Most recent update: 2014.
Every winter, Northwestern University of Evanston, Illinois – my alma mater, thank you very much, and one of the few things that makes me proud to say it – plays host to B-Fest, a 24-hour marathon of horrid movies, mostly sci-fi, fantasy and horror, although most years there are a few odds and ends like Cool as Ice.
It’s fair to say that B-Fest is, consistently, my favorite day of the year (even in 2005, when I found out that I had a cancerous mass in my lymph node while sitting through Troma’s Class of Nuke ‘Em High): it’s Christmas, birthday, New Year’s and the 4th of July all combined into one for the lover of bad movies. Imagine a whole auditorium full of people whose whole life has been devoted to being the best heckler they could possibly become unleashed on some of the worst movies ever made (and “worst” isn’t just a word… the single worst film I have ever seen and, in a just universe, ever will see, was at B-fest), each one of us trying to be the smartest, cleverest person in the room. Think of a cross between Mystery Science Theater 3000 and a revival meeting, and you’re in the right ballpark. I’m not certain if it’s still the biggest bad movie marathon in America, but I’m almost positive it’s the oldest; it’s probably still the best-known, attracting attention from some of the most significant bad movie writers on the internet (a tiny kind of significance, no doubt, but it exists), and welcoming guests from all across the United States and usually at least a couple of other countries.
What follows – a guide to making it from one end of B-Fest to the other with your sanity and health intact – isn’t really for my regular readers at all. I’m writing this because I found that if you look for “B-Fest Survival Guide”, with or without the quotes, you don’t end up with any search results that refer back in any way, shape or form to the most prominent bad movie festival in America. Which seems weird and wrong to me. Thus do I take it upon myself to do this public service.
1. What to Bring
2. Date and Place
4. Kids at B-Fest
5. Arriving at B-Fest (incl. Parking)
6. Setting Up Your Space
7. Building Hours
8. Food and Drink
10. The Morning
11. The End of the Fest
12. What Happens at B-Fest
13. Plan 9 from Outer Space
What to Bring
Summarised from below for convenience’s sake, here is the checklist of essentials, as well as inessentials that are a very good idea:
-Two outfits of warm clothing in layers
-Blanket & pillow
-Cash (at least $20 per person, $40 if you want a shirt)
-Disposable foam cooler
-Lightweight paper plates
-Large black garbage bags
Date & Place
B-Fest is nearly always held on the final Friday and Saturday of January. It is held in the 350-seat McCormick Auditorium in Northwestern University’s Norris University Center, located at 1999 Campus Drive in Evanston, IL.
If you’re reading this, you probably already have your tickets. But it’s worth being thorough about these things: tickets can be purchased in person at the Norris University Center box office or by phone at (847) 491-2305. In 2014, tickets cost $35 each plus a $2 service charge, limit of five; undergraduate students at Northwestern could buy tickets for $25. They sold out the week prior to the Fest.
The date that tickets are made available varies from year to year, though it has usually in my experience been while Northwestern classes are in session. The best way to find the date is to sign up for the B-Fest mailing list.
If you have little ones, should you bring them along? I mean, no time like the present to start training them, right? Right, but be cautious. Above and beyond the whole “24 hours” thing, some distinctly family-unfriendly stuff begins to happen around 2:00 AM, when the first exploitation movie screens.
An anecdote: my first year, I was sitting immediately behind a young man, perhaps 13 or 14, no older. At 1:30, up comes Coffy, a Pam Grier vehicle with a seemingly unending parade of topless women. At first, this young fellow enjoyed that as much as any 14-year-old male would do, but by the midpoint of the film, he was visibly uncomfortable to be there; he left after that movie and didn’t come back until daylight.
Basically, the stretch from 1:30 to whenever the breakfast/lunch break happens is Adult Time. Not that it’s one porno after another, of course – in one year, there were two consecutive fairy tales in that block – but nudity and graphic violence will occur, sometimes without warning.
Though it’s best, if you want to bring children, to do some research. As always. Within the the first five minutes of the 2008 B-Fest, we’d watched a movie in which a baby is devoured by an octopus, upon which the audience all but gave a standing ovation. What is the cliché? Know your kids.
