I've been describing B-Fest almost annually here for eleven years now. I failed once or twice to post a recap, but given the limited scope of my audience, it seems unlikely that you are not already acquainted with the idea of B-Fest. Still, it deserves a cursory explanation. I always include this little "sorry, I know that you already know what this is about" paragraph, but it feels obligatory.
So, we're going to skip the explanation this year.
Just kidding. B-Fest is a festival of B-movies held annually in the McCormick Auditorium at Northwestern University's Norris Center in Evanston, Illinois. The festival lasts from 6:00PM on Friday to 6:00PM on Saturday. There are no breaks, and it occurs in a campus lecture hall, which means that the seats are good for napping in for an hour, but not for a whole day. Does this sound like an endurance test? It is.
Traditionally, we drive down from Madison, stopping briefly at the Belvedere Oasis. This year during our Oasis pit stop, I was struck by home much it has changed since my first visits to it. Day trips to Chicago with my parents and my friends' parents usually did not involve a pit stop, so I don't actually remember stopping at the Oasis until I was in middle school in the early '90s. As I recall, at the time it consisted of an information desk and two primary commercial establishments: a large McDonald's and a convenience store with a lot of cheap, small toys appropriate for road trip. There was also a large bank of vending machines, and of course, a gas station. These days the McDonald's has shrunk, and there are now a Subway, a Panda Express, Starbucks, a place where you can buy gyros, an Aunti Anne's, and a couple of other establishments that never seem to be open. The vending machines are still there, and instead of buying an exorbitant (in 1991) 75¢ Coke, you can now buy an iPad. That's progress!
I always stop at Auntie Anne's with the intention of buying miniature pretzel pigs in blankets. I don't know if they're any good because I've never been successful. "We're out!" they say. "More'll be ready in, say, seven minutes!" I cannot wait seven minutes. It's fine, I don't need the nitrates and anyway, if it was really important, there's at least one convenient Auntie Anne's in Madison and I have never bothered to go. I get pretzel nuggets instead.
The next stop is Mitsuwa Marketplace, the Japanese mini-mall in Arlington Heights, Illinois. This year we got off to a later start than usual, which protracted the length of our visit, but I don't know that it made much of a difference to anyone. We usually spend a great deal of time waiting, and though it might have been nice to browse a bit, I didn't really miss it. Next stop: Northwestern University!
The University is about an hour's drive from Mitsuwa, and we can't afford to get there too early because campus parking enforcement is perfectly happy to distribute tickets prior to 4:00PM, when the parking becomes free. We're usually among the very first to arrive, but not so this year. Not a big deal--we got the same seats as usual. The check-in procedure was a little different this year; usually we find our seats, drop our stuff off, and then they kick everyone out around 5:30 and we file back in through the main doors as the organizers collect our tickets and distribute programs, etc. This year, we were not allowed to enter the auditorium without first checking in. This makes more sense to me, but it meant a lot of waiting in line with heavy accouterments. Difficult to juggle a bunch of stuff while buying a T-shirt and not creasing your movie-poster program or losing your raffle ticket. I did not buy a T-shirt (though to be honest, I don't buy T-shirts very often because I have too many of them).
Pretty soon, our group was assembled, and the Fest got underway. Our group: Benny, who I haven't seen in some years, Bryce, who I never talk to because the seating at B-Fest makes socialization difficult,, Jim and his girlfriend Staci, Sarah, our friend Tim (who I thankfully did get to talk to), Matt and Jynnette. I may drop some of these names later, but will not explain who they are--sorry. We made ourselves comfortable, and I tucked myself in a corner because I learned last year that the corners are undisturbed by foot traffic, and make good places to sleep. We also picked up copies of Telstar's annual B-Fest mix CD (incidentally, check out his much timelier B-fest write-up). Soon the lights dimmed, and the first film began:
6:00 PM - Creature With The Atom Brain (1955)
This was a pretty good start to the Fest--I like the older, black and white horror/science fiction films, and a short length is always a plus in this sort of setting. Was Creature With an Atom Brain any good? Oh, hell no. The story revolves around a plot by a gangster to get revenge on his enemies with the help of an ex-Nazi scientist who has discovered a way to reanimate the dead and "drive" them around by remote control. The realism is not bolstered by the influence of atomic energy, which is used to power the reanimation process, and doesn't seem to cause any ill effects in the normal people who are occasionally exposed to it.
It was fun, but I demand truth in advertising; when a movie says it features a "creature", I expect a creature, not a guy who doesn't blink. Also, the creature's brain was bigger than an atom, so I suspect that they really meant "atomic". Of course, in a manner of speaking, everybody's brain is atomic, so perhaps what they really meant was "radioactive". Then again, all brains emit radiation, so perhaps a better title would be Dead Men Walk. Oh, wait, that's a different movie.
