Different cinephiles will have different measures by which they can tell that one movie year “officially” gives way to the next, but for me, the answer is always clear enough: the year starts with B-Fest, the glorious 24-hour celebration of awful movies, sleep deprivation, and the sweat of 200 moviegoers crammed into uncomfortable seats on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
The 2015 incarnation of the fest – the 33rd overall, and my 14th – was an awfully strong one, the latest in a pretty sterling run of years that started in 2012. It felt, overall, a bit lower key than most years in terms of audience participation, and it lacked the benefit of a truly spectacular bad movie that gave everybody a lot to bite into (a bad movie that was just bad, though, now that was very much present). On a personal level, it was particularly nice to have a B-Fest that was mostly made up of new titles to me – only three out of 13 total were films I’d seen, and those three were all exemplary B-Fest candidates – after 2014 had been so over-familiar.
Indeed, it was all so terrific that I could barely stand to go to sleep, and ended up staying awake for all but about an hour and 45 minutes of the 24-hour whole – the best I’ve done in a great many years. And with that, no further ado: I give you my 2015 B-Fest Diary
Friday, 23 January, 6:00 PM
The kick-off was a ’50s sci-fi film, my favorite way for B-Fests to ramp up (it was, in fact, the only such film and one of just two black and white movies, ignoring the inked-in Plan 9 from Outer Space). Now, the film in question, Creature with the Atom Brain, didn’t prove to be an exceptionally memorable example of the form: with Edward L. Cahn directing a Curt Siodmak script, it’s too slickly competent to have been excitingly terrible, while the basic premise – a gangster and a Nazi refugee creating radio-control zombies – is daffy without being particularly outré.
It’s short enough that it’s not a slog, though, and its unexpected mix of the expected kind of B-movie with a very different sort of B-level crime picture gives it more interest than anything else I’ve said. Basically, it’s a police procedural about stopping zombies, when zombies were much less interesting than they are now. A worthy little noodle all around for the fan of the form, not the sort of thing that I’d say you must go out and see, but absolutely worth stopping for if it ever crosses your path.
Time for a little Charles & Albert Band, with Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn. I had high expectations for this one when I found out it was playing (I stayed blind on the schedule until about 30 minutes before we started), and I am sorry to say it didn’t quite live up to them. Combining a Star Wars knock-off with a Road Warrior knock off is, at any rate, a noble impulse for a craven producer, and the unrepentant ’80s-ness of this film is pure delight, as is the tawdriness of its 3-D effects (it was one of the earlier independent productions during the ’80s 3-D boom). It’s certainly bad enough for B-Fest, with its discohesive screenplay and cheap mutants in the wasteland make-up, and the charming presence of Richard Moll in the cast (he is, by far, the best actor involved), and the clumsily staged action, and the sequel hook that didn’t work. But there are many fake Mad Maxes, and some of them are vastly more entertaining and not just confusing and incoherent.
I have only two real problems with this year’s B-Fest, and one of them is that the films tended to clump by decade. Here, we arrive at Frogs, the first of multiple ’70s films right in a row. And I’m not dissing those films – it was also, maybe, the best sustained run of movies of the event, and certainly the point where things flipped decisively from “these movies are letting me down” to “these movies are amazing“. Frogs, in particular, might have had the best energy from the audience all night, owing mainly to the inevitability of how we’d all scream in terror at every shot of frogs, but also to the way it inaugurated a surprisingly durable theme of barely-sublimated homoeroticism in many of the films to follow. Also, I am happy to say, I got my first solid riff of the night out, with “Cry havoc, and let slip the frogs of war!”.
I shall modestly suggest that those who want to know my deeper thoughts on the film can find them in my full review from 2012.
We now join the magical world of 1970s made for television thrillers, with 1974’s Killdozer. A movie that boldly elects to join the world of Duel rip-offs by possessing a bulldozer with an evil alien spirit.
It’s ridiculous as hell, as director Jerry London finds ways to frame the bulldozer leering over hills and stalking around corners like it’s not tens of tons of loud metal. The writing, meanwhile, divides its five-man team (six, really, but one dies pretty much right off the bat) into the hoariest clichés available in ’74, turning them loose on a Pacific island to run around, state things which make no sense and are not germane, and then die in unbelievably easily-avoidable death traps. All leading up to a fencing match between the killdozer and a human-operated crane. It’s breezy nonsense that doesn’t take itself seriously but also doesn’t look down on its own scenario, and it’s watchably goofy in the absolute best ways. It’s very nearly my pick for the surprise success of the fest; it made it almost all the way to the end. Fingers crossed that this means that a ’70s TV movie will become a permanent, or at least reoccurring, part of the schedule in years to come.
