Okay, now that you've read my tales of misadventure and regrettable fashion over the week in Chicago before B Fest, it's time to get to the actual show. When we last left our stalwart hero (me), I took a nap at the hotel and then packed people into my car and drove off to the parking lot near the Norris Auditorium, with an eye towards getting a good seat and talking to more friends that I only get to see once a year (including many who I only see at the show; they all have their own factions and their own Tourism Things to do in Chicago at the end of January). Every time I get to the auditorium there's a powerful slam of nostalgic optimism and apprehension that whacks me right in the sternum. That one day where I spend all my time an energy mocking terrible films and basking in the company of 175 nerds who also like to do This Kind Of Thing is what keeps me going the other 364 days out of the year.
This time around Sam and I (and possibly someone else who got a ride from me--I didn't take notes) got to the auditorium with two hours to go before showtime, and found that about 40 or 50 other people got in line before we did. Still, I was sponsoring a movie this year so I knew that I was getting in, as was Sam. My friend Joel, who has had my back since I was 13, made it all the way through the Fest for the first time this year (he's had family emergencies and illnesses haul him out of the auditorium several times in previous years). After more than a decade of attendance it was awesome to see him make it to the final flick and beyond.
As I mentioned in the previous entry, I make a B movie music themed mix tape every year; this was the fourteenth time I'd done that (there are discs from 2002 through 2016, though I skipped 2012 because the world ended). I distributed them to everyone who wanted one and probably a couple people who didn't, and threw some full 14-disc sets in the raffle for random winners as well as one set aside for the youngest and oldest first-time attendees. Continuing the theme of "I am a complete doofus", I left the DVDs and books I was planning to give in my trunk but thought they were back at the hotel, which means nobody got all three volumes of Atlas Shrugged. Thank my shaky memory for that, person who would have won those movies.
Anyway, in the auditorium things were great and everyone waited for 6 PM to roll around so we could get this ball game on the road.
Right before the show started, Bryan, Mike, Scott (a friend of Bryan's) and I went on stage with cans of silver cake-decorating icing mist and sprayed our teeth silver. Then, of course, we screamed "WITNESS ME!" to the audience, who bellowed "WITNESS!" back at us. It was a little like throwing out the first three-point basket at the Stanley Cup (NOTE: I don't know much about sports), and a lot of fun despite Bryan accurately describing the taste of the spray as "medicine paint". We went back to our seats amidst plenty of Fury Road themed jokes from the assembled movie nerds and the lights went down.
And first up was one from Cannon Films; whereas the Fest organizers used to start with a black and white creature feature from the atomic age, in more recent years they've decided the Eighties are the new Fifties. Hence:
The Adventures of Hercules (1983)
This was the second Cannon Studios Hercules movie starring Lou Ferrigno, and it's the one that can be fairly described as "not the one where Hercules punches a bear into space". The opening credits go on forever and recap the previous movie with footage of Hercules fighting clockwork ancient Greek robots of various types. I haven't seen the first one in forever and I probably wasn't paying too much attention when I did, so it was great to get caught up to speed. Or at least I would have if I could hear any of the voiceovers or dialogue. For, as you can imagine, putting 175 B movie fans in a room and showing them a low-budget fantasy movie means that everyone's yelling their jokes at the screen to the point where the movie's actual soundtrack is more of a suggestion than anything. King Minos, who might have been the bad guy in the previous movie, is brought back to life to fight Zeus and Hercules with the power of science. (In this case, "science" means "a magic sword forged out of chaos magic".) Juniper, who writes for RogerEbert.com in her civilian life, dubbed him "King Richard Dawkins" for his incessant yammering about how science was going to defeat the gods. Don't get me wrong--I'm all for gods getting their asses kicked, especially if it's through science, but in this case Minos was using other gods' divine magic against Zeus. That is exactly the opposite of science.
