B-fest 2017 was one that had a few strikes against it going in. It took forever to work out my schedule to get the necessary days off, so we had an abbreviated Chicago weekend with no tiki bars and such and fewer visits with friends. Then I woke up that morning with a bad sore throat and knew a cold was oncoming – have gotten plenty of colds from B-fest but this was my first time sharing with others, so to speak. Then discovered a rapidly flattening right front tire that could have been a thing limiting our ability to drive to Evanston, but got that taken care of.
And, sickness and all, made it to Evanston, made it to Norris in plenty of time, and made another 24 hours. Twelfth consecutive year. Last year my main reaction to the end of the B-fest was being drained. This year, hopped up on caffeine to just the right amount, was actually doing pretty well by the end. This wasn’t a year full of transcendent moments, but top to bottom, it was a good year of movies. And picked a good group of people to sit near – plenty of discussion about lots of nuances of the films. These are those films (I’m not going to rate them anymore; no point):
Hercules in New York (1969) – We start with a Hercules movie just like last year. But different era and totally different crew. It stars a young Austrian bodybuilder who’d been “Mr. Universe” who’d eventually go on to the acting thing full time and then get into California politics – here he’s credited, really, as “Arnold Strong.” Ah-nuld plays the title character and appears to have learned his lines phonetically, who in a stilted way leaves Olympus to go to earth on the grounds that “I am bored,” repeated a few times. Once arriving in NYC, his usual line becomes a mumbled “I am Hercules,” used whether he’s ineptly romancing a human, picking fights with random dock workers, refusing to pay cab fare, or whatever. An early scene in which he uses a wooden plank as a weapon lead to a lively string of punning from us about his wooden performance, etc. I amused some people (but honestly mostly myself) when a character named Mercury [the film freely mixes Greek and Roman names for its deities] floats upwards out of a scene and I made reference to “Mercury rising.” The first ten minutes of this film are pure gold… afterwards it gets a little more pedestrian, but still has its kicks. Obviously, the movie shoehorns in plenty of excuses for our hero to take off his shirt, and obviously it finds a way to incorporate a dead-lift scene. Somewhat less obviously, the movie gives a significant amount of plot time to an annoying pretzel salesman nicknamed “Pretzie” who switches from his life of a pushcart on the docks - presumably sailors have a deep craving for dry salty food after a long time at sea. In the end Herc kinda sorta learns a little bit about responsibility, Zeus throws some thunderbolts that distinctly lack lightning or thunder, and we move on to…
The Magic Sword (1962) – First of two Bert I. Gordon movies played pretty close together, I was not looking forward to this. One, because we’d seen it at B-fest 2008 and I was bored to tears then. Two, because I assumed my wife would hate it. Well, it’s certainly not a good movie. And it’s certainly crippled by the fact that the “hero” has everything just handed to him and only succeeds because he has tools like a magic sword which can open “any doors, windows, locks, and portcullises.” But it felt a little different this time. First of all, last time around we saw a black and white (black and red, really) print; this time it was in color. Secondly, for some reason it was turned down really quiet, but we watched the movie with the sub-titles. Thirdly, and very importantly, the crowd was wide awake to appreciate the easily killed ethnic stereotypes who accompany our “hero” and the way, say, no one can ever find Sir Dennis, or the way Irish caricature Sir Patrick saves the others by his faith. And finally, I had no memory of how awesomely cheap looking the puppets that play the monsters are, but when we finally see the alleged dragon at the end… well, it’s not something one quickly forgets. I remembered the “hero”’s mother (or “that foster mother,” as the villain calls her), but didn’t remember how thoroughly her magic spells (“of course! A handful of graveyard dirt!”) drive the entire plot, including the villain’s ultimate death by cat mauling. In short, a bit of a revelation seeing this one for the second time; great fun.
Bloodlust! (1961) – The ! in the title is meant to be shaped like a crossbow bolt. So, E. and I had high hopes for this one based on its trailer. I mean, look at this. Don’t they make it look like one of those bad movies that needs to be seen immediately?