There then followed the usual traditions: the short Wizard of Speed and Time, followed by the midnight screening of Plan 9. As is also traditional, I left to sleep, but I didn’t really succeed in grabbing more than 10 minutes.
Saturday, 24 January, 1:35 AM
The blaxploitation slot was filled by the not-really-blaxploitation Black Mama, White Mama, one of the women in prison films made by American International Pictures in the Philippines. It’s not the best, but it might very well be the boldest: a grindhouse re-do of The Defiant Ones, in which Lee (Pam Grier, the black mama) and Karen (Margaret Markov, the white mama) escape from the lesbianic clutches of an abusive prison, and flee, handcuffed to each other, across a nameless island, where Karen wants to reunite with her revolutionary cell, while Lee wants to find the fisherman who’s going to help her leave the country. Only they want to go to completely opposite sides of the island. Meanwhile, the cops, the revolutionaries, and the gangsters hired by Lee’s old pimp, are all giving them chase.
Not a surprise – it’s been on my radar for years – but this was probably my favorite movie of the whole event. Eddie Romero’s directing perfectly splits the middle between tacky exploitation and actually thrilling suspense well, and the story (co-written by Jonathan Demme, no less) is one of the most inventive, thought-through, and complex in the genre’s spotty history. In truth, Grier isn’t at her best in this situation, which is a pity (Grier being the best thing about every film you see her in is one of those truths you get accustomed to), but the pace, the snarky comedy – much of it centered around a giddily camped-up Sid Haig – and the relatively sharp political commentary, for AIP trash like this, all make it a real blast. Glad I finally got to catch up with it.
A brief respite from the ’70s with the first South Korean giant monster movie, Yongary, Monster from the Deep, of 1967. It’s a fairly transparent attempt to do a Godzilla movie with plot elements and a tone borrowed from Gamera, and an effects budget somewhere in the middle, and director Kim Ki-duk (a different one) handles the whole circus well enough, though like most daikaiju eiga, the opening act, when we still don’t officially know what’s going on, drags on a bit. What salvages it is the cheesy optimism of the Yongary effects, with a store-bought blowtorch almost visibly protruding out of its mouth to make its fire breath, and its simple, derivative design looking forlorn enough to be appealing. But it’s a bog-standard giant monster film, and I hard forgotten, during my year of daikaiju eiga, how grating it is to have to watch them dubbed (the Korean original of Yongary is believed lost).
Back to the ’70s we go, with the Roger Corman-produced Avalanche. I was prepared to sleep during this one, but it ended up being too unexpectedly magnetic: Corman’s attempt to a snowbound version of The Towering Inferno with a fraction of the effects and cast budget is certainly peculiar, far more than should be possible for something so hopelessly derivative of the already-waning ’70s disaster craze. Rock Hudson, Robert Forster, Jeannette Nolan, and a zonked-out Mia Farrow headline, and the melodrama is surprisingly crude and sleazy for a routine trek through the typical “arrogant developer, no heed for the natural world, romantic triangles” formula, with some startlingly cruel-minded deaths. Did sleep deprivation make this one seem better than it deserved? Undoubtedly, but I think it’s clearly worth a look as an overreaching oddity, if nothing else.
But it did mean that I had to pay the piper. I stayed up for enough of Cloak & Dagger, the first ’80s film of Saturday, to determine that Dabney Coleman notwithstanding, a kiddie-flick adventure and James Bond-lite shenanigans was not what I was up for. This turned out to be a terrible mistake, apparently, for as I got fitful, restless sleep, one of my friends had a great time with it, and the audience was clearly enthusiastic and ready to go after most of them had taken the last three films off.
I finally gave up on my failure to sleep slightly before the halfway point of Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary, the 10th of 16 Andy Hardy films, and, with a release date of 1941, by far the oldest film at B-Fest. As I could tell within seconds of re-entering the auditorium, the audience was ecstatic to be watching this one, and I would begrudge nobody their pleasure.
For my part, I would have given anything for it to not be there. Or for me to have been able to sleep. I’ve seen enough of the Andy Hardy films to know that I absolutely hate them (and since I mostly hate Mickey Rooney, that’s hardly a surprise), but not in the “this is so irredeemably bad” way. It’s basically the ’40s equivalent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: a formula-driven franchise that made huge money for one of the biggest spenders of any studio, for years on end. It hardly makes any sense at all for it to be at a thing like B-Fest, and the fact that I’m much too familiar with the formulas at play made it impossible for me to view it as any kind of novelty and have any fun with it at all, despite the gasping from laughter going on around me. It felt more like homework, honestly. Though I respect that habitués of ’40s studio comedies do not make up a key component of the B-Fest audience, and I am in a unique place to have watched that film, in that context, and not enjoyed myself.
