In the heart of Chicago’s ice-cold January – even an unseasonably warm ice-cold January like this one – nothing is so warming and cozy as the annual tradition of B-Fest, the annual 24-hour bad movie marathon held on the campus of Northwestern University, put together by that school’s student group A&O Productions
It is a magic experience, year in and year out, as a couple of hundred faithful shuffle into the austere Norris Student Center to sit in miserably uncomfortable chairs and bask in the reflected light of some perfectly awful movies; since I first took a bite of that apple back in 2002, not a single year has gone by where B-Fest wasn’t one of the best highlights. And the 2013 vintage was especially good; this was the first time undergraduates Louie Hayes and Thomas Dawson were in charge of the affair, but one would never be able to tell from the results. This edition of B-fest bore witness to an outstanding mix of genres and time periods, every bit as strong as the impressive schedule put together in 2012, but it was even stronger, for there was hardly a single movie that felt out of place in any way. In fact, I think I’d have to go all the way back to my very first B-Fest to find another schedule I liked so much in all its particulars. The only flaw: there’s not a single truly, outrageously, vengefully bad movie – no Hieronymus Merkin in the bunch – of the sort that’s sheer agony while you’re watching it, and a mark of excited pride when you’re talking about it later.
And, too, the early going suffered from an absolutely dreadful technical failure that was related to the new emphasis on DVDs over 16mm prints (for the first time ever, I believe, there were no features shown on film), but I’ll mention that when I get to it.
Friday, 25 January, 6:05 PM
And as it turns out, I got to it pretty quickly. The Fest started right on time – scheduling was, in general, an outstanding strength of this year’s slate, with the programmers slotting enough time in between every movie for tech issues and potty breaks – with 1977 Young Chuck Norris vehicle Breaker! Breaker! Kudos to A&O for scrounging up a relative rarity, and as far as Lost Norris films go, it’s a much happier fit for B-Fest, or general human consumption, than previous Fest film Top Dog; that being said, for a movie starring Norris as a heroic long-haul trucker fighting entrenched rednecks in Texas City, California, there’s not much here that caters to fans of either the trucking genre (typing it out like that feels like I’m making it up, but I am not), nor of Norris, be they ironic or non-ironic fans. Certainly, the two gentlemen I attended with, both of them considerably more invested in Norris than I, were left chilly with this one. For myself, I enjoyed the frequently idiotic and anachronistic set-up of the little wild west town of the late ’70s, and particularly George Murdock’s ripe turn as the scheming judge of Texas City, but the movie runs out of steam after a while, and it’s a long wait until the truck apocalypse finally happens in the last five minutes. Still, the first movie at B-Fest always has to endure a lot of noise and energy and shouting in the audience, and a frequently aimless movie with many shots of baby-faced Norris to get people cheering and mocking is, all things considered, a pretty solid pick to start.
Anyway, the technical issue was this: apparently, the projector being used had RGB component cables, and the red one was busted; because this, and several subsequent color films, were clearly only receiving green and blue info, leading to a lot of very bluish-yellowish-greenish movies. Breaker! Breaker! could survive this; other films could not.
And then came a perfect swerve: from campy modern action to campy old BW sci-fi, with the wonderfully cheesy Roger Corman picture The Wasp Woman, from 1959. The aging head of a cosmetic company, played with impeccable bitchy will by Susan Cabot starts shooting herself up with a serum derived by a suspiciously Germanic-sounding scientist (Michael Mark) from the royal jelly of wasps. The film’s apparent unawareness that wasps and honeybees are different things is merely the tip of the marvelously inane cheapie that positively revels in its reactionary gender politics and outright horrible science: the serum turns a cat into kitten in about three seconds, and turns a guinea pig into a mouse. And of, course, a woman into a quintessentially Corman were-wasp.
