B-Fest ’97

Every January, hundreds of people make their way to Evanston, IL, home of Northwestern University. They proceed on to Norris University Center and then, finally, home in on the McCormick Auditorium. Why? Because from 6:00 p.m. on one Friday each January until 6:00 p.m. the following day, Norris is host to B-Fest, a solid twenty-four hours of junky movies.

In 1997, the magic dates were January 31st through February 1st . As I have for about the last ten years, I came with some friends, plunked down the ridiculously cheap ticket price (for the last few years, twelve bucks at the door), and settled in for an event unrivaled in Bad Movie Kingdom.

Not that all the movies are, per se, bad. Many of them are just junky but amusing genre films. Still, the spiritual king of B-Fest is director Ed Wood, with Plan 9 From Outer Space included every year, and usually a bonus Wood flick to boot. Of the films screened annually, (particularly with the loss of The Creeping Terror, pulled from the market some years ago), Plan 9 is pretty much the official totem of B-Fest. It certainly has the richest heritage of audience running gags. Imagine a Rocky Horror Picture Show that only ran once a year. As well, it’s made the official B-Fest T-shirt at least three times I know of (Tor Johnson twice, Criswell once).

I had a good vibe about this year’s B-Fest from the start. First of all, I had more companions in attendance than usual. Jeff Witham, who for the three years since he moved to Arizona has flown in the event, made his annual appearance. After picking him up at O’Hare (with a side trip to Chicago junk food nirvana Superdawg), we arrived early at Norris to ensure getting our regular spot, front row left. The advantage of the front row is much more space for all the gear (food, coolers for the beverages ((by rule of B-Fest, non-alcoholic only)) and bedding) we bring. My oldest friend, Andrew Muchony, with whom I’ve been watching Bad Movies for over fifteen years now, arrived shortly after the beginning. He put in about ten hours before being forced to leave at 5:00 a.m. in order to make it back to work. Another friend, Paul Smith, came in about 9:00 p.m. and remained throughout. John Dudlak, who used to work with me at the Park Ridge Public Library, and was now a student at Northwestern, was in attendance with his own cadre. Finally, another old friend, Paul Russell, was able to pop in Saturday for a couple of flicks.

Andrew had come up this year with a great/sick idea. In the past, when we were feeling macho, we would not ascertain the film line-up until we actually arrived at B-Fest (thus building up no prior defenses). He suggested that this year we not look at the schedule at all, thus facing each new movie in a psychically naked state. This he, Jeff and I agreed to.

6:10 PM Running a bit late, the first film was Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973). This is a soft-core sex flick/sci-fi spoof written by Nicholas Meyer. He would later write and direct such films as the H. G. Wells vs. Jack the Ripper flick Time After Time and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. So as might be expected, IOTBG is much better than it has any right to be. First of all, it never forgets the audience it’s intended for, and provides much nudity, sex and action throughout. Second, the script is sly rather than campy, with much stronger characterization than is the norm. Third, the film has a solid cast, headed by B-Movie vet William “Big Bill” Smith, in a rare heroic part. All in all, a good choice to start things with.

7:30 PM Next up was a foreign silent short subject (French, I think). It dealt with a scientist who scatters what is presumably cocaine around, causing many people to hallucinate. This effect is rendered by the director filming the actors’ reflections in distorting Fun House mirrors, to represent their drugged point of view! Ten minutes of this went a long way.

7:40 PM Here began an indescribable piece called, for no good reason, You Are What You Eat (1968). I’m not sure how to describe it. Let’s just say that if Ed Wood were a heroin addict, and, inspired by just having seen Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, decided to ape the film stylistically while making a documentary on the 1960s hippie scene, you might have ended up with this film. All it was was long, incoherent segments of film regarding hippies, all sewn together. Concert scenes of Tiny Tim. Guys, one with a dog, riding around on their motorcycles. A very dark-skinned black guy on the phone (every time they cut to him, there’d be a sudden, extreme zoom shot). He was later shown having sex with a white chick, presumably to “blow the minds” of any “squares” who might be watching. Hippies wearing Nazi helmets (?) at a fair. Whatever. You couldn’t even make fun of it, it was like boxing a monster made of Jell-O. You could only try to endure it. Thank goodness it ran so early in the program. Otherwise, who knows how many audience deaths it may has caused? I never, ever, want to see this movie again. Never. Ever. (Jeff and Andrew, though, would).

