And now I am recovered enough that I can share with you my tale of B-Fest 2014, the 32nd edition of Northwestern University student group A&O Productions’ annual 24-hour celebration of bad (and sometimes, not-so-bad movies), and my own lucky number 13, as I started going as a sophomore at NU in 2002 and have never missed a year since.
After two brilliant years, it’s not all that surprising that 2014 was a step down, though I’ll say this for it: there was a nearly flawless mix of genres, eras, and styles. It’s just that the audience wasn’t as rowdy as it has been in years past; and as B-Fest is chiefly and above all about the enthusiasm of the audience, it hurts it quite a lot when the riffing isn’t as boisterous. But it was a hell of a lot of fun nonetheless, and despite one curious scheduling gaff, which I’ll talk about, it was a fluid, technically flawless 24 hours, a wonderful return to form after the Great Greenshift of 2013, when the projector lost a component cable.
In addition to the slightly calmed-down audience, I have my own super private reason for being a bit disinvested in this year’s proceedings: there has never been such a small number of films I hadn’t already seen. Out of 13 features – not including Plan 9 from Outer Space – the annual tradition that I’ve taken to skipping – four were brand new to me, and a fifth I’d only ever seen on Mystery Science Theater 3000, which I don’t officially count. I suppose this says more about me than the schedule, and so I will not hold it against the programmers.
Friday, 24 January, 6:00 PM
First up, and a pretty terrific opener, at that, was the 1989 Cold War future sport film Robot Jox, one of an unprecedented three films on the B-fest schedule to have previous received a full-length review here. Its last and only B-Fest appearance was in 2004, which puts in a strong bid for being the very best I’ve ever attended, and not least because this very movie was a part of it. ’80s shlock that isn’t too bad has proven one of the most reliable B-Fest openers in recent years, and the fact that there’s a lot of legitimately cool B-movie antics (the robots, the simplistically Evil villain) to go along with the horrible nonsense (the spy thriller subplot, the ghastly acting of the female lead) makes it a perfect watch for the early, high-energy part of the day. Also, the many butts. Naked butts is always a crowd-pleaser at B-Fest
The first appearance of a weird little tic that wouldn’t sort itself out until most of the way through: the gap between films wasn’t just long enough for a bathroom break, but a whole damn bubble bath. Frequently, 15 or even 20 minutes would click by between movies, and this paid off terribly at the end.
At this point, anyway, the schedule called for The Amazing Colossal Man, which would have been perfect in my opinion; it was swapped at the last minute with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which was… less perfect. In my opinion. The thing is, I’ve seen this one so many times, MST3K-ified and other, that I honestly wouldn’t mind never seeing it again. But the crowd was pretty into it, with many of the night’s best riffing coming at the expense of the sets and the horrible comic relief Martian. The biggest problem was that the sound started off much too low, meaning that the absolute best part of the movie – it’s annoyingly chirpy theme song, “Hooray for Santy Claus” – was inaudible. And this maybe made me like it less than I would have.
All that being said, if you have not seen the film, and have the remotest affection for bad sci-fi, you should make it one of your highest priorities.
The first of two shorts on 16mm, the only film projection of the fest (and, incidentally, the appearance of the DVD menus every time they started up a disc was one of the most charming parts of the fest): The Gipsy’s Warning, a 1913 short – the first time a film of over 100 years of age has ever showed at B-Fest – directed by G. Méliès. That’d be Gaston Méliès, Georges’s brother, but I didn’t find out until two days later. This explains, at any rate, why it’s such a sleepy melodrama (with, admittedly, some gorgeous location photograph). The audience clearly didn’t give a shit, and I suspect that I was the only person in the auditorium actually trying to watch it.
Returning from last year, the short one-reel version of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, made for home viewing. Last year I said “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”, not a word of which has changed. And I rather hope it doesn’t come back for the hat trick in 2015.
