Sunday, January 20, 2008

B-Fest 2008

It's Sunday morning, and another B-Fest has come and gone. For the seventh consecutive year, I managed to stave off hunger, restlessness, sleep deprivation and pangs of common sense to experience another 24-hour period of the worst Hollywood has to offer. A period filled with strange sights, such as Godzilla locked in mortal combat with a gleaming metal robot Godzilla from outer space, the Creature from the Black Lagoon furiously forced to wear a sports jacket, a chiropractor pretending to be the late Bela Lugosi, and Sean Connery wearing a knotted ponytail and a tiny red diaper. Obviously, we're not at the multiplex anymore.

B-Fest is an annual event that occurs at the Norris Center (the student union) at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in which “B movies” are screened consecutively over a 24-hour period—6:00 pm Friday through 6:00 pm Saturday. It began sometime in the early 1980s, and I have attended every B-Fest since 2002. It's a communal experience where audience participation is tolerated and encouraged, sort of in the tradition of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.

Contrary to popular opinion, “B movies” does not mean “bad movie” (though many of the movies shown at B-Fest are quite bad). Technically, there is no longer such a thing as a B-movie, which was a term coined to connote the second half of a double feature, back when theaters ran such a thing. B movies were more cheaply made than its “A” co-feature and starred less famous actors. Without a big budget and big-name stars, B movies often turned to exploitation elements like action and scares to bring in audiences, usually within the horror, mystery, western, and science fiction genres.

These are the movies celebrated at B-Fest, which began by mostly focusing on science fiction and monster movies of the 1950s, but has since expanded its palette to include Chuck Norris action movies, a Soviet fairy tale, blaxploitation, and disco musicals. Armed with our B-Fest essentials—which include a pillow, a blanket, comfortable clothes, and plenty of refreshments (I chose water, Coca-Cola, a couple of sub sandwiches, Fritos, and Fig Newtons), my friends and I hunkered down in Norris' McCormick Auditorium seats for one solid day of crazy movies.

This year, B-Fest opened with TENTACLES, a 1977 Italian production about a giant octopus stalking the ocean floor near Miami. It humorously attempts to add legitimacy by including small roles for Hollywood legends Henry Fonda and Shelley Winters, but is ultimately just another movie in which a diving champion's pet sharks are sent out to fight a big octopus to the death. Among the thirteen other feature films we watched: ZARDOZ (1974), an impenetrably pretentious sci-fi allegory with Sean Connery inside a giant floating stone head; XANADU (1980), an awful disco musical that teams Olivia Newton-John and dance legend Gene Kelly on roller skates (!); 1974's GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA, which is exactly what you think it is; 1956's THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, the second sequel to CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON; DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936), the follow-up to the Bela Lugosi classic DRACULA; 1968's BARBARELLA starring Jane Fonda as a French comic strip heroine; and the crowd-pleasing LONE WOLF MCQUADE with Chuck Norris as a karate-kicking Texas ranger.

And of course there was PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, a B-Fest tradition that dates back to long before I began regular attendance. PLAN 9 runs every year at midnight before animated audiences that treat it as though it were THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. Often referred to as “the worst movie ever made” (it isn't), PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE was directed by the notorious angora-sweater-wearing Edward D. Wood, Jr., whose life and films were depicted by Johnny Depp in the Oscar-winning film ED WOOD (1994). Beloved by B-Festers, PLAN 9's cheap flying saucer special effects are accompanied by hundreds of paper plates tossed in the air, audience members debate whether the film's patio furniture is made of wicker or rattan, Wood's bizarre mixture of daytime and nighttime shots within the same scene are punctured with shouts of “Day!” and “Night!”, and the beloved cast of oddball Hollywood icons, which includes Lugosi, Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, and the bravely monickered Dudley Manlove, are regularly applauded. A bittersweet addition to this year's showing was a group of young men who placed roses on the stage during the film's opening funeral scene—a tribute to PLAN 9 actress Maila Nurmi, better known as the Los Angeles TV personality Vampira, who passed away earlier this month.

It's difficult to explain the various levels of relief, joy, exhilaration, exhaustion, and longing that occur at the conclusion of B-Fest. Although I bring a change of clothes to switch into around the midway point, along with toothpaste and deodorant, I still wander out of the auditorium into the bitterly cold evening air in a slight daze, as though I've weathered another tough war. After 24 straight hours of mummies, werewolves, giant robots, killer octopi, dragons, disco dancing, and diapered Connery, maybe I have.


Christopher said...

Can't believe I missed B-Fest this year. That sucks. Thanks for the recap though.

Anonymous said...

Can you tell us anything about "Black Samson"? I've always wanted to see it.

Marty McKee said...

Big, black, bearded Samson (Rockne Tarkington) is a Los Angeles ghetto bar owner who keeps his streets clean of dope dealers with the help of his pet lion and a long wooden staff. Beloved by his customers and especially his girlfriend Leslie (Carol Speed), Samson finds his authority called into question by psychotic gangster Giovanni "Johnny" Nappa (William Smith), who decides the only way to branch out into Samson's territory is to bump the big guy off. Which he tries. Many times. And when that doesn't work, he sends his gorgeous white girlfriend Tina (Connie Strickland) "undercover" as a stripper in Samson's bar to find information Nappa can use against his enemy. And when that doesn't work, he resorts to kidnapping, firebombing and murder. Clearly, Nappa is a goal-oriented gent with big plans for his future.

SAMSON seems like a big, gaudy cartoon with Samson's dashiki serving as his "costume". The sight of the huge Tarkington spinning and parrying, staff in hand, laying out several of Nappa's goons at once is not easily forgotten, and Smith is clearly a formidable foe--strong, ruthless, psychotic and definitely Samson's physical equal. Smith is easily the best reason to watch, as he creates one of his most vicious villains, even smashing bottles against the heads of his own men when they fail in their mission to bring down Samson. Tarkington holds his own, I guess, but he's no Jim Brown in the charisma department. Speed fans will grimace at the brutal treatment she receives from Nappa's men, and Strickland carves out a memorable role using her innate vulnerability and killer bod.

As usual with a film directed by stuntman Chuck Bail, SAMSON is packed with several interesting fights and chases, and the climax is certainly an unusual one. I don't think SAMSON is as good as other Bail films like CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD or THE GUMBALL RALLY, but it holds its own against the second-level blaxploitation pictures of the era. Surprisingly, considering how unusual it is and the way it was played up in advertising, the gimmick of Samzon's pet lion is way underused.