Turns out Bloodlust! Is memorable for an entirely different reason. Pretty much everything worth seeing is in the trailer. The rest is almost fully devoid of anything of any kind happening. Now, granted, the volume was turned pretty low so we couldn’t actually make out any of the dialogue, but still, it wasn’t hard to make out all the nothing happening. As our host terrorizes our mostly passive heroes, they spend a large chunk of the movie, especially the first half, walking back and forth through the mansion in and out of doors, constantly opening and closing aforementioned doors. And the B-fest audience grabbed that shit and ran with it. Soon I started noticing that people around me would break into small rounds of applause for apparently no reason, and soon after that it became clear that what was prompting the cheers was a character opening, closing, or passing through a door. It wasn’t long before we were all doing it. And yelling “DOOR!” whenever a door came into view. And getting disappointed whenever a door didn’t get opened. Reacting to doors became the big running joke of the festival, still getting referenced at least once per movie all the way to the end. I’ve never been so proud to be coming to this festival. The movie gave us nothing to work with, and we managed to turn it into a bonding ritual.
But Bloodlust! wasn’t just about doors. It also graduated to a window – kind of the culmination of the film, really – and a cabinet. And a few people do get killed, but they’re few and far between. Despite what the trailer may have you believe, our young heroes don’t do much screaming; even the two girls are pretty possessed for a movie of this vintage. But they also don’t do much of anything, culminating in the ending in which multiple heroes have rifles trained on the villain before he can draw his gun and they still let him intimidate and disarm them. We were proverbially screaming ourselves hoarse telling the alleged heroes to shoot the guy – for such a slow movie, audience participation was at an incredible high. On the plus side, the movie did eventually end. The title card even said “THE END Of Blooodlust!” as if even the movie itself was excited to see that happen. On the minus side, the last chapter of the DVD was then shown again, for some reason. We weren’t getting through this festival without a fight.
Empire Of The Ants (1977) – We were actually given a choice by the organizers about whether to watch this or its companion on the DVD, Jaws Of Satan. The latter looked amazing too, but we came expecting ants, and we overwhelmingly went with the ants. Overcompensating for the last movie, this one was cranked way too loud. It started with a ridiculously serious voiceover letting us know that ants are amazing and scary because pheromones release signals that other ants obey without thinking. “MIND CONTROL!” The fact that ant pheromones only elicit irresistible commands in, you know, other ants was glossed over. We were supposed to be terrified when a bunch of ants rolled around in dramatically labelled radioactive material which caused them to become huge, because, why not.
We then meet Joan Collins and a bunch of slimy and thoroughly ‘70s cast of time-share entrepreneurs and their guests, just in time to get menaced by the fakest looking giant ants green-screens can provide. The sheer silliness of the whole thing can be summed up in that glorious moment when the movie attempts to convince us that giant ants are strolling along the docks. That volume thing really became a problem because every time the ants are about to attack, they make an annoying high pitched tone – as every small child knows, ants make a distinctive sound which can’t be mistaken for anything else. Since there are ants around every tree or turn, this of course set us up in a good position to yell “ANTS!” whenever any other movie for the rest of the festival had characters stumbling through a forest. It proved to be a fairly versatile callback, actually.
Attempting to sum up Empire Of The Ants basically compels me to mention that our heroes are herded to a small town secretly run by ants, with drone-like humans (converted by forcibly spraying them with pheromones) serving the ants and building structures for them whilst impofting huge quantities of sugar. Yes, this actually happens, and the movie, as best as I can tell, plays the whole thing totally straight. There aren’t many other movies like it.
No shorts this year with the exception of that old standard, The Wizard Of Speed And Time. Pounding our feet on the ground to keep up with the Wizard’s stop-motion running is the only real exercise I get for most of the festival. Kind of a disappointingly small group who hit the stage for that particular ritual this time. Normally I’m opposed to running that short more than twice in a row, but, well, this year the second showing was backwards but not upside down. So when they started running it a third time, upside down (forwards), it seemed right.
Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Skipped most of this one. I hear it’s pretty bad. Maybe I'll give it another go next year; every three years seems about right once one is enough of a veteran.
Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon (1985)
Um, yeah, so… I don’t know quite how to describe this. It’s some strange hybrid of about five different movies, which Wikipedia nicely sums up as a “martial arts fantasy film,” although that description doesn’t mention that it’s somehow also an attempted vehicle for Motown Records. This movie, such that it is, involves a young man from Harlem named nicknamed “Bruce Lee-roy.” Played by a guy called Taimak, our mixed-race hero is just really fundamentally likable and awkward (“helped” by the fact that the guy had apparently never acted before). Leroy’s main desires in life seem to be awkwardly trying to dress and act as if he's from Hong Kong, learning the secret ways of martial arts that will enable his body to glow with supernatural energy, and watching Bruce Lee movies whilst eating his popcorn with chopsticks. Fortunately for us, various morons are constantly forcing him into action sequences. One group of villains is a group of unscrupulous record producers who frequently kidnap a popular DJ for refusing to play their mob-chosen videos or something. She keeps running into Leroy and tries to get him on board as her bodyguard – and I get a surprising amount of laughs by simply proposing a reciprocal arrangement in which she in return acts as his long-last pal, and perhaps someone could get called “Al.” Another group of villains is a martial arts clique led by a big guy called Sho’Nuff, the self-proclaimed “Shogun of Harlem” who has a posse who do an endless call-and-response thing with him. Sho’Nuff will pick a fight with anyone claiming to know martial arts, probably scored to a Motown song like “Rhythm Of The Night,” frustrating our hero’s dream of being enough of a master to never actually need to use violence. After those elements are in place, the movie takes a turn for the weird and people start glowing….
Look, I made a point of staying up for this one because I wanted batshit insane with some enjoyable fight scenes. The Last Dragon provided the batshit insane, and the fight scenes. Mission accomplished.
Battlefield Earth (2000)
Finally something made after 1989 for once, this one has had plenty of time to pick up legendary status. This is a passion project from John Travolta adapting the not at all deeply stupid novel by the not at all shitty writer and shitty person L. Ron Hubbard, set in the ruins of Denver after, as the opening titles inform us several hundred times, man has become an endangered species. The scene composition and directing are something else to behold, as the director uses a Star Wars style wipe to transition between pretty much every pair of scenes, all movie long, and steadfastly insists on all these arty off-center camera angles that make the thing look like a not particularly good film school project. This one is well known enough as a legendary bomb that bad-movie nerds do use phrases like “you puny man-animal!” much the same way we’d use quotes from The Room. Unfortunately, it’s well known enough that I’d recently seen it for the first time, so couldn’t let B-fest be my discovery of this, uh, classic. Maybe for the best, because then I had a built-in break in the schedule to nap. Most of the scenes worth re-watching (or, well, ever watching at all) involve John Travola and Forrest Whittaker hamming it up shamelessly as the Cyclos, who the movie doesn’t seem to recognize come across as the most incompetent and least convincing race of alien conquerers that cinema has ever known. So, that’s why I’m glad I was awake long enough for the “limitless options for renewal” scene, and woke up in time for the “YOUR FRIENDLY BARTENDER” scene, both accompanied by the appropriate crowd chant-alongs. (Look, just see the movie or YouTube up the key moments. They can’t be explained, they just have to be seen.)
Fun fact – in 2017, show a scene in which a character accuses another of being a government puppet to a crowd full of riffing nerds, and half of the room will respond together with “no puppet. You’re the puppet!,” not even appearing to think about it. It was almost Pavlovian.
Action Jackson (1988)
So, Rocky favorite Carl Weathers got his brief time anchoring an action movie, and this is what resulted. He plays a Cop On The Edge who refuses to play by the rules, but his bosses tolerate him because He Gets Results. There are car crashes and wanton destruction of glass doors and windows. Everything that gets shot explodes on contact. Nudity abounds. Characters trade one-liners like “it was a regular fuck-o-rama at my place last night.” “Can the shit, Kornblauth; there ain't been any pussy at your pad since your mother helped you move in.” A young Sharon Stone is in the movie, but I slept through most of her parts. An actor named Vanity (that is how she’s credited), who played the frequently imperiled girlfriend in The Last Dragon, plays the frequently imperiled girlfriend in this one too. The two movies seemed like opposite sides of a coin – both are action movies throroughly embued with the ‘80s; neither one can be called “blaxploitation” per se but both come across specifically as attempts to do a popular genre with a majority-black cast. But where one movie is full of youthful exuberance and fantasy scenes and all trying to be The Karate Kid, and one is full of drugs and hookers and trying to be Miami Vice or something. I almost wonder whether Action Jackson would have been the better choice for the post-Plan 9 slot which traditionally goes to blaxpo – it’s noisier and it’s the one that has the production values and the gratuitous sex and violence. Anyway, it did what it was supposed to do as a late night movie; I could nap through chunks of it and not have any trouble regaining track of the plot. I honestly don’t know whether Action Jackson is actually a bad movie, or a good movie that succeeds perfectly at being deeply ‘80s-stupid, but either way, it felt about right at 5 AM.