There is no way around it: the film is hellaciously dumb, but as is typically the case with Corman’s monster movies, it’s short enough, and features robust enough make-up for the budget, that I have long held warm feelings towards it; this was the second time I’d seen the film, after a decade or more, and glad indeed I was to revisit it. Nothing as charming as a really awful ’50s sci-fi with peculiar moral overtones.
Back to color, back – ruinously in this case – to a missing red channel. For the next film up was 1997 DC Comics misfire Steel, starring Shaquille O’Neal as John Henry Irons, one of the four replacement Supermen in the mid-’90s Death and Return of Superman arc. Though this is not found anywhere in the movie, which goes for the much simpler route of, “urban Batman”. And of course, Batman is already primarily an urban superhero, but he is not an impoverished African-American, which was the marketing hook here.
It was hard, I’ll admit, for me to pay as much attention to the film as I’d have liked, being distracted by all the neon green molten steel and all, but in the main, I have to say, and am shocked to say it: Steel isn’t really all that awful. Of course, it’s even less good, but the decade and a half since 1997, and the explosion of superhero movies in the interim, has resulted in quite a bit more deadening, awful piece-of-shit comic book movies; certainly, no world in which Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider both exist is a world where Steel gets to count as one of the all-time worst superhero movies.
What it does have, of course, is Shaq, being a complete disaster as an actor: he has exactly two expressions, and the second one takes him a great deal of pain and effort to achieve. On that front, at least, Steel is every bit the promised Epically Shitty Superhero film. But that too is something that we’ve seen enough of that I can’t really find it in me to call this one of the all-time nadirs. I mean, Halle Berry. Ben Affleck. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Halle Berry. And all those people are meant to be professional actors. Shaq is goddamn bad, but he’s not hardly the worst thing ever.
Breaktime for the raffle! But first, a curiosity: a group of people staging, a propos of nothing, the wedding scene from Spaceballs. And not very well, either, everybody seemed a touch nervous, and at some point, everybody watching realised (though not all at once, I should imagine), that we were actually watching two people getting honest-to-God married, in the most endearingly geeky way possible. My glass is lifted, delightful newlywed nerds, you Went For It, and Going For It is something I wholly endorse.
Then came the raffle, and in a huge break with tradition, I won: a collection of random DVDs consisting of Fritz the Cat, Hostel: Part II, and Evilution, and a Sam & Max computer game. Part of me wants to burn Hostel II in effigy, and part of me can’t bear to ever get rid of it. But hey, I got free shit! That’s the best kind.
We were so far ahead, it was time for some shorts: first up was “Comics and Kids”, which had been happily absent for some time, and now came back in all its shrill, repetitive glory. As I said at its last appearance, in 2009: “It’s a really heavy-handed metaphor for Vietnam and how something something desensitivity to violence yada yada soldier comics make children turn evil. It’s enjoyably overwrought, but this is mostly just an annoying bit of ham-fisted sociology that I for one could do without in future years.” This was, admittedly, the first film projection of the night.
Another film-based curio: a seven-minute condensed version of Universal’s 1943 Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the full-length version of which also played in 2009. It was a little snippet for home collectors back in the ancient pre-VHS days, if I don’t miss my guess, and for about half the time, it’s a pretty solid reduction of the original film, picking some of the best bits. Then it turns into a crazy, incoherent slurry of mobs with pitchforks. Stick with the massively flawed original.
The one, the only, inimitable Wizard of Speed and Time. It was put up flawlessly this year, unlike last, and I decided to join the on-stage re-enactment after taking a couple of years off. Those years, alas, did not see my physical condition, and it was stiff, sore, and vaguely nauseated Tim Brayton that staggered back to his seat.
Saturday, 12:00 AM
The also inimitable Plan 9 From Outer Space, which I skipped for the third year running to grab a nap, because after enough screenings, you really just can’t get any more out of it (not to mention, if it’s not on a shitty 16mm print, why bother?). And I made it back for Dudley Manlove’s legendary “Your stupid minds!” speech, anyway.