B-Fest is scheduled to begin at 6:00 PM, and it invariably starts late, but this isn’t really the kind of thing that you can show up seconds before the lights go down. Generally, most attendees will be in place by 5:15 or 5:30; if you want your pick of seats, be at Norris well before 5:00.
Parking for B-Fest is available in a two-tiered parking lot located immediately inside the south entrance to Northwestern’s campus. This free lot is open to the public beginning at 4:00 PM on Friday evening, and continues to be open until 7:30 AM on Monday. Generally, the most open spaces are available after 5:00 PM, when most Northwestern staffers have left work for the day.
The parking structure is located approximately 1/8th of a mile south of Norris. This doesn’t sound like much, but in northeastern Illinois in January – only dozens of yards from Lake Michigan, no less – the cold gets into your bones quickly and doesn’t let up. It may only be a five minute walk, but it is tremendously important that you dress warm, especially if you’ll be making multiple trips between Norris and your car.
In 2014, there is significant construction around the parking garage, and parking may be limited compared to other years. Please consult Northwestern’s parking facilities website for more information.
When you arrive in Norris, the good folks at A&O (the student group that runs B-Fest) will tell you what to do and where to be at any moment; the pattern of most years is that you’ll be allowed to claim your seat and deposit your stuff, but not allowed to stay in the auditorium itself immediately prior to the start of B-Fest. Don’t worry about your belongings walking away; in all my years, I’ve never known any food or jackets to go missing. Obviously, don’t leave jewelry sitting on your chair if you’re not in the room, though. Which brings me to:
I am not certain exactly how many tickets are sold to B-Fest each year; I believe that roughly 2/3rds of the 350 seats in McCormick Auditorium are filled. In other words, you have about a chair-and-a-half to call your own, so you have to plan it wisely. Generally speaking, one does not go to B-Fest alone, so at the very least, you’ll be able to pool space with one seatmate (paradoxically, the more people you bring, the more space you’ll have to cram their stuff). The chairs are standard theater-style, and you’ll have only a bit more leg-room than at your local multiplex. The seats themselves aren’t so uncomfortable that you’ll need to get up every 30 minutes; there are plenty of other reasons that you’ll be up every couple of hours.
The rule is: don’t bring anything that you can’t ultimately stash underneath your seat or next to you. What I’ve done most years, and I find it works brilliantly, is to sit one seat away from my B-Fest Buddy, with a foam cooler full of drinks on the ground between us and all of our coats, snacks, backpacks, and so on on the chair in between us. He usually tapes a plastic grocery bag to the chair in front as a trash bag. Thus do we survive 24 hours.
More info from Rebecca, former B-Fest wrangler:
“Be prepared that you might have to make sure all your stuff really does fit under your chair or on the seat next to you. Depending on how strict the Norris CM is that day, they may do a fire hazard check and make people move things out of the aisles. If that happens, A&O people will hopefully get a spare room reserved for stuff, but availability could be an issue.”
Norris is closed between midnight and 8:00 AM. You can leave during that time; you cannot get back in. Something to keep in mind, especially when making your meal plans.
Norris University Center is theoretically meant to be the social center for the entire Northwestern student body. And while things have improved significantly since I was an undergrad many years ago, the Northwestern social scene leaves a lot to be desired. Case in point: dining at Norris. On the ground floor, there is a large cafeteria called Willie’s Food Court with burgers, salads, sandwiches, Mexican, and Asian; a convenience store with snacks and frozen treats; a pizzeria; and Chicago superstar chef Rick Bayless’s fast-food franchise Frontera Fresco. Mere feet from McCormick Auditorium is a Starbuck’s. And on Fridays during the school year, the prime night for being ready to grab a bit at midnight or so, every single one of these establishments closes at 9:00 PM. Except for Willie’s, which closes at 3:00 PM, and Frontera at 7:00. The Starbuck’s re-opens at 9:00 AM, with other places trickling open by noon.
It’s a mortal certainty that you’re going to want food between 9:00 PM and 9:00 AM, especially if you want to stay awake all 24 hours. This is where snacking comes in. Which snacks you bring is ultimately a personally matter, but there are some things I’ve figured out during the years:
– There’s a microwave available by the cafeteria, and unlike everything else in Norris, it’s still available after midnight. So feel free to bring microwavables.