8:50 PM Roger Corman’s two-day wonder The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was next. Finishing a film with the set to be left up for another two days, Corman & crew threw together this el cheapo classic about a loser who finds fame by creating a monstrous plant. Later the movie was revived as an off-Broadway musical, which itself was adapted into a multi-million dollar film version (!). A silly, fun movie. Corman vet Dick Miller as a flower eating wise guy and a very early appearance by Jack Nicholson were audience highlights.

10:00 PM The first appearance of The Wizard of Speed and Time, a special-effects driven musical short subject by Mike Jittlov. It’s about a guy who runs really, really fast. It’s shown every year, causing in-the-know audience members to run up on the stage under the screen for a cool angle, while stamping their feet in rhythm with the Wizard as he runs. This year Jeff twisted his leg skidding into position on the stage, which itself later resulted in a charley horse. Don’t try this at home! Only shown twice this year, I’ve seen it run up to a dozen times in one B-Fest, sometimes backwards or upside down. TWOS&T is pretty much the official mascot of B-Fest.

10:05 PM Ah, now the turkey really began being served! Veteran audience members groaned loudly at the appearance of The Terror of Tiny Town (1938). It is an entirely typical oater of the type turned out by the hundreds during the ’30s and ’40s. Except for the fact that everyone in the cast is…wait for it!…a midget! That’s right. Yep, a big parcel of midgets: riding ponies, walking under the swinging saloon door, drinking great big schooners of beer, etc. I can hardly go on. I must admit, it was slightly more bearable than its last B-Fest appearance, when it ran at like three in the morning. And yes, the audience spent the entire flick straining to shout out any line involving the words short, little, half, pint-sized, wee, tiny, etc.

11:05 PM Some kind of ’50s short detailing what a great place America is. No argument here, but this film hardly helps make the case. It’s the kind of deal that Mystery Science Theater 3000 would show before the feature movie. All I really remember is endless list making: “…the deserts of Arizona, the pine forests of Oregon, the plains of mid-western Illinois, the beaches of California, the Yankee charm of Massachusetts…”.

11:30 PM Break

12:00 AM Here it is, the Citizen Kane of Bad Movies. Yes, it’s Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space. I’ve probably seen this film more than any other in my life, twenty or thirty times, and it still works. Besides, no movie has as in-depth a selection of B-Fest running gags. Join the debate over the patio furniture as the audience screams “Wicker!” and “Rattan!” back and forth. (It’s wicker). When it goes from night shots to day shots in the same scene, the audience helps newcomers figure it out by yelling “Night!”, “Day!”. Bela Lugosi famously died after filming a few short shots, and was replaced in the film by Ed’s wife’s chiropractor, holding a cape over his face. The audience will yell out “Bela!” and “Chiropractor!” to let you know who’s who. Other actors whose appearances are heralded are “Tor!” and “Vampira!”. Always a highpoint. Savvy vets bring paper plates to toss around when the film’s rather, er, threadbare flying saucers make their appearance.