Anyway, Hercules beats up half a dozen monsters, gathering up one of Zeus' stolen thunderbolts from each one. Minos uses science to turn himself into a glowing energy Tyrannosaurus Rex at the end of the film when Herc comes a-calling, and Hercules turns himself into a glowing energy gorilla to fight it, in a boss battle that was just rotoscoped over the Kong-versus-Rex fight in the 1933 King Kong. The audience was stupefied with laughter, which is exactly what you want from the starting flick at B Fest. Shortly after this one wrapped up, the organizers gave us
Caltiki, The Immortal Monster
A blob monster movie set (and maybe filmed?) in Mexico, in black and white, with cinematography and direction from Mario Bava under a pseudonym. A group of explorers use actual science to explore a subterranean lake that turns out to have Mayan treasure and a dormant blob creature in it. There's some gruesome effects much gorier than I would have expected from the Fifties (and someone tweeted my joke "I'm pretty sure he had a face when we sent him down", which was gratifying to see after the fact). A sample of Caltiki gets taken to the surface, just in time for a comet to return in its 850-something-long year orbit. Radiation from the comet makes Caltiki bubble up and swell like a sourdough starter ("Death Bread: The Bread that Eats!" was another joke I made that I saw on Twitter later) and a scientist who got his arm liquefied by exposure to the monster either loses his goddamned mind or gets supernatural powers to influence others thanks to Caltiki.
At the end, flamethrowers kill all the Caltiki blobs that are surrounding and destroying a house, and looking back on my hazy memories after two months, the model work was really impressive and the scientists were idiots for putting the flesh-dissolving monster chunks in cages that wouldn't present an escape challenge to a one-legged rat. But since mocking absurd choices from the characters is half the fun at these things, we were all really grateful that the characters were so suicidally stupid. And even in black and white, every frame of a Mario Bava film is a painting. And after this it was time for a big old slice of Seventies cheese as the A&O Films staff showed us
I think I could actually do a full 5000 word writeup of this one on the blog at some point, but for now you're just getting the Readers' Digest synopsis. It's the future, 1998, and America has gone completely bankrupt after the world ran out of oil. Americans now live in immobile cars following the crash of the housing market and everyone has to jog, rollerskate or bike to work (there's a really well-done scene at the beginning that sets up the oil-free world while the Beach Boys sing about the brave new world that everyone's forced to live in at this point). John Ritter plays the President, Chet Roosevelt, who is a new-age goofball that tries to avoid masculinity at every turn. He's backed into a corner and forced to act when the National Indian Knitting Enterprise, the richest corporation in history, calls in the $400,000,000,000 loan that was keeping America afloat. If America defaults on the loan, the country will get sold to the United Hebrab Republic (a coalition of former Middle-East nations that teamed up in pursuit of blonde Gentile chicks). The President decides to ask America to bail itself out and holds a two-month-long telethon to cover the debt. His treacherous chief of staff tries to sabotage the telethon by only booking ventriloquist acts and boring the nation into not paying its tab.
Fortunately, right around this point, things get weird. Among the Gong Show-style acts that get booked to keep people watching we get to see Meat Loaf fight a car like a matador (this sequence is unquestionably the highlight of the film) and Jay Leno plays a guy who fights his own mother in a boxing match--and loses when she kicks him in the balls, which got cheers from the entire auditorium. Harvey Korman plays Monty Rushmore, the sitcom star who eats a briefcase full of pills in order to stay awake for the full two months of the telethon and in the most questionable acting turn, Zane Busby plays a Vietnamese "puke rock star" named Mouling Jackson. There's a kidnapping attempt, plenty of musical numbers, and the vice-president, a middle-aged dude named Jerry, became the audience's dark-horse favorite character. I was really apprehensive about this one, figuring that it would be full of stereotype humor that was totally cool in 1979 but would have been cringe-inducing beyond belief in 2016. It had a couple moments like that but in general it was a kindly disposed satire that likes to think America could probably fix its problems if everyone pulled together. So, y'know, fantasy. But a well-intentioned one, and if I'd known it was actually a rather decent movie I wouldn't have walked past it a thousand times at President Video back in my home town. I also took great delight in yelling "THERE'S A SOUNDTRACK ALBUM..." after all the musical numbers, threatening the attendees with the possibility of using stuff from this movie on next year's Fest disc. In fact, after the festival was over, El Santo told me he'd be willing to burn the soundtrack LP to CD-R so that I could use things from it on a mix disc even though he found every single song (except maybe the Elvis Costello one) repellent on a cellular level. He's a real pal, and hopefully will regret that decision some time around July of this year. Basking in the warm glow of a movie that wasn't nearly as hideous as I thought it would be it was time to check out
Calling Dr. Death
Hey, it's an actual B movie! My friend Joel had a friend who sponsored this movie, and if my memory serves me correctly that guy couldn't make it to the Fest so Joel gave a quick speech about a science fiction fan organization that his friend ran. Then the movie showed up and didn't do a heck of a lot. It's about a hypnotist whose wife is killed and a series of hugely improbable things that happen to frame him or not (depending on whether or not he killed his wife or his secretary did to move in on him while he's grieving). There's a ton of voiceovers done as whispers, and I missed a lot of them thanks to the audience making plenty of noise. They were probably more fun than the actual dialogue, though, so I don't really mind.