Malibu Express (1985)
I have vague memories of the DVD title screen showing the same twenty second reel of near-nudity over and over for something like ten minutes. Thanks to some kind folks providing free coffee, had some extra stimulants on board a little early this year. But a splash of caffeine and a small amount of pseudoephedrine were not nearly enough to keep me up through this whole thing. Despite being made in 1985, it’s an honorary ‘70s movie with a smug hero sporting an ugly ‘70s moustache going through the motions of a detective story which having a lot of sex. The vast majority of this thing is samey softcore porn without plot, no serious attempt to make an actual movie at all. The movie imagines it knows what its audience wants – a bunch of identical looking sex scenes featuring a bunch of identical looking Playboy models and the guy with the moustache. Oh, and “clever” dialogue (actual line in this actual movie: “we hear you’re a private investigator, and we want you to investigate our privates”). And then halfway through after the audience has given up any interest in caring about what’s happening,, the movie apparently believes that we care about this murder mystery and devotes endless scenes to explaining it. A key plot point hinges on someone being left-handed.
So, I was not a fan of Malibu Express and despite sleeping through a chunk was one of the ones aggressively yelling for it to end. Surprise pick for worst of Fest for me. Well, maybe Bloodlust! was equally bad but we had an awake audience and the door thing going. Malibu Express was just thoroughly unappealing, and while I’ve seen many worse movies at B-fest, few of them have managed to be so boring whilst so copiously bombarding the audience with breasts. Sadly, the utter shittiness of his stupid movie didn’t stop shitty filmmaker and presumed shitty person Andy Sidaris from making a whole series of movies in a similar vein, including B-fest 2010’s Hard Ticket To Hawaii (which wasn’t nearly this bad, but also wasn’t nearly as clever or fun as it imagined) and a bunch of others I have no desire to ever be subjected to.
The Gong Show Movie (1980)
Grabbing breakfast and more coffee, I had this one in line for worst-of-Fest, and… well, it sucked, but not as deeply as I’d expected (and not as bad as Malibu Express). I had to quickly Google up some context since this was all before I was born, but I’m led to believe that The Gong Show was basically the late-70s equivalent of American Idol auditions, in which Chuck Barris and a panel of celebrities judged a televised talent show featuring average Americans of questionable talent. Occasionally someone was actually good at singing or juggling or whatever, and became a minor celebrity, but most watched for the awful acts (the judges could hit a big gong to force a particularly painful performance to end). Okay, so that was the show. So then, Chuck Barris apparently decided to make a vanity project in which he’s the star, and thus was born The Gong Show Movie. This one gets all meta; the basic premise is that poor Chuck Barris lives the hard life of being rich and famous, because he can’t even walk down the street or get a hot dog or whatever without fifteen morons accosting him and insisting on performing their stupid acts and trying to get themselves onto The Gong Show. Also a few Gong mainstays like the Unknown Comic (a guy with a bag over his head who fires off a non-stop stream of corny insults, some of which are actually funny) do bits here and there. The Gong Show Movie is… well, it exists and it didn’t make my eyes bleed, I guess.
“Hey,” you might say, “that sounds like the way whenever Hollywood makes movies about itself, they turn out stupid and indulgent. Furthermore,” you might continue, “I can really only see two ways this could go. One is that we waste our time with a scripted simulation of a reality show, and who wants that? The other is that we make an ill advised attempt at a serious drama about our serous showbiz guy as a serious actor, and the film will be misguided in expecting us to care. So I’m guessing,” you might conclude, “that it’ll be this unsatisfying hybrid of comedy and drama that amounts to a bunch of barely connected scenes and has no particular narrative reason to ever end, and will thus run about twenty minutes too long.” You would then actually watch the thing, and then smugly say something like “I totally predicted how that movie would turn out. It was inevitable.” Well, hypothetical reader, if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rubbing shoulders with the bigwig creative geniuses in Hollywood, huh?