1:15 AM Break

1:20 AM The first of three 1930s “Social Menace” films to be featured at this year’s B-Fest, They Must Be Told was the first of two dealing with the scourge of syphilis. To get around censors, huckster film makers in the ’30s, ’40s, and even ’50s would make these purportedly moral films. They usually dealt with naïve youths drawn into some form of debauchery. We would then witness their downfall, and that of those around them, via drugs or venereal diseases. Of course, before the dread consequences, the decadent party times would be portrayed in loving detail. This would often even feature doses of nudity, rare stuff at the time. TMBT is the tale of an innocent young girl who goes to the big city to become a star. She ends up (gasp) having sex, getting syphilis, and enduring the consequences. A good doctor assures her that after lengthy treatment, she can be cured and marry her hometown sweetheart. Unfortunately, she falls under the spell of a quack (a regular danger in these films). She marries too soon, and passes the dread disease to her husband (blinding him, of course) and her newborn child, who dies. I’m pretty sure this is the exact movie parodied with Carrie Fisher at the end of Amazon Women on the Moon, but they’re pretty generic, so it’s hard to be sure. I like this kind of thing (similar features like USS VD – Ship of Shame and Test-Tube Babies are some of my prior B-Fest favorites), but I must admit that three of them in one day was a bit much.

2:20 AM A short subject of Hollywood outtakes, most featuring Ronald Reagan. Oddly enough, almost all involve a big star blowing a line, and saying “God Damn It!” in some variation or another. This of course, had those still awake yelling out “God Damn It!” over the next hour or so.

2:30 AM Another Roger Corman flick, and again featuring Dick Miller. Sorority Girl had odd, horrific credit illustrations and music, leading one to assume it would be a horror movie dealing with Satanic goings on in a sorority. Sad to say, this was not the case. Instead, it followed an unhappy rich bitch, Sabra, who’s out to make college a living hell for the other girls in her sorority. The one girl who opposes her, Rita, is stymied when Sabra finds her secret: a newspaper clipping detailing how Rita’s father built a building that collapsed, causing fatalities. How did Sabra find this damning article? Because Rita kept it in a box, in plain sight, in Sabra’s bedroom!! Huh?!? Well, she did ask Sabra not to look in the box. In the end all her pawns revolt, leaving Sabra shattered and alone on a deserted beach. Wow! And those credits? Knowing Corman, I’ll bet he couldn’t figure out how to market this flick. So he had the credits made up to look like a horror flick, and then had the posters and advertising made up to match. Call my lawyer!

3:30 AM A nudie short subject, apparently from the 1930’s, dealing with a goatish old man who gets a kind of TV receiver which shows him nude girls. He big old wife finds out, and belts him.

3:35 AM This is about when I fell into a stupor, so I only saw about ten or fifteen minutes of One Million B.C. (1940) before falling asleep. The Mastodons looked pretty cool. OM B.C. remains the father of all cavemen movies, establishing the cliches associated with the genre. 1) Two tribes, one warlike and primitive (usually brunettes), the other more advanced and caring (usually blondes). 2) Someone, usually the son of the ruler, is outcast from the savage tribe. 3) He ends up being found by the other tribe, and is spared at the urging of an oddly gorgeous cave woman. They then form a Romeo & Juliet kind of thing. 4) He wins the trust of the new tribe by besting a menace that threatens them (sometimes a dinosaur, sometimes his old tribe). 5) Oh, yeah, at the end there’s a earthquake/volcanic eruption that swallows up most of the cast, and a bunch of dinosaurs. On top of that, OM B.C. probably holds the record for “donating” stock footage to other movies. Its photographically enlarged Gila Monsters and Iguanas-with-glued-on-dorsal-fins could be found making appearances in cheaper productions for decades to come. Wish I could have stayed awake for it. After this was over, Andrew Muchony left our little group to head into work.

Note: This is about the point I stopped taking accurate notes regarding times of movies. After waking up I decided to use the pre-printed schedule instead. However, upon getting home, I discovered the schedule I had was wildly off. It listed many movies not shown, and omitted many that were. Therefore, the following order of films is, I believe, roughly correct. Starting times are estimated.

4:30 AM Rousing myself near consciousness so as to ascertain the next item on the agenda, I found it was Bert I. Gordon’s classic The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), and went back to sleep. It’s fun, but I’ve seen it a dozen times.

