Posted by Susan Doll on January 30, 2012
For my birthday, I treated myself to the 31st Annual B-Fest, a 24-hour marathon of b-movies held each year in January at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “B-movie” is a generous distinction for most of the films, some of which are so bad they stupefy. But, fans of B-Fest revel in the ridiculous because attending is a participatory experience in which audience members yell, cheer, and shout a running commentary at the screen. As my friend Al explained, “It’s like Mystery Science Theater 3000 on steroids or cocaine.”
Al, who has attended B-Fest for 14 straight years, is fairly perceptive about its appeal to regulars, noting that audiences are simultaneously in awe and aghast at how bad, cheesy, insipid, or tedious the films are. The worse the film, the more inspired or inventive the commentary is. Also, watching nonstop movies into the wee hours of the morning with like-minded movie lovers inspires a camaraderie that is infectious, an observation made by Spencer, a 14-year B-Fest veteran who has made a tradition of attending.
I was delighted to see that the audience for B-Fest was a mix of males and females, with an age range from teens through seniors. Some come for the old creature features from the 1950s; some come for the classic bad movies, like the perennial Plan 9 from Outer Space; others prefer famous flops. Though Becky, who has attended B-Fest for three years, is a science fiction fan, she really enjoys those legitimate Hollywood movies that turned out to be “train wrecks,” like Cool as Ice, the Vanilla Ice vehicle that showed at least year’s B-Fest.
I managed to stay for about for five features, one short, and the raffle before bailing on B-Fest in the wee hours of the morning. I scribbled a rough diary of my observations and impressions, which I hope captures the spirit, fun, and craziness of B-Fest.
Friday, 5:20pm. I arrive as the theater begins to fill with attendees carrying huge sacks of junk food, bottles of soda, and large duffels filled with bedding and changes of clothing. My canvas bag with one diet Dr. Pepper, a 99-cent bag of sesame sticks, and a few packets of peanut-butter crackers looks paltry in comparison. Most people are dressed extremely casually; as the night wears on, jammy pants, sweatpants, and old tees become the unofficial uniform of B-Fest. Three young men sitting in front of me have come equipped with bags of snacks, pillows, and blankets, which they store at the end of their row. The energy in the room is palatable as people greet friends and chat about past fests.
6:00pm. Two student representatives from B-Fest make announcements that no one can hear through the din of talking and applause. Credits for the first film, Best of the Best, begin to roll, and the crowd cheers wildly as the names Eric Roberts and James Earl Jones pop up onscreen. The third-loudest applause goes to Louise Fletcher, whose name inspires shouts of “Nurse Ratched.” Released in 1989, Best of the Best is a competently crafted but cheesy martial arts film about a group of Americans who battle a South Korean team for the world karate championship. Each fighter has his own personal issues, which coach James Earl Jones helps them overcome. My favorite is Tommy Lee (played by Philip Rhee), who is scarred by seeing his brother die during a competition years ago. The incident is shown in flashback: Little Tommy is eating an ice cream cone when he sees his brother struck with the fatal blow. The ice cream cone goes flying in the air and smears across the floor, signifying the death of the brother. The flying ice cream in slow motion prompts a well-timed comment from the crowd: “This ice cream will be avenged.”
The running commentary is so loud I can’t really hear the film’s dialogue, which is distracting at first. I soon learned to focus on the comments closest to me and laugh along. The three dudes in front of me with the enormous amount of bedding and two guys behind me offer an inventive, clever, and well-timed commentary. I focus my ears on them; they do not disappoint. My favorite aspect of the commentary is the constant references to pop culture and lines from other films. The appearance of James Earl Jones on the screen prompts shouts of “Come to the dark side” and “I am your father,” referencing Jones’ s turn as the voice of Darth Vader. Jones’s tendency to enunciate the syllables of each word is exaggerated in this film. His pep talk to his fighters is hysterical because he over-enunciates the word “team” as “teeeeeeammmm,” providing a catch-word for the crowd for the rest of the night.
My favorite comment is launched at Sally Kirkland, playing a Buddhist who teaches yoga to the team members. Kirkland’s approach to her role seems to involve teasing her long hair into a stiff ‘do and to adopt stern, determined expressions. In one scene, she bolts into a meeting room with a too-intense expression on her face, prompting someone behind me to shout: “We will mate and then I will eat your heads.”