It was the secretary who killed the protagonist's wife. Now you don't have to see this one, unless you want to see J. Carrol Naish as the dickhead police detective who thinks that the hypnotist killed his wife. He was a real treat, but probably not enough to see the movie, honestly. Shortly after this one wrapped up it was time for the midnight traditions of B Fest:
First, The Wizard of Speed and Time in glorious half-shredded 16mm forwards and backwards (but silently, this year, because the organizers didn't know how to hook the projector up to the sound system in the auditorium). That's a risk when you show everything else via DVD. But it isn't B Fest without something going wrong, so hey. Embrace the mystery.
Second, Plan 9 from Outer Space hit the screen at midnight to its ritualized, Rocky Horror Picture Show style. There's a list of approved callbacks to yell at the screen ("Day!" and "Night!" every time the scene switches from one to the other, etc.) and honestly, if you don't already know about this movie, why are you reading Checkpoint Telstar? It's always a lot of fun to yell at the screen in a ritualistic manner with my friends and this year was no different. Maybe in a few more years I'll go out to the lobby and hang out with other people dodging the movie but for the foreseeable future I'll be throwing paper plates at the screen every time the flying saucers show up. And after this tradition faded out for another year it was time for the 1:25 AM dirty stuff. This year it was
Dolemite II: The Human Tornado
If Rudy Ray Moore did not exist, it would have been necessary to create him. In this film, he plays his trademark character Dolemite. This time Dolemite's a standup comic who gets framed for murder--you see, he was sleeping with the wife of the sheriff of Splintery Knothole, Alabama and ran for his life diving buck naked down a hill (the movie does an instant replay of this stunt to prove it really happened). He and his compadres kidnap a flaming-gay stereotype guy and force him to drive them to California, where they pay him for the gas he used in his road-yacht car and tip him some extra money out of politeness. While in California he stumbles into a kidnapping, torture and serial murder plot wherein the Mafia will take over some nightclubs (and, I think, a prostitution racket). Among Dolemite's investigative techniques? Posing as a door-to-door salesmen of pornographic velvet paintings. This actually works, because Rudy Ray Moore wrote and stars in the film.
It's goofily charming, which is not what I'd normally expect to say about a movie where a sadistic torturer's balls are eaten by rats. And after that it was time for two movies I did not stay up to see because it was 3:30 in the goddamned morning. Therefore,
Garbage Pail Kids: The Motion Picture
both looked like the backs of my eyelids. From the descriptions of people who stayed awake for them, I made the right choice. And then after only about three hours' sleep or so, it was time to go back into the theater for
Moon Zero Two
It's the only movie from Hammer Studios that takes place in the future! It's kinda slow and talky! It's a space Western with a claim jumping, dancing girls, a bar fight and civilization creeping into the untamed wilderness!
And it's got a lengthy animated prologue that sets up the future history (in short: While the USA and USSR were engaged in a pissing contest about who would have the best moon rocket, various European nations built a moonbase and everyone has to get along now in order to survive). The moon city serves as some place like Tombstone or Deadwood in a Western while the outposts reachable only at considerable risk have miners on them looking for valuable minerals.