6:00 AM This was more like it. I eagerly came awake when I realized that the next film was Attack of the Mushroom People (1963), a.k.a Mantango, Fungus of Terror. Actually, I knew this was scheduled for sometime on Saturday because some big mouth in the audience was discussing the line-up. Knowing that Andrew was going to leave early in the morning, I immediately informed him, as this has always been a mutual favorite. He cursed, because even though at that time he thought he might be able to make it back at some point, we both concluded Murphy’s Law would cause him to miss this film. Sure enough, it started barely an hour after he left, so even had he returned, he would have missed it. The gods of B-Fest are indeed cruel. Still, I got to see it. It involves a group of Japanese people marooned on an island where the only thing to eat is mushrooms. Unfortunately, if you ate any of them, you, yes, turned into a Mushroom Person. One of my favorite things in a Bad Movie is Bad Songs. AOTMP delivers in spades with what can only be called the “La La” song, consisting of a woman walking around the deck of a yacht singing “La la la” to the tune of an accompanying guitar. Still, disappointment loomed on the horizon. One of the reasons Andrew and I love this movie is it has one of the all-time great endings, which we have always remembered this way: The hero, the only survivor, is talking to doctors on the mainland, telling the tale of the movie. Then, right at the end, the back of his head to the audience, he says “So, you see…(swivels in his chair to reveal a bumpy, mutating face)…I ATE the MUSHROOMS!”. However, sometimes when you haven’t seen a film in a long time, you rework favorite scenes. After all the anticipation I had regarding this scene, it comes, but happens wrong. In the actual end of the movie, the hero is squatting down on the floor, and slowly turns his mutated face towards the camera (instead of the dramatic chair swivel), and actually says, “You see, I ate them!”. I was horrified, and when I later told Andrew about it, he agreed. It lacked the punch of our version. Oh, well, another illusion shattered.

7:30 AM Here came another brand name classic, the “Social Menace” flick Reefer Madness (1936). Again, good normal teenagers are lead into a life of crime and debauchery, this time by a single puff of the devil’s weed. Wild parties, illicit sex, attempted rape, murder, suicide and madness, of course ensue. Maybe they should have shown this in California before the vote on the “Medical Marijuana” Bill. Of course, they have all the above already, particularly in Hollywood.

8:30 AM Man, the hits just keep on coming! Yes, it’s the one, the only They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963)! This appears to be one of those films that never got released because it was too short. Then some distributor gets his hands on it and attaches about a half hour of “related” footage to stretch the movie out to a releasable length. This means everyone we meet at the beginning ends up getting bumped off twenty minutes or so into the movie, to allow the “real” story to begin. Anyway, we all end up in the South American country of “Mandoras” (Madmen of Mandoras is the film’s exciting alternate title). There our heroes discover that about ten Nazis are using Mandoras as their base, from which, using the top secret “Nerve Gas G”, they will take over the entire world (!). As if that terrifying weapon wasn’t enough, they also have the living head of Adolf Hitler in a pickle jar. Herr Hitler is suavely referred to as “Mr. H”. Luckily for us, the heroes save the entire world from this ingenious plot by killing all the Nazis with three hand grenades. The last grenade, oddly enough, turns Hitler’s burning head into wax, as stock music from The Creature from the Black Lagoon plays on the soundtrack. Now, That’s Entertainment!

9:45 AM The third “Social Menace” flick on the program (sorry, I’ve forgotten the rather generic title), and the second to feature syphilis as the downfall of 1930s civilization. What I remember of this film is pieces, like a very Eye-talian grocer who’s newborn son dies at birth. It turns out that daddy had contracted the dread scourge some years earlier. Oddly enough, the “good” doctor was played by Samuel Hinds, who played Peter Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s father in It’s a Wonderful Life. It was a little weird watching George Bailey’s father discussing syphilis.