7:40pm. The lights go up after the end of Best of the Best—one film down and many hours to go. Al drops by to make sure I am having a good time, and I realize that I have laughed throughout the entire film. B-Fest will definitely lift your spirits. One of the student representatives returns to the stage to announce that free plastic cups are still available, inspiring shouts of “teeeeeeammmm.”
7:50pm. Astro Zombies begins. It is an abysmal film from 1968 starring Tura Satana of Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, horror film veteran John Carradine, and character actor Wendell Corey in his last role. Corey died shortly after the film was shot, and he looks twenty years older than his actual age of 54. Corey reads all of his lines from cue cards, or—unbelievably—directly from papers he holds in his hand, encouraging audience members to shout “Read it. Read it.” An inglorious end to a solid career.
Aside from the ridiculous plot and obtuse characters, Astro Zombies is so poorly directed that Best of the Best looks like Citizen Kane in comparison. The framing is laughable: Some characters are shot with so much space above their heads that they look like they are shorter than they are; others in the same scene are shot with their heads touching the top of the frame. The film is 90 minutes long, but there is really only about 60 minutes of legitimate plot. The rest of the film is padded with endless shots of characters driving and parking their cars. In one scene, a chauffeur drives to a location, drops off his passenger, backs up, pulls forward, backs up again, and then parallel parks in a space. From behind me comes, “I’m so glad they showed that.” In the next scene, another character hops in a different car, prompting someone to yell, “Yes, more driving at last.”
8:15pm. Three or four more people join the three guys in front of me. They bring even more bedding, including a garbage bag full of blankets and a new red comforter still encased in a zippered plastic bag.
8:30pm. A pizza is delivered to a group in the front rows.
9:22pm. Astro Zombies concludes. I take a break to look for more soda. The quest takes longer than I anticipate, and when I return, the next film has already begun. I glance at the screen, thinking, “That guy looks like Meatloaf.” I turn to my friend Jason and ask, “Is that Meatloaf?” Sure enough, the singer/ composer of Bat Out of Hell is the star of the 1995 kids flick To Catch a Yeti, playing straight man to a stuffed animal that looks like a reject from the Gremlins movies. I dislike children’s films in general, so this horrific addition to the genre becomes the toughest movie for me to sit through. It’s so tedious that I begin texting friends, something I would never do in a movie theater. However, there is so much activity going on at B-Fest, it goes unnoticed. The end of the movie takes place in a secluded cabin in the Canadian north, where Meatloaf’s evil character tries to outsmart a little girl and her family for possession of the cute Yeti. Someone shouts, “When did this turn into Straw Dogs?” Others drone, “Teeeeeeammmm.”
11:00pm. By this time, the commentary is slowing down, and a few people are leaving. One of the guys sitting behind me leaves to find a place to take a nap, vowing to return for Avenging Disco Godfather. I am disappointed because his running commentary is truly clever and funny.
11:15pm.The raffle begins, with prizes ranging from Play Station games to DVDs to VHS tapes to paperback books. Under normal circumstances, the last thing I would want is a Play Station game or a VHS tape, but in the spirit of B-Fest, I am excited. About 25 prizes are handed out, but my number is not called—true to form for my bad luck. Later, I am glad I did not win a Play Station game or a VHS tape.
11:50pm. I notice that about thirty people are lying on the stage in front of the screen as we wait for the next movie to start. All of them are lying on their backs facing the screen. I am curious.
Saturday, midnight. After a few technical difficulties, The Wizard of Speed and Time begins. A short from 1979, TWOSAT is a one-man tour de force for director, writer, designer, effects man and actor Mike Jittlov. The story involves a filmmaker who is challenged to make a complex, effects-driven movie within a three-week deadline, but I wasn’t really able to follow the plot, partly because the film was projected upside down and backwards. After this showing, it was projected correctly, and then shown upside down and backwards again. During one scene, the protagonist hits something on his motorbike, and he goes flying through the air with his feet kicking, prompting the people on the stage in front of the screen to hold their legs in the air and shake them. Aha! Now I get it.
12:15am. B-Fest is officially behind schedule. I notice that some of the people in front of me have left, and one of the remaining girls is fast asleep.
Plan 9 from Outer Space—Ed Wood’s anti-masterpiece of cheap special effects, ridiculous plotting, and amateur acting—begins. This marks the fifth time I have seen Plan 9 on the big screen and the second time I have celebrated my birthday by watching it. As the opening credits roll, former wrestler Tor Johnson garners a huge round of applause; Dudley Manlove’s credit receives some applause; and Bela Lugosi’s name is accompanied by chants of “Bela, Bela.” The name Dick Chaney, credited with wardrobe, gets a hearty laugh.