While this one was very, very slow (a feature common to the other movies that have been shown at the 6:30 "polyester spacesuit" movies) it also put some actual thought into its premises--at one point someone tells the rich industrialist that if he crash lands his asteroid made entirely of sapphire onto the moon he will have more sapphire than anyone else in human history, which will make it completely valueless because scarcity is one reason gemstones are valuable. Even better, he counters that he doesn't want to sell necklaces. He wants to use the sapphire as a coating for rocket exhaust tubes (which might not be entirely bullshit; the solar panels on Telstar I were covered with synthetic sapphire to block out harmful radiation). There was also a constant reference to how horrifyingly dangerous life on the Moon is, even with the best technology and all the safety precautions that everyone can take. And I'll need to track down some kind of CD release of the opening song, so that I can torment my fellow Fest-goers some more. It's not a complete success, but if you meet the movie more than halfway you'll find plenty to like and it's one of the few science fiction movies I've seen with actual science in it.
After this one ended, it was time to kick things up a notch with
KO Rob and his brother KO Mike are enthusiasts of big dumb action movies (the year I sponsored Road House, it turns out they also wanted to show the same movie). Leo Fong claims to have been trained by Bruce Lee. That's the big selling point for this movie. I think Lee might have taught him one handlock in an attempt to get Fong to leave him alone and quit asking for martial arts lessons.
Over a lengthy and endless-seeming first hour or so, the film establishes Fong's character Joe Wong as a hard-luck private eye with a junker car and cruddy office; he gets hired to find the daughter of a prominent businessman, who has joined a cult. The cult has people growing soybeans or something in a field and sermons are provided by Cameron Mitchell as a blind prophet. Wong makes his move on the cult a little too early and gets chased away (though not after knocking one guy into a straw manger full of adorable puppies and angle-grinding the roof off a car--he even puts on safety goggles before attacking the car with the power equipment because it's important to observe all appropriate precautions). There's also one point in there were he stomps through someone's head but the dummy head looked like it was made of cake, and it looked more ridiculous than gory. Since Wong can't take on the cult on his own he recruits a bunch of people from an illegal pit fight to help him storm the compound and rescue the cult victim. This they eventually do.
The best performance in the film, bar none, is by Akosua Busia (who was a princess in Ghana, went to Oxford University, and somehow wound up in this movie). She appears to have thought about her character's motivations and probably wrote up a huge back story for her, and everyone else is basically a face-punch delivery system. I have no idea how she got in this flick but I'm really glad she did. After everyone got good and riled up by the action film it was time to watch
The Fifth Musketeer
Featuring all kinds of good actors (and an unrecognizably young and skinny Ian McShane as one of the villains); a double role for Beau Bridges as the King of France and the Man in the Iron Mask, Sylvia Kristel as a woman who does not take her clothes off--a rarity in her curriculum vitae--and Alan Hale, Jr. as Porthos. I think the people who got this flick for the Fest reserved the rights without actually seeing the film, and were hoping for some kind of Seventies fiasco full of embarrassed actors and cruddy sets. Unfortunately that isn't what we get. It was too competent to really serve as riffing fodder and too involving to ignore. Nothing really to say about it other than that; still, if it was a choice between this or Baby Geniuses 2 (which was shown several years back sight-unseen) I'd rather watch this one three times in a row than any five minutes of Baby Geniuses 2.
I think this was the movie where Mike Bockoven explained to us what happened to his mini video camera. He had been taping greetings and get-well wishes from all the attendees in our group to bring back to Chad, who was sick in Nebraska and couldn't come to the auditorium to suffer and joke along with everyone else. And when taking off his hoodie, the video camera bounced out of his pocket and fell into a toilet just as the auto-flush was going into effect, which meant that he flushed his video camera down the toilet. I hope Chad enjoyed the story as much as he would have liked seeing everyone telling him to get well soon. Well, laughter is the best medicine, right?