10:30 AM Still groggy, not too surprisingly. I made it through maybe an hour of The Hippie Temptation and then fell asleep again for another half an hour. THT is a black and white documentary hosted by 60 Minute’s Harry Reasoner. It examined the then contemporary hippie scene, including a tour of Haight/Ashbury in San Francisco, the hippie epicenter. The piece is definitely dated, and there is some amusement in seeing crewcutted doctors and sociologists explaining to the intended middle class audience what a “bummer” or a “bad trip” is. Still, even if kind of square, it’s also thoughtful and balanced. If it hasn’t aged perfectly and sometimes seems laughable, just compare it to You Are What You Eat. “Square” usually ages better than “hip”.

12:00 PM The next show was Buck Rogers, starring Buster Crabbe, one of those serial compilations. Frankly, I can’t stand serial compilations. The chapters were designed to be seen one a week. Plus, when you stitch them all together you lose the cliff-hanger endings, the only reason people watched serials in the first place. We took advantage of the situation to run downstairs to the Cafeteria and grab some hot lunch. In fact, we stayed down a little too long, and ended up missing about five minutes of…

1:00 PM Reptilicus (1962), kind of a Swedish attempt to do a Godzilla type of deal. This was a great choice. While the monster isn’t as goofy as, say, The Giant Claw or The Creeping Terror, it’s still pretty bad. In fact, fans of the TV show The Monkees may remember how the boys would keep running into stock footage of Reptilicus attacking Copenhagen. After a drill bit brings up a hunk of prehistoric flesh, it regenerates into Reptilicus, a large serpenty kind of thing, which spews green, phlegmy venom. Of course, since any piece of Reptilicus would regenerate into another monster, the military can’t use explosives to deal with it. Even though the scientists have to explain this to the C.O. of the military about four or five different times. Oh, yeah, and there’s boring travelogue footage of Copenhagen, including a nightclub scene with a lounge singer crooning an exceedingly lame tune. There’s also a goofy comic relief janitor who sticks his hand into an electric eel tank, to “comical” effect. This part has Jim Carrey written all over it for the big-budget remake. Did I mention perhaps the single worst special effect in movie history, when a farmer turns into a very bad Terry Gilliam-type cartoon as he’s consumed by the giant monster. Or the scene when a bridge keeper panics when he sees the panic stricken crowd running from the monster (mandatory in Giant Monster movies)? For some reason, he hits the control that causes the bridge to open. He then just stands there looking horrified, as morons willing to do anything to be in a movie run and ride their bikes off the very high bridge. This is also the perfect movie to illustrate one of my favorite horror movie cliches: Once a plan to destroy a monster is attempted, even if it only fails because of a freak accident, it can never be used a second time. In this case, the military almost manages to fry Reptilicus with flame throwers, only to have it escape into the ocean. Of course, when Reptilicus comes ashore again later, no one even suggests using the flame throwers again, even as they all sit their scratching their heads over how to stop it. This is a great Bad Movie. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot! This and a couple of other cheesy sci-fi flicks (one of which was Konga, a giant ape movie) were novelized into soft-core sex novels. So take the opportunity to guess which scenes the novelist “expanded” into sex scenes (presumably the night club scene would be one). Hazah!

1:30 PM Traditionally, B-Fest ends with a Godzilla movie. These are great enders, because they are loud, colorful, and filled with explosions and mass destruction. Just the thing to rouse the audience before they leave for home. Besides, anyone who would go to B-Fest is most likely to have affection for Godzilla on some level (Me, I’m a Godzilla freak). So, it’s somewhat odd for this year’s Godzilla flick, Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), to appear before the end, much less following another giant monster movie. Also, GvM is one of the unfortunate Godzilla movies of the 1970s. Toho Studios was cranking them out in an increasingly cheap and childish fashion, with a cute, cartoony looking Godzilla acting in a “funny” anthropomorphic manner. Silly monsters like Gigan and Megalon, as well as giant robot Jet Jaguar, don’t help. Then there’s the scene where Godzilla gets a running start and then glides on his tail so he can kick Megalon. Twice! Sharp eyed Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans will recognize this shot as appearing during the opening credits during Joel Hodgson’s run. Ugh. This is almost as bad as the time when Godzilla tucked up his tail and flew (!) by propelling himself with his heat ray. Still, though I’d prefer Destroy All Monsters or Son of Godzilla, any Godzilla is better than no Godzilla.