7:15 PM - Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn (1983)
Nobody had any idea what this one was about. At least, nobody in my group did. As far as I can tell, it was one of those post-apocalyptic hero's errand stories where the Promised One defeats the genocidal warlord, and unites warring tribes of cyclopes and cyborgs who drive flying motorcycles and angular, armored golf carts. It's a Charles Band production, so there's a lot more emphasis on aesthetics than plot, and it was hard to pick out the dialogue because the B-Fest audience spends the first two films (or so) shouting. I was three years old when this movie came out, but I'd have been just about the right age to appreciate it by the time it made its way to television. I'd have been to young to understand the uh, nuances of the plot, but I'd have enjoyed the action and the special effects--it's sort of like a less socially-redeeming, live-action He-Man, featuring Richard Moll. I'm slowly coming around to the fact that he had a pretty weird career in B-movies before (and after) appearing as Bull on Night Court, but do you care? I suspect that you do not.
8:45 PM - Frogs (1972)
I've seen this one before! Ray Milland is the crotchety, old patriarch of a Southern family so well-to-do that nobody is comfortable calling them on the fact that it's a little weird that they still employ a houseful of dark-skinned domestics. Doesn't matter--tomorrow is the 4th of July and Ray Milland's birthday, and he'll be damned if he'll let the frogs of the surrounding bayou get in the way of his cake. To that end, he dispatches an exterminator to get rid of the frogs. The mission does not go well.
It has been said that conflict in fiction can be codified into four distinct categories: man vs. self, man vs. man, man vs. society, and man vs. nature. The story proper of Frogs falls, I suppose, is that of man vs. nature: the bayou is full of low-hanging vines, mud pits, spiders, scorpions, snakes, and toads... but very few frogs, oddly. The opening scenes imply that pollution is to blame for the aggressive nature of the animals, but I doubt very much that pollution is responsible for importing all of those non-native lizards. Anyway, sooner or later people start dying, and the plantation is evacuated--except for Ray Milland who sits there, fuming in his wheelchair, while toads crawl across his birthday cake. The end credits would have been a good place for a parody of "MacArthur Park", but no such luck. Presumably it's a rights issue.
10:25 PM - Killdozer (1974)
Killdozer is so advanced that it takes us all the way from 1972 to 1974. It's a slasher film in which the killer is a bulldozer, which is about as dumb as it sounds--maybe worse, since it's a made for TV movie, which means they've watered it down for a prime-time viewing audience. Anyway, it's got Robert Urich and Neville Brand, who I will always associate with the 1970s. Our heroes are trapped on a small island off the coast of Africa, and the bulldozer is animated when it excavates a meteorite that's been inhabited by some extraterrestrial life-force. Once the cast is on board with the idea that they're being picked off one-by-one by a machine, they turn their efforts to figuring out how you kill an angry piece of construction equipment. In the end, they electrocute it, and the project foreman realizes that nobody on the mainland will believe his story since they all know he's a raging alcoholic. That last bit was probably not intended to come off as a punchline.
11:45 PM - The Wizard of Speed and Time (1979)
Once again, per tradition. the happiest 5 minutes ever committed to celluloid. Look, if you haven't seen this one, do. It's on YouTube, it's short, and watching it will go some way to explaining why they play it every year at 11:45: Starbucks is closed, and it perks one up.
After you've seen the short film, watch the feature-length movie about its creation. I will wait here for you.
12:00 AM - Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
It's very difficult to know what to write about Plan 9 From Outer Space anymore. It seems unlikely that anyone actually reading this doesn't know about the movie, or its associated B-Fest rituals. However, for the n00bs (not that there are any): Plan 9 is shown every year at midnight, and is generally considered to be the worst movie of all time, at least that anyone has the patience to sit through. Accordingly, we yell through the whole thing, and throw paper plates at the screen whenever a flying saucer appears. It's more fun than it sounds, and the audience participation--less choreographed than Rocky Horror, but still reliant on the images on screen--it wakes one up a bit before the long, late night/early morning slog.
1:35 AM - Black Mama, White Mama (1973)
In recent years, the slot immediately following Plan 9 has been reserved for a blaxploitation film, and while Black Mama, White Mama doesn't quite fit that term, it does star Pam Grier, so I suppose it counts. A black prostitute (Grier) and a white revolutionary (Margaret Markov) are sentenced to a women's prison in the Philippines where they butt heads and start a food fight which gets them sent to a maximum security prison, but they manage to escape during transport. They're chained together at the wrist and neither one of them wants to be the one to gnaw her own hand off, so they must learn to put up with each other while simultaneously putting up with the volatile local political situation, and being greasily menaced by Sid Haig. At the end, the one who isn't Pam Grier gets shot.