There followed a breakfast break.
After breakfast, we caught up with Can’t Stop the Music, the last of the infamous disco musicals of 1980 to show up at B-Fest, following The Apple in 2005, and Xanadu in 2008. It’s the best of the three, owing to having by far the best music, sort of the best acting (mostly thanks to Valerie Perrine), and the only even slightly sane narrative of the bunch – it’s a heavily fictional biopic of the Village People set years too late, but it lacks supernatural elements of any kind, and is thus incomparably more realistic than the other two combined.
This, sadly, does means that it’s the least-suited to the environment of B-Fest, where derangement goes over better than intentional camp, and screaming ineptitude goes over better than clumsily-handled mediocrity. So the riffing was a bit muted, and the energy of the room quieted down more than it should at that time of day. I mean, it’s hilarious and bad, but it’s not that hilarious. I enjoyed it fine, but I enjoyed it more the other time I saw it.
There followed a lunch break.
And then there followed, ten minutes behind schedule (the only time we got off the entire day), Albert Pyun’s ghastly 1988 Alien from L.A., starring Kathy Ireland as a bespectacled geek with a helium-pitched voice, as the daughter of an archaeologist who goes into a bizarre subterranean world to find him. It’s frightening close, in tone, plot, and visual style, to the five-years-younger Super Mario Bros., only even worse. For Pyun is a rare and daunting non-talent, even by the standards of weak filmmakers with no budget.
I tried to sleep through this one, and couldn’t really; the upshot, I guess, is that I got to see nearly all of the year’s clear-cut worst film. Shrill and dumb comedy (like casting Ireland as a gawky, squeaky nerd, which I think is meant to be funny, but is just nauseating, every time she opens her mouth), a story that makes absolutely no sense on any level, and ugly cinematography hiding impoverished sets, all add up to a really hard sit, and I think it would have made sense on a number of levels to swap this one with Cloak & Dagger – it would retain the clumped-up ’80s-ness of it, but this would be a perfect last film of the generally agreed-upon sleep hours, and kiddie junk is a better fit for the after-lunch hour.
Anyway, it’s a hell of a thing to experience, so I won’t tell anybody not to, though I’d hate to be the reason anyone sought it out.
The ’80s conclude with Miami Connection, which I have now seen three times and adored more with each visit. It’s an action musical written by and starring and directed by non-native speakers of English – it was the brainchild of taekwondo marketing guru Y.K. Kim, who stars as the lead – and by their own admission hadn’t seen but a handful of movies prior to making it. And it plays like somebody who had heard of all the trends of shitty ’80s independent genre films was trying to combine them into a ’50s-style message picture. Basic version: a rock group of orphaned college students who also study taekwondo and live together is forced to fight a collection of angry rockers, drug dealers, and motorcycle-riding ninjas. Lyrics include “Bikers by day, ninjas by night” (they are, in fact, ninjas by day as well), and “Against the ninja, we will fight to battle the sin”, followed by the back-up singers chanting “Tae-kwon, tae-kwon! Tae-kwon, tae-kwon, tae-kwon-DO!”, while clapping out of time.
You must hunt it down, if you haven’t already seen it. It was on Netflix for a spell, but no longer; Amazon streams it for a small cost, and it’s a bargain at twice the price
The end of the festival was also the film that took me by surprise the most: Viva Knievel! starring legendary stunt biker Evel Knievel as himself and a miserable, bored Gene Kelly as his sidekick and mechanic, in a story about foiling a drug smuggling plot that involves murdering Knievel and hiding the dope in his corpse. It’s one of the last places to see pre-comedy Leslie Nielsen at his most villainous – this is, in fact, not a comedy, which I suppose I probably need to specific – and the second film at B-Fest with Dabney Coleman, which was also a nice surprise.
The film is endlessly fucking weird, in the best possible late-’70s way, when blending action, farce, and thriller just sort of happened (see also: Smokey and the Bandit, from the same year). I’m forced to admit that it’s probably terrible, but it’s terrible to a high level of confidence and competence, and Knievel has the stuff even as an aging stuntman, even if he has nothing resembling the stuff as an actor. I enjoyed it almost despite myself as a time capsule of a bizarre moment in pop culture that was wedged into a totally unacceptable generic framework; for all that the ingredients are individually sort of routine, the whole effect is like absolutely nothing else, and I thoroughly recommend it.
Also, I got off the best riff in my history as a B-Fest attendee: when the characters mistook a dead man dressed in Knievel’s clothes for Knievel himself, and a few minutes of weird complications ensued, I breathlessly declared that they had chosen the lesser of two Evels.
On that note, I shall cut myself off. Next year can’t come soon enough!