So here’s the tricky part of talking about this year’s B-Fest: the absolute highlight was the same film as the absolute highlight of 2009, Megaforce. Which has, in the intervening five years, been released on DVD – a DVD that I bought the second I got home, incidentally – meaning we all got to see it with a wider frame and clearer picture, the better to appreciate Barry Bostwick’s nightmarishly large schlong in nightmarishly tight pants. It was sponsored by long-time B-Fest stalwarts The Soylent Green Party, making their final appearance by that name; founding member Tre Chipman passed away in the last year, and the film, one of his favorites that his group had ever sponsored, was dedicated to his memory.
A great memorial it was, too: the film is an insanely good crowd-pleaser, it came at the perfect moment in the schedule, and anybody with a riffing bone in their body can make fun of it. Still, watching it now was functionally identical to watching it then, and while that was enough to make it the best part of the night, I hope that future programmers recognise the special circumstances of its appearance this year and let it stay hidden for a good long while now. Even though, as a college event (albeit one where a commanding majority of the attendees aren’t college students), it’s got a free pass to recycle every four years.
An especially great historical moment: not only did I skip Plan 9 from Outer Space for the fourth time running, I skipped The Wizard of the Speed and Time, glorious short that it is, for the first time ever. I was in a BAD place, sleep-wise, and I needed to eke out every minute of napping I could, so I left the auditorium to snag a couch. As result, happily, I was bright and perky for-
Saturday, 25 January, 1:34 AM
Thomasine & Bushrod, a blaxploitation Western. But even more than that, a blaxploitation Bonnie & Clyde, which I will confess came as a disappointment. The tremendously brassy performance by Vonetta McGee as Thomasine carried it for a long while, but right around the point where the title duo commit to robbing banks instead of just wandering around the 1910s being enthusiastic anachronisms, some air goes out of the film, and it gets pretty laconic and aimless. 2:00 in the morning is a bad time for that to happen.
This was, by the way, the first film that I hadn’t seen before; it was immediately followed by the second.
And now, a film that would have benefited from more energy from a fuller house with a more awake crowd (though the 3:00-4:00 slot is usually even quieter than this), though the vast amount of nudity wouldn’t have worked anyplace else. I refer to the space vampire epic Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper’s first film after chaperoning Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist to completion. It is shockingly boring, for something with so many different tones throughout (haunted house in space riff, much like screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s earlier Alien; British vampire mystery; end-of-the-world military thriller), so much nudity, and a couple suprisingly great performances, especially Peter Firth’s. In fact, it’s probably because it was so free in switching from one mode to the next that it was tedious: no chance for it to build up any momentum. There’s a lot of handsome production to it, but it is on the whole painfully mediocre, and a theoretically great choice for B-Fest; but again, almost impossible to schedule right, and that made watching it even less fun.
Back to the films I’d already seen, with Antonio Margheriti’s nuts space invaders picture War of the Planets. Which I just watched in, like, August, and I still needed sleep, so I slept. In my chair this time, which meant the sleeping wasn’t quite as rich, but you get what you can at B-Fest
Another film I saw not too long ago, if “about 15 months” is not to long ago; Kitten with a Whip, an overheated Juvenile Delinquency picture with Ann-Margret as the kitten. It struck me at the time as unbearably typical if slightly trashier than most examples of the form, so I slept right on through this one; that was apparently a dismal decision, as I am assured by one of my friends who attended with me. Apparently, the handful of people awake at the time where in choice riffing form, and the whole experience was a major peak. It was, in fact, his favorite movie of this year’s B-Fest, and he’s not a fan of JD movies or black and white B-pictures generally. So that’s saying a hell of a lot.
An historic moment: the first movie ever to be sponsored by your very own Antagony & Ecstasy! Super Mario Bros. was next, another film I’ve reviewed, and I will confess that it would feel weird to me, given those two facts, for me to say much about it. This much only: it landed perfectly well, no better than it had to; based on the crowd response, I’d say it was somewhere in the vast middle of this year’s B-Fest, along with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Lifeforce, and a couple of the ones to come.