The original schedule had Yongary: Monster From The Deep on it. Yeah, they showed it just two years ago in 2015. I would have enjoyed seeing Yongary since I pretty much slept through it last time, and I now have a much deeper understanding of the culture that created it (i.e. I went to Korea for a week). However, at the beginning of the Fest, two replacements were announced, and our Korean Godzilla rip-off was replaced by a British Godzilla rip-off. I knew Gorgo from MST3K, and, well, it’s not the most exciting movie ever. There are some fun scenes at sea and with some impossibly Irish accented islanders, and then a monster which gets sold to a circus (which is the way today’s governments always handle living things and scientific assets, right?), and then a bigger monster. My belief is that kaiju movies have two different kinds of scenes – not even counting the parts with people talking because nobody watches for that. The sequences with tanks ineffectively shooting at the monster are boring because the outcome is inevitable. But the sequences with the guy in a rubber suit stomping through fake London and knocking down a model of Big Ben are one of the major reasons for the existence of cinema as an art form. Like most monster movies, the good parts of Gorgo are pretty short. Fun fact: during the film’s entire running time, I don’t think a single female character appears (no, the mama monster doesn’t count). There were certainly no women anywhere in the credits.
Afterwards we had a long lunch, and I was fine with the fact that I missed most of this year’s
Future Hunters (1986)
Future Hunters was sponsored by the only other people on the Internets even talking about B-fest, Eric and Megan from http://www.cinemasupercollider.com/ This one begins in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of 2025 according to the IMDB synopsis, but it never actually comes out and gives the year on screen, cruelly denying us the chance to bust out any snide “how much damage can the Trump years really do?” comments. Once again, man-animal is an endangered species. A guy gets his hands on a magical spear, transports back to the mid-80s, and then dies, somehow sticking a young couple – one of whom is played by future killer cyborg Richard Patrick - with a quest to go to remote parts of Asia. At first this looked like exactly my kind of bad movie – nonsensical plotting which everyone takes totally seriously, random fight scenes breaking out everywhere, and random near-nudity; both heroes do fight scenes in their underwear, for instance. Somewhat unfortunately, the movie falls apart big time after a pretty awesome start, and turns into a plotless ad almost dialogue-less mass of fight scenes. Which isn’t bad if you’re entertained by how Richard Patrick suddenly knows how to kill men by the dozens with no training, or if you’re entertained by the movie finding ways for random characters to appear and do all of the actual work. Our minimally active heroes are first aided and protected in Hong Kong (but not afterward) by a martial artsy friend played by an actor credited as – no joke – “Bruce Li.” Then there’s a tribe of nomadic horsemen who randomly drift in and out of the movie. Then a tribe of pygmies, half of whom give their lives for this stupid quest until the “plot” no longer requires them. And then there’s a tribe that're basically Amazons, except for being on a different continent. (The amazons were foreshadowed by a reference early on to “Amazon female-like warriors,” leading the smartasses to speculate on how to interpret the phrase “female-like.”) Speaking of which, don’t really know how to react to the female lead, who spends the first half of the movie constantly criticizing her T-1000 boyfriend for not having a plan despite the fact that she’s allegedly the archeologist, and then travels through the jungles in a poofy dress and high fucking heels. It’s not like they couldn’t have predicted that they’d get attacked by villains constantly and want practical footwear for it, because it happened in every location since L.A. too. Yet, she ends up abruptly turning into a badass warrior type during the final half hour of the movie, like everyone else. So, Future Hunters is an absolute mess of a movie, but it hit just enough sweet spots that I find myself kind of fond of it and would rank it as one of the minor highlights of the Fest.