-Bring water. If it’s in prepackaged bottles, at least six per person. Otherwise, at least 64 ounces per person. And needless to say, you’re better off the more water you drink – I don’t doubt for a moment that I go through a gallon during B-fest, including water fountain trips.
-If you want to stay up all night, bring plenty of high-protein snacks. I used to do the 24-hour thing every year, and I almost exclusively ate sports energy bars. Sugar gives you a rush, but it’s not sustained, and the crash is brutal.
Basically, though, what you eat is your own concern: anywhere from just enough to keep alive during the movies, to constantly munching (my buddy and I represent opposite poles of this spectrum).
Bear in mind that Evanston is the self-proclaimed Dining Capital of the North Shore, and if there’s a spot on the schedule that you don’t mind missing, it’s a simple matter to eat out and come back to campus.
More info from Rebecca, former B-Fest wrangler:
“All official B-Fest information will say food and drink is forbidden in the auditorium. That is because food and drink is TECHNICALLY forbidden in McCormick. When deciding to BRING IT IN ANYWAYS, be smart about it. Don’t bring in an entire grocery store, and be careful with snacks and especially sodas.”
So you’re not going to go for the full 24 hours. No harm in that – it’s a whole lot of bad movie to take in all at once. How, then, does one go about sleeping at B-Fest?
The first thing is to determine the approximate “when” of your nap. Keep in mind, you can leave Norris all night, you just can’t get back in – so if you want to head to a hotel at 2:00 AM and return at 10:00, that’s entire possible But assuming you’re going to sleep on site, I have some hints: first, don’t bother trying before midnight. There’s simply too much traffic. Second, there’s almost always a really horrible – unwatchably so – movie shown around 4:00 AM, and I’ve always assumed that was the programmers’ way of encouraging us to take a little nap. Third, there’s a trickle out of the theater from 1:30 AM until the end of the movie which begins at 1:30, when all of a sudden 3/4ths of the audience is gone. From 4:00 AM through 8:00 AM or so is very much the quietest time in the building.
As for where to sleep, there are three possibilities. The easiest is right there in your seat, or if you’re lucky enough to have a fairly open row, on the ground in front of your seat. This is only good for catnapping, as even at it’s quietest, there’s plenty of audience noise. Besides, if you sleep in your chair, you will wake up with one hell of a backache. I know this from multiple years’ worth of experience.
If you want a decent sleep, the other possibilities are on the stage in front of the screen, which might seem like a noisy, bright place, but for some reason it’s always extremely crowded with sleeping bodies, who plainly aren’t bothered by the experience (it fills up quickly, though); or outside the auditorium. Norris is thick with hallways and lounges (just don’t open any doors!), so it’s not impossible to find an empty couch, but they go fast; otherwise, find a quiet patch of carpet and claim your space. Other than the path between the auditorium and the bathrooms, the building is completely dead and silent during the night.
As to what you should bring, that is between you and your ability to store things. A sleeping bag, blanket and pillow would be ideal, but my fest buddy usually makes do with a sweatshirt for his pillow, another for his blanket, and he’s always in a better way at the end than I am.
More info from Rebecca, former B-Fest wrangler:
“At night you can sleep outside the auditorium on the main floor, but don’t wander the stairwells. You will probably get locked in. The A&O people upstairs probably won’t hear you knocking for quite some time.”
It might seem too obvious to mention, but bringing some toiletries is a really smart idea. Unless you have an aversion to brushing your teeth in a public restroom, you’re going to want to brush your teeth at some point, because they are going to feel foul otherwise. And some body soap and a washcloth to at least hit your neck and underarms isn’t going to go amiss.
At the very least, bring a clean pair of socks. You’d be amazed how much you’re refreshed just by putting on a clean pair of socks.
There used to be a breakfast break; sometimes, it turns into a lunch break. Either way, the convenience store is open so you can grab some breakfast-esque foods if you need to. You need to.
More info from Rebecca, former B-Fest wrangler:
“OK, I’m going to say it: deodorant. Seriously. Even if you never use it any other time. Go to a drug store or Target and get a travel size for $.99. And to really be nice, make showering the very last thing you do before setting out for Northwestern because unless you leave and come back, you won’t see a shower again until Saturday evening.”