I actually liked this movie, but by the time the story was picking up, I was having a difficult time staying awake. Actually, Black Mama, White Mama might have been the best of the Fest, as far as I'm concerned. That sort of opinion is difficult to justify to B-movie outsiders, but I'll do my best to explain: the best B-movies are at least a couple of decades old. It's not that nobody makes good ones anymore, it's that most of the movies that get made aren't worth your time, but after a few years the good ones stand out, and the pablum is forgotten. Classic exploitation films are usually a good bet because they were calculated to show the audience a good time and (hopefully) sell as many tickets as possible. I tend to complain about The Hollywood Formula when it comes to new movies, but that's only because I don't like having to sift through all the chaff to find anything good. Twenty years from now I look forward to sitting down to the couple of really good movies that came out in 2015.
3:10 AM - Yonggary, Monster From The Deep (1967)
Reasoning that I don't generally care for kaiju movies, I decided to sleep through Yonggary. So I did.
4:40 AM - Avalanche (1978)
I woke up just as Yonggary was ending and decided to sleep through Avalanche as well. Again, I woke up during the end credits. People tell me I didn't miss anything good.
6:20 AM - Cloak and Dagger (1984)
Cloak and Dagger was always prominently displayed at the two video rentals my family most often frequented when I was a kid, and I knew vaguely that it was an espionage movie, but not much else. It didn't look very interesting, but I would have been willing to give it a shot if my parents had rented it. I never asked them to and they never did. As it turns out, it would have been right up my alley: Elliott is a kid whose fantasies about being a GI Joe-style action commando/spy are derailed when he gets mixed up with real spies who want to steal his favorite video game (this makes sense in the movie, I promise). Elliott has to rely on his wits and those of his imaginary friend, Dabney Coleman.
Actually, his imaginary friend is Jack Flack, the character from the video game, but Jack Flack is played by Dabney Coleman. Still, I'd totally watch a movie where the kid's imaginary friend is TV's Dabney Coleman, and it would be even better if TV's Dabney Colman were played by, I dunno, Tom Selleck or somebody like that.
Incidentally, Elliott is not really the kid's name. I don't remember his name, but he's played by the actor who was Elliott in E.T. So.
I did enjoy Cloak and Dagger. All of its flaws are related to the fact that its target demographic is 8-to-12-year-olds; not really the right age group for nuance and understatement. I'm not sure that it's an appropriate B-Fest selection, given that it's a good movie (at least, I thought so in my somewhat sleep-deprived state), but I wouldn't have seen it otherwise, so I'm not complaining.
8:15 AM - Andy Hardy's Private Secretary (1941)
I regret not sleeping through this one.
Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) is the fast-talking, relatively bright, gee-whiz likable president of the senior class who just can't seem to do anything right! Stated more accurately, he's a friggin' sociopath; not literally evil, but incapable of feeling remorse except when his plans backfire and inconvenience him. He spends two hours getting into sticky situations by lying, cutting corners, and committing acts of sabotage, only to watch his schemes collapse. Then he does a little pleading and hand-wringing, and moments later his father or his teacher or his girlfriend or whomever decides to give him exactly what he asked for--and more! In this way, Hardy weasels his way out of a failing grade and into a totally undeserved, brand new car by the end of the movie.
Mickey Rooney made a series of Andy Hardy movies over the course of the first half (or so) of his career. This is the first one I'd seen, and I don't believe I'll be tracking down any more of them. It was pointed out to me that there are sixteen(!) Andy Hardy movies and twenty-two entries in the James Bond franchise proper. Both men are sociopaths, but Hardy isn't spy material--he'd probably have ended up as a petty career politician. I have heard baby boomers and their parents get misty-eyed about these movies, but I suspect that's the nostalgia talking. Andy Hardy is supposed to be the everyman (everyboy?), and watching him makes me think that the Greatest Generation has some 'splaining to do.
Most years there is a movie that "breaks" people, and this year Andy Hardy's Private Secretary was it. No one expected that.
10:35 AM - Can't Stop The Music (1980)
This year the group I attend with decided to sponsor a film under the name Doghouse Drive-In, and we chose Can't Stop the Music, which Matt has been pushing for years. I had not seen it before. We were offered the opportunity to introduce the film, but declined. It occurred to me that it would be fun to introduce the film by messing up my hair, knocking my glasses out of place, and delivering the following speech: "Ladies and gentlemen... If I could... Excuse me. I-- You can't stop the music. You CAN'T stop the music. You--you can't STOP the music. YOU CAN'T. STOP. THE MUSIC. You-- I-- You can't... stop... the music." But I didn't.