Another repeater for me, this one was last shown in 2007. But it made sense, because it was a replacement for yet another film on the original schedule that had aired in 2015, The Creature With The Atom Brain. I was drifting in and out of one last nap, but basically caught the second half of this. Last time they played it I basically caught the first half before wandering out in disgust, so between the two B-fests I think I can say I’ve seen Tarantula, over a ten-year period. It’s got a giant spider, a misguided scientist doing misguided experiments (aren’t they all) to induce “acromegalia” to make ordinary animals huge (I’m guessing it was supposed to be “acromegaly,” which is an actual medical condition which makes certain biological structures huge), and ubiquitous ‘50s charisma vacuum John Agar, all together in small-town Arizona. The second half of the movie is the better half because it has the spider. The problem with certain movies of this structure is that you spend all movie knowing that it will involve a giant spider, but it doesn’t show up until an hour into the movie while our heroes very very gradually piece together that they’re in a giant spider movie. We eventually get our spider, and some great moments with the heroes inside a house and a giant leg coming down right outside. Unfortunately for arachnids, this one that displays a slavish devotion to only traveling along the path of paved roads, thus allowing the guys in airplanes to know where to hit it.
They Live (1988)
Less truly bad movie, more cult classic. John Carpenter directed this one so it’s full of dystopian themes and incredibly repetitious synthesizer music. Note currently dead pro-wrestler Roddy Piper makes a go at the acting thing, as he plays an average homeless schmoe who gets his hands on sunglasses that let him see the truth. Cue creepy scenes of him putting the glasses on to reveal ordinary people as aliens, and subliminal messages in all corners telling the populace “DON’T QUESTION,” “STAY ASLEEP,” and messages of that ilk. Legitimately memorable and creepy imagery, dulled slightly by the fact that he then spends about five hours putting the glasses on and taking them off over and over to drive home the basic premise. This new knowledge inexplicably pretty much instantly turns our hero into a gun-toting action hero who can survive falls from high buildings with ease and spouts action-movie one-liners left and right. Of course, B-fest provided an appropriately enthusiastic reaction for the movie’s most infamous line – “I’m here to chew bubble gum, and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.” Piper does have some difficulty getting allies in his crusade, since most other characters in the movie don’t respond well to armed strangers breaking into their homes and demanding that they try on sunglasses. They Live matches the skeleton of a really great, if half baked premise, with intermittently great directing and otherwise a bunch of action scenes, and it went over quite well as a B-fest closer. Props to the organizers for providing sunglasses at the auditorium door for everyone to wear during opportune moments (or to be misused to mimic Sho’Nuff’s constantly putting on and taking off his sunglasses during The Last Dragon). There was also a box labelled “bubble gum” next to the sunglasses, but I guess they were all out…
- Overall it was a good lineup. Compared to the vicissitudes of past years, this one was a little more even-keel. There weren’t too many absolute transcendent B-fest moments like we get some years, but there was also remarkably few of those minutes and hours in which one kind of hates being there and hates life. I’ve concluded that this is as much personal mood as anything else – see the lack of agreement about which were the “best” years, or the fact that I’ve reacted totally differently to seeing a couple of the same films at different times of day/night at different Fests. B-fest 2016 left me drained and needing a break. 2017 left me a little tired as expected, but still wanting more.
- Organizers this year came up with a good system in which some of the lights go up between the overnight movies, but not all of them, which makes for a compromise between the extremes of frequent lights on while people are sleeping and endless morass of darkness during that run from 12:00 AM through 8:00 AM. I really, really wish they'd quit ctting off the credits, though.
- Special thanks to Jeremy for not only the attendance and brief transporation but as for lednign a pillow after I forgot mine, and to Dave and Laura for the excellent food and excellent company for post-Fest dinner.
- Best movies (actual quality): They Live, Action Jackson
- Best movie (to watch with a B-fest crowd): The Last Dragon
- Honorable mentions: Hercules In New York, Empire Of The Ants, Battlefield Earth, Future Hunters
- Lowlight: Malibu Express
- Potential lowlight that became a highlight solely because B-festies are amazing: Bloodlust!
- This year’s Cherryh book: Hammerfall
- It seems appropriate to close with the insightful words of the Unknown Comic -
“Hey, d’ya like sex? D’ya like travel? Well, why don’t you take a fuckin' hike?”
So say we all, B-fest. So say we all. If you were there, you’d know why it seemed way funnier than it was.