6:00 PM rolls around again, the year’s monster movie fades out (B-Fest usually ends with a giant monster film), and it’s time to go – NOT YET. There is a whole lot of trash littered around McCormick auditorium at this point, from food wrappers to water bottles to tens of thousands of paper plates. Help clean up – if you don’t bring your own garbage bags, it’s easy enough to find someone who did, and in no time at all there’s a bag set up every couple of rows as a de facto trash can. So what if it’s not all your mess? We want to have this again next year, and it takes five minutes from your life. It is well not to be a dick about these things.
The cold is going to hit you like a wall, whether it’s one of the relative warm, above-freezing years, or one of the arctic, single-digit years. And your body will be screaming for some sunlight. But these are the prices you must pay for the finest bad movie marathon known to man.
B-Fest itself is something better experienced than described. But for the uninitiated, there a few things that you should be ready for:
Make fun of the bad movies. Easy enough, right? Just make sure you keep it PG-13 in the early going, and don’t make fun of other attendees.
Whenever there is an American flag, everyone shouts “USA! USA!” Whenever an American kills a non-American, everyone shouts “USA! USA!” By the end of the evening, whenever anything is destroyed in a needlessly big way, everyone shouts “USA! USA!”
Hold on to your ticket, because there’s a raffle held in the hour before midnight. There are a great many prizes, some of them completely awesome, and a hefty percentage of the audience walks out with something. I’ve won once out of eleven trips, which is a clear violation of the laws of probability.
–“The Wizard of Speed and Time”
A genuinely great short shown every year at 11:45 PM, and a few other times to fill up gaps in the schedule. The first time it plays, you’ll note that everyone runs to the stage – stay put. You should just watch, your first year. There’s a simple script in which everyone runs in place with the lead character, and you will figure it out quickly if you pay attention. If you’re feeling energetic, sometimes people go up for the encore screenings.
Shown every year at midnight, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 is the only part of B-Fest that has a “script”. Not a convoluted one, but there are several components:
-Whenever a flying saucer appears, fling paper plates at the screen. For this purpose, veterans usually bring at least 250 cheap paper plates. Jewel-Osco (a local supermarket) sells 100, 250 and 500 count plates that are perfect, for hardly any money at all.
More info from Rebecca, former B-Fest wrangler:
“Paper plates. Seriously, PAPER plates. And not multiple plates stuck together. If you hit someone with a plate that isn’t soft, A&O will not be responsible for what happens to you. Of the flimsy paper variety, I got mocked for them, but the smaller dessert-sized plates fly better. If you want, bring a pen to write things on your plates. It’s fun to read the messages that land in your lap. But keep them appropriate.”
-Wood had a famous lack of concern for continuity. At any point when a scene takes place in full light, though the preceding shot was dark, shout “Day!” At any point when the reverse happens, shout “Night!”
-Bela Lugosi died early in shooting; before shooting, according to some legends. He was replaced by a man almost a foot taller. Whenever the real Lugosi is on screen, shout “Bela!” Whenever his unconvincing doppelgänger appears, shout “Not Bela!”
-Tor Johnson, former wrestler and man who looks like a potato, is in the film. Whenever he appears, shout “Tor!”
-Tor Johnson cannot speak. To address this fact, Wood cast him as a zombie, but in Johnson’s first scene, as a human, he is given dialogue that cannot be understood. After Tor speaks, shout “What?”
-Maila Nurmi, AKA Vampira, appears in the movie as a female vampire. Whenever she appears, shout “Hot!”
-The above rules start to stack in a couple of scenes, leading to awesome moments when the whole theater is shouting “Tor! Bela! Tor! Hot! Not Bela! Tor! Hot! Bela!” Times like these are why I’m glad that humans exist.
-During Eros the alien’s infamous climactic speech, where he explains why humanity needs to be killed for inventing Solaranite (god, I love this movie), he has one of the great bad lines of dialogue in history: “Stronger! You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!” When he repeats “stupid” at the end, repeat with him.
-And of course, the patio furniture. See, our Air Force hero has a swell house with his lady wife. And they have some patio furniture at that house. But it’s not easy to tell from the film whether that furniture is made from wicker, or from rattan. So the B-Fest audience has a friendly debate about which substance it really is. Pick one, and prepare to scream the loudest.
And that, I think, is that. For those who read this and found it useful, I am pleased to do some good. For those who read this without having any motive to do so, I thank your kind attention to my words.
Now go out there and enjoy some horrible movies.