3:00 PM Ed Wood’s work reappears with his most personal film, Glen or Glenda (1953). Wood was hired to make a quickie flick to exploit the Christine Jorgensen sex change story. Instead, he made a film that’s mostly a plea for tolerance for transvestites. Where to start?! Perhaps with Bela Lugosi’s apparently supernatural narrator? He spouts such classic Woodian lines as “Pull the string! Pull the string! A story must be told!”, as stock footage of buffaloes is superimposed on the screen. Or how about the scene where Glen (Wood) finally tells his fiancée about his need to wear woman’s clothes? Triumphing over her turmoil, she hands over the angora sweater he’s always lusted after (Wood, a transvestite in real life, had a well known fetish for angora). The hilarious dialogue between the inquiring police detective and the humane, kindly psychiatrist? I guess my favorite scene documents how men come home, and writhe around trying to get comfortable in their harsh clothing. Men just don’t have any soft clothing like woman’s lingerie (I guess Wood was unaware that men’s pajamas are available in silk, too). Besides, if it’s just a matter of comfort, why do all the transvestites in the movie wear woman’s wigs, too?. Then there’s the matter of men’s hats, which “cut off the flow of blood” to the head. “Seven out of ten men wear hats.”, we’re informed, “Seven out of ten men are bald!”. Guess that proves it!

4:30 PM Having run short of films, a replaying of Invasion of the Bee Girls fills in for the movies that didn’t show up. And that’s it.

Except Jeff, Paul and I stayed after to clean up, to try to give the folks on the A & O Film Board, who organize and run B-Fest, a break. I must say, though, that this is the first year where we were the only ones to stay and pick up. Additionally, the audience was much sloppier than usual, causing us to have to fill up about six large garbage bags. People, please clean up after yourselves! After all, it was obvious that most of the audience this year were regulars. Let’s not make the running of B-Fest such a pain in the ass that they decide not to hold it anymore. After cleaning up, one of the Board came down to thank us and ask for our opinions, which I thought was quite nice.

Anyway, here are some of my general thoughts on this year’s effort. Not surprisingly, after attending so many of these (and running amateur versions of my own), I’ve developed my own personal “Rules of B-Fest”.

  • No movies over ninety minutes, and, in fact, the shorter the better.
  • This is because the brain gets fuzzy after awhile, and variety is essential to survival. Also, since it’s important for the brain to recognize that the movies are changing, alternate the movies in obvious ways: different genres time periods, and, most importantly…
  • Alternate Color and Black & White flicks! I always thought this was only my preference. So I was startled when, after six Black & White movies in a row (Terror of Tiny Town to The Amazing Colossal Man), the audience (those who were up, anyway) was literally screaming for a color movie.
  • Please, no Serial Compilations!
  • Don’t program too many of one type of films. For instance, the three “Social Menace” flicks, two dealing with syphilis, were at least one too many. Although, I recognize that, from the pre-printed schedule, many of the movies they originally ordered were ultimately not available, and they may have been somewhat limited in what they had to pick from.
  • Please, never, ever, show You Are What You Eat again. Please!
  • Still, all that being said, this was the best B-Fest I’ve yet attended. In part because of the people I attended with, but largely because of a superior line-up provided by the good people at the A & O Film Board. They really branched out, taking some real chances, most of which paid off big time. And even the ones that I didn’t feel worked out were more than balanced by a truly superior slate of heavyweights, particularly on Saturday’s line-up: Attack of the Mushroom People, They Saved Hitler’s Brain and Reptilicus are all four star B-Fest material, but not overused.

    Anyway, people, thanks for the memories. See you next year!