Can't Stop the Music stars Village People as Village People in the story of the formation of Village People. Have you noticed the conspicuous absense of the word "the"? Village People is like Talking Heads: there's no article in front of their name (no, I didn't know this until recently, either). Unfortunately, it just feels strange to say "The film stars Village People", so if you ever ask me to talk about it in person, I will probably say "the". I have the same problem with pluralizing email and capitalizing Internet. I know how you're supposed to do it, but it's easier to do it wrong than to put up with weird looks.
No the point. Can't Stop the Music is this loud, flashy celebration of tight clothes, bright colors, and glitter which sincerely believed that it was ushering in the '80s by being the '70s, only more so. This movie is so sincere, and it is so wrong about how it will be received, which goes a long way toward making it both endearing and entertaining.
The story is an exceptionally optimistic piece of saccharine which probably doesn't reflect the real formation of Village People at all. SEE! The struggle of a true, artistic vision against incredible odds! SEE! Wall-to-wall musical numbers bursting with so much energy that the wear you out! SEE! A surprising amount (read: any) of full-frontal, male nudity in a PG movie! SEE! Valerie Perrine, the currently-topical Bruce Jenner, and a young Steve Guttenberg giving 110% to a film that really deserved somewhere around 70%! SEE! One of the gayest musicals you've ever seen (and I mean that in a positive, affirming way) dance all around but never actually touch on the issue of homosexuality!
I don't really know what to say about this one. Like many of these movies, it's not very good, but it tries so hard, and it was perfectly placed in the schedule to reinvigorate people. I enjoyed it.
I thought about getting some food, but ultimately, I did not. Then I thought about winning a prize, but ultimately, I did not.
We did not see Laserblast. It had been announced on the original schedule, but was instead replaced by...
1:20 PM - Alien from LA (1988)
Wikipedia says that Alien from LA stars "Kathy Ireland as a young woman who visits the underground civilization of Atlantis." I would add that the film goes to great lengths to make Kathy Ireland look frumpy, and hide the fact that she was a supermodel whose presence in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition was leveraged as its selling point for multiple years. They try to dress her down by putting her in baggy clothes and big glasses, but only thing about Ms. Ireland which isn't obviously conventionally attractive by the standards of 1988 is her voice. I thought she was deliberately affecting a high-pitched, baby-talk thing, but it was still going on at the end of the movie, so I guess that's really her.
I decided to sleep through this one, too, and woke up a couple of times toward the middle and end. The bits I did see reminded me a lot of Super Mario Bros., which I found vastly more watchable.
3:00 PM - Miami Connection (1988)
Miami Connection began with an infomercial for Y.K. Kim's school of martial arts and the philosophy of winning. I can't remember the name of the school or the course or whatever it was he was advertising. It doesn't matter--they skipped most of the message, which suggests to me that the projectionist didn't realize that it was part of the DVD. Mr. Kim is the writer, co-director, and one of the stars of the film, which follows the exploits of Dragon Sound, a group of karate enthusiasts who are also in the most blandly terrible movie rock band in memory (seriously. Check 'em out.). The members of Dragon Sound get mixed up with a gang of motorcycle-riding ninjas. There's something about cocaine and a guy's sister, and somebody is reunited with his long-lost father who appears to be played by an actor no older than he is. There are a lot of what the Internet calls "heavy feels". Y.K. Kim talks a lot, considering his thick accent. A lot of people consider such a statement to be borderline racism, but I just mean that it takes a certain amount of hubris to give yourself a huge role with a lot of monologues. He's difficult to understand, and I'm surprised that either nobody called him on it, or he decided not to listen.
I didn't think I'd seen Miami Connection, and then I realized that I'd seen it before. Everything is familiar. Song lyrics. Lines of dialogue. Particularly oddly-executed shots. Where have I see this before? I have no idea. First I assumed I'd seen it at a relatively recent B-Fest, but their history page indicates that it has never played there before. Wikipedia says it was all but forgotten in 1988, but slowly gained a fervent cult following which exploded after the film was re-released in 2012. At a guess, I'd say I saw it in about 2012 or '13, but I don't care for martial arts movies and wouldn't have had the patience to watch it alone. Did someone show this to me? Who? I am genuinely confused by this.