After Astro Zombies and To Catch a Yeti, I notice right away that Ed Wood’s film is better photographed and better edited than often given credit for. Scenes are divided and organized in long, medium, and close up shots, giving the film a sense of pacing. Shots are matched in terms of screen direction and framed properly, and Wood adheres to the 180-degree rule. The story clips along, and the space is clearly and logically depicted. Someone behind me notices this and remarks to his friend in a serious tone, “This film is so much better.”
But, there is no getting round the cut-rate production design and bad acting by a slew of Wood’s cronies and bizarre acquaintances. These infamous characteristics of “bad” filmmaking have made Plan 9 a B-Fest tradition. The film’s frequent showings have inspired a Rocky Horror-style participation among audience members. In the scene where police arrive at the graveyard to investigate the strange activity, there is a notorious continuity error in which the cars arrive in daylight but the shots of the graveyard occur at night. The audience calls out “day” then “night,” as shots alternate between light and dark within the same scene. Everyone knows that Lugosi died after only a few scenes were shot for the film, and he was replaced with Wood’s chiropractor, who kept a cloak over his face to mask the fact that he was not the famous actor. B-Fest audiences shout “Bela” during Lugosi’s scenes, and “not Bela” during the body double’s scenes.
Wood’s notorious low-budget production design resulted in an airplane cockpit that consists of two cardboard steering wheels and a curtain behind them, prompting someone to yell, “Who’s flying the shower?” Later, in a scene on the alien spaceship, part of the décor consists of a curtain to represent the door, inspiring the comment, “Our shower curtain technology is superior.”
The highpoint of the Plan 9 experience occurs during the shots of Wood’s low-budget flying saucers. Audience members toss hundreds of paper plates into the air, then quickly gather them up, waiting for the next saucer shot. The plates create saucer-shaped shadows on the screen, which actually enhances the film. Many of the plates contain notes featuring lines of dialogue or observations from the previous films. Two plates that whiz past me read: “How to Put Down a Yeti” and “The Adventures of Baby Mengele”—both references to To Catch a Yeti. One talented cinephile has sketched simple portraits of recently deceased film celebrities on his plates, with their birth and death dates noted. I catch a plate with a sketch of Kenneth Mars and one with Ken Russell. I find the plates a touching tribute, and tossing them seems a bizarre but fitting memorial.
1:35am. Avenging Disco Godfather, an anti-drug blaxploitation film, begins. Several people have left, but the auditorium is still half full. As the credits roll, I notice that the story for the film was suggested by Fred Williamson. His name garners no applause; I don’t think anyone recognizes it. Avenging Disco Godfather stars Rudy Ray Moore as an ex-cop and community activist turned disco record-spinner. He delivers his lines loudly with exaggerated earnestness, and he dresses in jumpsuits reminiscent of Elvis’s Vegas costumes of the 1970s. The disco crusader wants to drive out the drug dealers who are selling a particularly dangerous batch of angel dust to locals in the neighborhood. Whoever ingests the angel dust experiences a hallucination of the Angel of Death, played by Pucci Jhones as a kind-of demonic prostitute.
2:15am. The last of the group in front of me pack up and leave, having used only one pillow from their extensive bed gear. While I enjoyed the clever and self-reflexive comments made by the young men, who were less than half my age, I am secretly proud that I outlasted all of them. Take that, whippersnappers.
2:45am. I notice a young man sleeping two rows down from me. His friends are gathering paper plates from the floor and piling them on top of his head. They pile on more and more plates as the kid continues to sleep, snapping photos of their friend on a cellphone. The pile reaches about eight inches when the movie ends.
3: 05am. The ending of Avenging Disco Godfather shocks us out of our sleepy states. Rudy is forced to take the PCP and launches into a frenzy of screaming and screeching as he encounters the slutty Angel of Death. I keep waiting for Rudy to thrash the Angel of Death before coming to his senses, but the film concludes with the Godfather of Disco screeching at the top of his lungs in madness. Wow!
3:10am. I am completely exhausted and decide to leave, though there are 15 hours of B-Fest left. On my way out, I pass bodies asleep in the back of the auditorium, rolled up in blankets and sleeping bags. I drive home as a light snow starts to fall, with thoughts of Eric Roberts’s chest, flying plates, Bela Lugosi, and disco crusaders in Elvis jumpsuits swirling around in my head. I am reminded that there is no substitute for watching a film—any film—on a big screen with an audience.
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