The blaxploitation slot this year was filled by Black Belt Jones, the 1974 Star Is Born moment for martial artist Jim Kelly, who never in the end became much of a huge star. It was, going in, the film I was most excited for, and it undoubtedly did not disappoint: jam packed with kitschy, ridiculous stereotypes of blacks and Italians, the action scenes are notable primarily for how obviously Jim Kelly is better at what he’s doing than everybody else onscreen, and the film culminates in a fight inside a waist-high mountain of car wash suds.
It is relentlessly, even appallingly stupid – for example, Black Belt is actually the main character’s given name, or at least it is how he’s referred to in direct address – but so in love with its own sense of playful invention that there wasn’t a second of the whole thing that I wasn’t madly happy to be watching it. One of the most outright fun blaxploitation films I’ve ever seen, without a doubt, cartoon psychology and ludicrous fight choreography and all. And it almost was my favorite film of the fest, when all was said and done.
The only change to the published schedule was to put the violence-and-boob-filled 1986 slasher Sorority House Massacre into a family-unfriendly early morning slot; this was an appropriate choice, not least because it shifted the largely dull movie to prime “take a nap” time. Which I did not do.
I was pretty excited for this one going in, because I had managed to confuse it with 1982’s Slumber Party Massacre, the famous crypto-feminist slasher movie. There’s nothing even crypto-feminist about Sorority House Massacre, though it’s writer-director, Carol Frank, served as AD on the original film; instead, it has pretensions to artistry, and boy, but is the word “pretension” a solid fit. The plot is barbarically familiar: a young woman returns to the house where, as a child, she was almost killed by her brother (the movie attempts to tease this reveal out longer than it can be reasonably sustained) during his family-killing spree, to do something unclear with the sorority living there now. A lot of pseudoscience and unbearably heavy-handed foreshadowing lead us to understand that she and her brother share a psychic link, and so he escapes from the loony bin to find her and kill her, naturally enough slicing his way through many nubile co-eds on the way.
Frank attempts to use that foreshadowing, and overwrought dream sequences, to tart things up a bit, but it fails spectacularly. The only interesting thing about it is the fact that we meet our Final Girl after the events are all done, and she proceeds to describe them in flashback; thereby robbing the film of even the slightest margin of suspense. My two seatmates were appalled by all this, but we’ve cut our way through enough terrible slasher films on this blog that I was barely phased.
The lack of a red video channel was, unsurprisingly, disastrous for a film with this much stage blood.
Back to black and white, just when it was needed! Seriously, they put together a fucking airtight schedule. The subject now is MST3K favorite The Mole People, of 1956. I’ve seen it in both its unexpurgated and Mstified versions, and I really ought to have slept through it; but I rather enjoy it, ultra-wooden John Agar performance and all. There’s such a gung-ho silliness to its bad archaeology, bad history, and bad geology, and the Mole People costumes are one of the best things that happened in all of ’50s monster cinema, I couldn’t help myself. Forgot about the miserable “let me tell you about science” non-diegetic opening sequence, though. Anyway, this is one is a proper B-movie classic. Next time you’re in the mood for a short, unashamedly dense matinee picture, hunt it down.
My pre-Fest research suggested that 1980’s Galaxina would be a good place to take my main nap. Stayed awake for 7 or 10 minutes, just long enough to confirm that it was indeed an ass-ugly Star Wars rip-off in which basically every line was a godawful joke, and curled up in my uncomfortable chair without a moment’s regret.
I had not, mind you, planned to do the same for the Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton romantic musical comedy Rhinestone, which I ever so briefly touched on after its appearance at B-Fest 2006. I am shocked that it’s been seven years… B-Fest time is not like normal time. But after about five minutes – long enough to see, thankfully, that they’d fixed the red issue – I clocked right out. Anyway, I don’t feel right about saying more based on such corrupted memories, but the sight of Stallone attempting to bellow his way through country music in the tackiest jacket ever, in the final scene, is legendary, and rightfully so. And this I know because I was able to rouse myself back up for the last ten minutes. And they are the campiest damn thing ever.