After the last swash was buckled and the credits rolled for this one it was time for
I feel like I could write ten thousand words on the cinematic nature of this film. Noel Marshall, one of the producers of The Exorcist, used up his money and clout from that flick making this one. It took him eleven years. It's about a kind and gentle genius unappreciated by the Philistines around him (played by screenwriter / director / producer Noel Marshall) trying to prove that you can live with untamed lions and tigers in your house. It stars Marshall, Tippi Hedren, and their real-life kids from different marriages (including a young Melanie Griffith). There's about enough plot for part of a sitcom episode: Noel's character, Frank, is awaiting the arrival of his family at his awesome jungle house. He goes to meet them at the airport, not knowing they've already gone to his house to meet him. He goes back using various means of transportation. Wackiness ensues.
Well, that "wackiness" is that seventy-plus cast and crew members got hurt by the motherfucking lions, tigers, elephants and panthers that were in the movie as well. In an attempt to prove that man and really big cat can live together in harmony, Marshall put the actors--including his children--in mortal danger to prove a point that every single scene in the film disproves with a vengeance. You cannot safely coexist with tigers, as it turns out (and if you have a small boat, they're going to swamp it because that is a thing they do). The score for the film sounds like it belongs in a Disney live-action comedy about city slickers learning to live on a farm or something, but the images on the screen are of terrified people a second away from lethal injury.
Additionally, I found it impossible to forget for a second how dangerous everything was because the tigers had no idea they were being filmed. They're just really big cats. They don't know anything about the filmmaking process; it's just that when they got bored or angry or hostile the scene that the actors were trying to perform became a scene where someone got tackled or bitten by a lion. I'm pretty sure it wasn't stage blood in every scene where someone had red dripping down their arm or face. Look at it like this: in every movie, the final version is assembled from the best available takes and the narrative is put together piece by piece. Some times there's only one chance to get something (like, say, when an actual building was blown up in order to provide the hospital demolition in The Dark Knight). And when Heath Ledger found himself on location and the cameras rolling with a gap between the explosions he wound up having to improvise something off the top of his head to not lose the shot. Well, every single scene in this movie with an animal present features actors trying to get through their dialogue or walk through the location while either keeping an eye peeled for a leopard that wants to pounce on them or actually getting mauled. It's amazing nobody got killed, and I'm sure there were plenty of takes ruined when a cat went after a crew member rather than an onscreen performer.
Adding insult to "a nine-year-old child could have told you this was a stupid idea", the movie came out in 1981 and sank without a trace. A quarter-century later the Alamo Drafthouse and Olive Films released it on disc and to theaters, with the sole selling point of the film being "look at these stupid motherfuckers getting mauled by lions". If Melanie Griffith refused to ever speak to her parents after making this film (and after the facial reconstruction she needed after being bitten by a goddamned lion) I understand completely and support her decision ten thousand percent.
How do you follow something like this? Well, you go back to the Seventies for a movie about a fad that was going to fizzle but then come back. That's right, it's
Kansas City Bomber
Raquel Welch plays a professional roller derby star who tries to live life on her own terms, on and off the banked track. And when you see her elbow-dropping a rival in the first five minutes of the film you're going to be expecting something the movie has absolutely no intention of delivering to you. I'm sure anything would have looked tepid after Roar, but I wasn't the only person in the audience who drifted into a conversation while keeping a half an eye on the film and just sorta waited for things to wrap up. There was a Calling Dr. Death poster in the background of a couple shots, which was an interesting synchronicity, but past that there wasn't really much to say about this one. The sponsors apologized for it being slow and boring via Twitter while the Fest was going on, which was novel and interesting on the way the movie was not.
Then it was time for me to go up on stage in my 15,000 JOE MEEK FANS CAN'T BE WRONG shirt and introduce the final movie of B Fest 2016. I told everyone--truthfully--that the first fifteen seconds of the movie were a little slow, and then a pterodactyl will belly-flop onto a highway, the Earth will crack open, Hong Kong will be consumed in flames, and a sorceress will rise from the Earth's mantle to conquer humanity.
Then things get loopy.
