long, despite being only about 85 minutes. I think there’s a real possibility that I was just too tired to deal with the relative subtlety of an Italian paranormal whodunnit that invents some of the goofiest reasons ever to turn every single character in the script into a red herring.
At any rate, it boasts some terrifically bad werewolf make-up and little else that’s really noteworthy; I think that it’s another film that might work better outside of the B-Fest setting, where it’s lower-key strangeness and odd rhythms don’t have to compete for so much attention.
The penultimate film this year was the second DTV feature, the incoherently-titled 1985 The Galaxy Invader, in which a fun assortment of redneck stereotypes hunt an alien in the woods.
The film lives and dies on your tolerance for redneck humor; mine is low, but the wonderfully shitty cheapness of the production and the wall-to-wall stupidity of the script made it perfect B-Fest fodder; it lives to be mocked. Seemingly half the cast was related to writer-director Don Dohler, and certainly, none of them were hired because of their talents; it has the unabashed feel of making a movie with your buddies, and doing whatever crazy shit comes to mind on the spur of the moment. Of all the films I saw this year, this is the one I’d be likeliest to recommend for a Bad Movie Party at home, with the proviso that you neither see it alone, nor sober.
For the third year running, we didn’t end with a Godzilla film, which continues to break my heart; but at leas the final film, It Came from Beneath the Sea, was a big monster picture from the 1950s (1955 in fact, making it the oldest film at this year’s B-Fest), and a big monster picture with Ray Harryhausen special effects, which makes it even better. The first time I ever saw this movie was at B-Fest 2003, in fact, which just made it that more special.
The film is not one of Harryhausen’s best – his work is stellar, but the build-up is a bit on the slow side – though for a 1950s monster picture, it’s pretty hard to fault this story of the Navy versus a huge octopus. I will confess that by this point, I was getting pretty much ready to flee, and the slow pace of the first 30 minutes didn’t help much, but there is never a wrong time for this kind of straitlaced science and military fighting nature story, done with such solid competence.
And with that, it was over; a solid, middle-of-the-road B-Fest without any truly awful movies (which is always disappointing), but with just enough that were exceptionally silly that the 24 hours went by pretty damn fast. Here’s to 2013!