The lead-out to the breakfast break was another black and white ’50s movie, and my unhesitating pick for the actual best film of the year, 1958’s Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. My cumulative naps made it rough to get through this one, but I forced myself to, even though I’ve seen it… three times now? Four? It’s a pretty terrific B-movie, anyway: Allison Hayes is great as an aggrieved woman with a mean streak of rich snobbishness, who gets blown up into a nuclear monster, in what turns out to be an unexpectedly progressive depiction of marital imbalance in the Eisenhower era. Not some kind of masterpiece – the filmmaking is cheap, the scenario inane – but it’s a terrific example of the old truth that cruddy genre films can tap into social issues in a way that more prestigious productions cannot.
With full bellies, we returned for what I, anyway, thought was a real treat: AIP’s iconic 1965 Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello vehicle Beach Blanket Bingo. It is not a good movie – it is spectacularly not a good movie. But for sheer sociological fascination, you can’t do much better than teen movies from the ’50s and ’60s, and this is one of the most legendary: with its screwball sensibility and increasingly garish plot points, and a third act that just goes straight-up insane. There’s very little that’s funny about it, but something about the squirrelly excess of ’60s farce always gets me, and I thought it was the perfect culmination of the recent run of pop culture teen flicks that have been playing B-Fest, big and colorful and dumb and absolutely, thrillingly of its time, a window into some other place entirely.
I do not gather, from the iciness in the auditorium, that very many people agreed with me on this point. But for me, it was enough that I’m seriously considering slotting an AIP Beach Movie retrospective on the calendar this summer.
Didn’t think I was still tired, but I hardly made it 15 minutes into Steele Justice and only managed to regain consciousness for the last 10. What I saw looked like a painfully anonymous ’80s action picture, but my seatmates both thought it was fairly effective. A mystery for the ages, I guess.
Sorry, Black Belt Jones. You stopped being my favorite about three minutes into The Barbarians, in which Ruggero “Cannibal Holocaust” Deodato tries his hand a light and frothy Conan the Barbarian knock-off starring twin bodybuilder brothers Peter and David Paul as muscular barbarian twins Kutchek and Gore.
Long story short: this film is amazing. The script operates at a level of incompetence that I can barely describe, using so many anachronistic colloquialisms that you’d swear it was parody if there was a single actual gag, and coupled with the nuance-free performances of the Pauls, and even more of Eva La Rue as their love interest or sister, I’m not quite sure which, the whole film has the impression of a bunch of SoCal mallrats playing a sword and sorcery improv game in the local forest preserve. It is, as things go, not a terribly cheap movie, and Deodato’s jagged filmmaking style even adds some flashes of atmosphere, but nothing could keep it from being outrageously silly in the face of those performances. I adored every second of it – relentlessly dumb filmmaking at its most energetic and playful. Terrifically shitty penis-dragon, too.
If I had a single complaint about the schedule, it’s that I’d have liked this film a bit earlier: early enough that the ready-made audience catchphrases the film generated (if bellowing like a horny donkey is a “catchphrase”) could have been woven in through the rest of the fest. Callback jokes were, in general, not in strong evidence in the audience riffing
And then it all fell to a Godzilla picture to carry us home, for the first time since 2009, and a welcome return to form indeed. 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is not one of the greatest: the time-travel plot is needlessly convoluted, and it takes much too long for Godzilla or King Ghidorah to show up. But when they do, it’s a marvel; the 1990s Godzilla model has long been my favorite, and Ghidorah himself is maybe even better. And the reveal of Mecha-Ghidorah near the end is nothing shy of one of the of the great moments in giant rubber monster suit history. A bit long and slow-moving for the end of such a long day, but it delivered where it had to, when it had to, and that’s what counts. It was a great ending to an amazing B-Fest, and if 2014 can even come close to this level of accomplishment, it will be a rare treat indeed.