That's right, kids, it's the Shaw Brothers' cash-in on Ultraman. It's
The Super Infra-Man
Fifteen seconds into this movie, 57 varieties of hell are breaking loose. The Science Headquarters takes one of their own and turns him into a monster-killing cyborg named Infra-Man in order to defeat the monsters and cannon fodder under the comand of Princess Dragon Mom. The rest of the movie is nothing but kung-fu monster fights with the occasional bare pause to catch one's breath or reveal some new superpower that Infra-Man needs in order to win a fight or break out of a trap. Among the joyous highlights of world cinema in this film (at least in the dubbed version, which I told the B Fest organizers to show instead of the Cantonese-language audio track): "The situation is so bad now that it is the worst in human history!". The head of the Science Patrol wearing a silver lame lab coat because everyone at Science Headquarters wears sparkly silver fabric. A spider-monster growing huge and Infra-Man growing huge in turn to fight him, then stomping on him like a bug after defeating him. The whole audience going "WHAAAAA!" in stunned surprise when Princess Dragon Mom's second-in-command gets her hands sliced off by Infra-Man's laser blast. The line "They may try to freeze you with liquid ice," which is just water. And, when the Science Headquarters leader tells Infra-Man about some new weaponry to use, we get this, the best of all dialogue:
The Chief: "Rayma, there are other weapons I haven't given you as yet. For success, it is essential you have Thunderball fists."
Infra-Man: "I can have such a thing?"
The Chief: "That's right. Thunderball fists."
Yes, Rayma, you can. And it's an utter delight to watch you beat up monsters with them.
The Earth is saved after Princess Dragon Mom is decapitated half a dozen times and then disintegrated. Because how could it not be? What a total delight, and I'm so glad that the audience at B Fest enjoyed this as much as I hoped they would. Apparently after watching the trailer, the B Fest organizers were so intent on showing this movie as the closer that they contacted the rights owners--in Hong Kong--in order to get permission to show it. Thanks, guys.
After the film festival ran down it was time to clean up the auditorium, get back to the hotel (and one attendee asked me if I could drive him to his hotel in Chicago out of the blue; he got a one-word answer about that). Then it was "shower off the filth" time and the B Movie Message Board faction went to Portillo's for Italian beef sandwiches and conversation. Some of us went to Delilah's a bar in Chicago with a great bourbon selection. Some of us stuck around and played a B-movie themed version of Cards Against Humanity in the hotel lobby until we got tired and went to bed.
And Sunday morning, the remnants of my faction (Sam, Bryan, Kelvin, Melissa and I) went to Marilyn's Pancake House, the final stop on our tour of the amazing diners of the Chicagoland area. As Bryan pointed out in his own wrapup of the marathon, B Fest takes forever to get here every year and it's always over too soon. It's a thought that echoed through my mind over and over on the six hour drive back to Ann Arbor. I wish I could stay longer and could hang out with my friends more, but the time we get is all the time we get.
Thank you to everyone who came back to the festival this year, and special thanks to first-timer Bill for finally letting me know what one of my friends looks like. Hope to see you all again next year.
Thank you to the people at the Best Western in Morton Grove for putting up with our tame shenanigans and for giving us a discounted room rate. It's greatly appreciated by everyone, and makes our attendance next year more likely.
Thank you to Chad for kicking in for the room even when you couldn't make it. I hope to see you again in 2017, brown corduroy suit jacket and all.
Thank you to A&O Films and Northwestern University for putting on this crazy show once a year and for being polite to the herd of doughy nerds in Godzilla shirts that occupy your student union for a full day.
And thank you, readers, for going along with this trip with me after the fact. I hope to tell you about B Fest 2017 in the future, when future events like these will affect us all.
For other B Fest 2016 coverage, please read or listen to the following:
Cinemasochist Apocalyse: Part I and Part II
Misan[trope]y: B Fest 2016
Psychoplasmics Goes to B Fest!
Seeker of Schlock: B Fest 2016
Xanadu Cinema Pleasure Dome (a podcast, not a blog): Part I and Part II