There followed a short breakfast break.
I’m still not sure what my favorite film of the year was, if I can’t count Megaforce (and I don’t think I should), but here’s my easy pick for least favorite: the 1939 programmer Code of the Secret Service, starring Ronald Reagan as heroic T-man “Brass” Bancroft”. It was Reagan’s least-favorite film of his career (though, ironically, the one that inspired Agent Jerry Parr, who saved the president’s life in 1981 during John Hinckley’s assassination attempt, to join the Secret Service), and for the many things I have disagreed with that man about, we see eye-to-eye here: it’s illogical, rather pointless, and far too confusing for something too short and generic to survive.
Attempting follow last year’s hugely successful, though not, as I recall, hugely crowd-pleasing Beach Blanket Bingo, another AIP pop-art film from the mid-’60s, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. Which I have reviewed, and found not all that terrific – certainly not as energetic and fun and strange as Beach Blanket Bingo, and one of my two friends agreed with me. The other thought it was the highlight of the fest, so it just goes to show that we all have different needs and opinions.
My opinion, though, is that Vincent Price and the first 25 minutes are much too good on a legitimate level to count this as a “bad” movie, and the final chase sequence, which I’m sure isn’t as long as it feels, because it feels goddamn endless, is much too bad to count as anything else. It’s just not that much fun, to me, too campy to really mock, and too peppy to find boring. It fits all the requirements of B-Fest, I suppose, but I’d have much rather they scrounged up another Beach Party movie, honestly.
There followed a lightening-fast lunch break, preceding the raffle. I do not know why the raffle was so late; if the gaps had been sucked out of the pre-midnight schedule, there’d have been time to do it at its usual spot before The Wizard of Speed and Time.
The final stretch began with The Deadly Mantis, which I have only seen on MST3K. But the experience is about the same. Formally speaking, the year’s only giant monster movie should have come at the end, and the film immediately following would maybe have been a better return to speed after the raffle, but that’s just my two cents. This is, at any rate, a thoroughly wonderful ’50s monster picture, with outrageously stupid dialogue, a crazy opening that goes on and on about radar shields and is plainly just padding, and some hilarious giant mantis effects. Indeed, till Dario Argento came to play with Dracula 3D, I’d call it the best bad mantis in cinema history. If I’m counting Megaforce, I might just barely give it my edge for my favorite film of the festival, largely because it is so perfect a black and white piece of high-spirited garbage; but the crowd took to it well enough, as well.
My other pick for best would have to be Yor, the Hunter from the Future, the second Antonio Margheriti film of the fest, swapped near the end with the actual final film to permit a small dedication from sponsor Noah Antwiler, aka The Spoony One, who learned late that a friend of his passed away the day prior.
It is a most wonderfully absurd film, combining a terrible barbarian film with a terrible science-fiction film, with Reb Brown giving a spectacular, charisma-free performance as Yor, and the mood in the audience was light as could be under the circumstances; honesty compels me to admit that I dozed for a long chunk of the middle. I’ve seen this one a couple of times, anyway, so not a huge loss.
Note the start time of Drunken Tai Chi. Not an accident, nor an error; in fact, they managed to get it in early, compared to what was on the schedule. But, thing is, B-Fest is meant to end at 6:00, and I’d somewhat built plans around that, as had (kind of) my seatmates, so we made the painful decision to ditch about 40 minutes in.
Those 40 minutes were enough to show me a comic martial arts film that seemed to have exactly one idea, one mode, and unlikeable leads punching angry fat women. Good stuff for B-Fest, and potentially great it if it had come in earlier (this would be a good #3 or #4 on the schedule), but I was tired, and both of my friends were restless, and there’s only so much that wacky slapstick can do when you’re ready to check out. And we did, though I at least did so with some regret.
Notwithstanding all that, a tremendously fun night, and most of the schedule was tight as a drum. Not a single film that didn’t deserve to be here on some level, though I missed having one truly, soul-scrapingly bad film. Hopefully in 2015!