At any rate, it's fun, if you like this sort of thing--but I don't. Martial arts movies don't appeal to me, and this one plays like an amateur attempt at making a Golan/Globus-style action movie (which clearly is what it is). The Internet says that people ascribe an incredibly, hilariously ineptitude to this movie which rivals The Room. I'm not sure it was that enjoyably bad. Sure, it accidentally falls into so-bad-it's-good territory, but aside from a few standout moments (namely, that horrible song), it did not strike me as exceptional. It may be that I was simply done with B-Fest--the last couple of films before 6:00pm on Saturday are always hard for me to get through.
4:30 PM - Viva Knievel! (1977)
Viva the end of B-Fest! Viva Knievel! follows a daredevil motorcyclist named Evel Knievel, played by actual daredevil motorcyclist, Evel Knievel. During a risky jump, Knievel is injured and must announce his retirement. His fans and friends push for him to ride again, and finally he agrees to do a jump in Mexico, sponsored--unbeknownst to Knievel--by a druglord played by Leslie Nielsen. Action, stunts, and half-assed anti-drug messages ensue, but obviously Evel Knievel wins the day, because otherwise the film would have been called Viva a Druglord Played by Leslie Nielsen!
Actually, the cast is depressingly impressive: along with Messrs. Knievel and Nielsen, we've also got Red Buttons, Lauren Hutton, Cameron Mitchell, Frank Gifford, Dabney Coleman, and Gene Kelly, who was vigorously working on going out not with a bang, but with jazz hands (see: in B-Fest favorite Xanadu). I'm not sure how all of these people got involved with Viva Knievel!, but it speaks well of Knievel's reputation (I guess) that they all believed enough in the film to get involved. I hear that the real Mr. Knievel was kind of a jerk, so one assumes that the Santa Claus on a Triumph persona he cultivates for this film is all for show.
I did not like Viva Knievel!, but I found it quite watchable, which is a change for B-Fest. Usually by the last movie, I am done. I spend the first couple of minutes packing up all my stuff, and then I'm ready to leave. It doesn't help that most years' Fests end with a kaiju film which, if I'm being honest, all run together for me. Sure, some of them have CGI, but the audience that likes those movies mostly wants to watch men in suits stomp around on miniature sets. A couple of years ago we got Stunt Rock, a love-it-or-hate-it story about a rock band which hires stunt men to devise an engaging live show. I didn't like Stunt Rock either, but that one bored me to tears, and Viva Knievel did not.
Of course, I did spend a lot of time wishing that they'd given Gene Kelly and Leslie Nielsen had something to do, but by 1977 Kelly's singing and dancing days were well past, and Nielsen hadn't reinvented himself as a comedian yet.
Finally, we packed up all our stuff, threw away all of our trash, and sort of stumbled out into Saturday evening. We said goodbye to our Chicago friends, and drove on to the Best Western in Morton Grove where we've stayed the last few years. The hotel is nicely situated within close walking distance of a Mediterranean restaurant called Zuzu Wraps. They don't have the best reviews I've ever seen online, but the food has always been good, relatively quick, and (most importantly) everybody agrees on it. Other years we've done fast food (not really a good idea after the ordeal of B-Fest) or more traditional sit-down restaurants (which either take forever or (in one case) turn out to be a mafia hangout). We spend a lot of time during the drive and at the restaurant trying to decide which films were the best (Can't Stop the Music and Cloak & Dagger), and which were the worst (Andy Hardy's Private Secretary). We also made tentative plans to get together sometime soon to watch The Wicker Man. We made the same plan last year and it failed to reach fruition. Will that change this year? One can only hope.
Back at the hotel, everyone showers (separately) and collapses (separately, but at the same time). Snow was forecast for Sunday morning and a fair amount had already fallen when we got on the road. We stopped at Denny's for breakfast, and then had an uneventful drive back to Wisconsin; the snow stayed mostly in the Chicago area.
So that's another B-Fest under my belt--this makes eleven. Pretty good selection this year, with just enough stuff that I felt like sleeping through. They've brought back the practice of bringing up the lights for a few minutes between movies, which they haven't done in years. I'm glad the lights are back, but it seems they've made time for them by cutting short films out of the program. Individual shorts have always been controversial because they were usually arty, student films, more interesting for their weirdness than for their value as casual entertainment. I think the controversy gets misinterpreted as a dislike of shorts, but everyone I've talked to wants more of them. I'm also not crazy about the placement of the raffle, which is traditionally held prior to The Wizard of Speed and Time, but has been done on Saturday afternoon for the last two years. Lots of people have left by then or are grabbing lunch in the cafeteria downstairs, which means the staff have to waste a lot of time trying to draw a good ticket from the pile.
Still, I lost a lot of sleep and had a lot of fun with a lot of people, so I call it a success. As usual.
What kind of a name is Dabney, anyway?