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Saturday, July 13

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Like the swallows to Capistrano, Chicago-area bad movie buffs have an annual pilgrimage. Each final Friday in January, these dedicated masochists trek north of the city to Northwestern's Norris University Center McCormick Auditorium in Evanston. They bring pillows, flashlights, toothbrushes, sleeping gear, and paper plates. The faithful usually possess an offbeat sense of humor, a love of camp, and a superhuman endurance for wooden or over-the-top acting, terrible plots, shoddy sets and crazy costumes. Their voyage may be fantastic, but there's a more-than-better chance that it will be extremely mentally painful.

The quest? B-Fest, which begins at 6pm on Friday, January 28, and ends at 6pm Saturday, Saturday, January 29.

Started in the early 1980s, this 24-hour film festival of B-movies has become a winter staple for those who enjoy watching flying saucers on strings, athletes trying to act or science-fiction monsters with obvious zippers down their backs. The student group A&O Productions hosts a wide variety of space pics, low-budget horror flicks and cringe-worthy forays from the '70s and '80s. Audience participation is definitely encouraged; some people have compared the experience as a live version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. People talk back to the screen constantly, and jokes made during the first few films might be carried over to the next morning and afternoon. Occasionally, moviegoers go on the stage of the auditorium to act out scenes as they happen or to participate in a large group foot stomping.
— Dee Stiffler

The following is a 24-hour, film-by-film journal kept by two B-Fest attendees: veteran Ellen Pinneo and Jim Allenspach, attending for the first time. Photos by Jim and Andrew Huff.

Friday, January 26, 6:10 PM

Jim: B-Fest kicks off after a slight delay, as the two coordinators present the first movie, The Brain That Wouldn't Die. Like many B-Fest films, the print being shown is an old one, and the film craps out near the end. The final minutes are presented without sound, narrated by the members of the audience who've seen the film umpteen times (i.e., just about everybody in attendance).

Ellen: The Brain That Wouldn't Die kicked off the festival. Unfortunately the film broke at the final reel, which meant the big secret of "what does the creature in the closet look like?" was never revealed. This would also be a taste of technical difficulties to come.

Jim: The one really great thing that happens during the screening is a little audience-added piece of humor: when the fatal car crash happens that produces the film's central severed head, a small wheel (looking like something off a go-cart or lawnmower) rolls across the stage. This wheel would show up with amazing regularity throughout the festival, each time rolling out when an accident or car crash happened. And every time the wheel showed up, people applauded it.


8:15 PM

Jim: It's time for Beastmaster. With its disturbing amount of bared legs, we feel that it would just as easily have been titled Thighmaster. At the end of the first reel the film stops and the lights are brought up, in the first of a series of film mishaps throughout the festival. Ehh, it's OK for a B-movie festival.

Ellen: The Beastmaster. Nothing like an oily man in a loincloth, a tiger dyed black, two ferrets, and Rip Torn to get the audience going. Cheese at its best.

9:30 PM

Jim: 9:30 PM. The first of three mystery shorts is played, and it turns out to be a 1931 Flip the Frog cartoon. It's actually pretty funny.

9:40 PM

Ellen: Revenge of the Creature in 3D. Basically it was the same plot as "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," which was shown in 2006. Our group spent some time trying to figure out if the opening footage at the lagoon was the same as from the first movie, just with different narration. The black and white film was sometimes pink and black, which made for some big-time headaches when combined with the blue and red 3D glasses. As always, the crowd cheered on the creature. There was also a VERY young Clint Eastwood in the beginning of the movie. Hooray, a REAL actor!

Jim: The 3-D film Revenge of the Creature is shown. Like most 3-D films from the 1950s the print is bad and only about half of the film is actually in 3-D, so it's hit-and-miss with the 3-D technology. But there's an amazing audience participation moment in the middle of the film: while the Creature is swimming around in the large pool he's been trapped in by scientists who want to teach him tricks, he does a swimming move with his hands that makes it look like he's waving. And of course the audience waves back in unison.

11:00 PM

Ellen: At 11:00 there's a break for the raffle. TONS of bad movies were given out this year, some of which were "The Care Bares Movie," some kind of Barbie diary film, and an old feature about Satan vs. Santa Claus. The "Mystery Science Theater" DVD packs were definitely the crowd favorites.

11:45 PM


Ellen: The Wizard of Speed and Time. This is an annual showing at B-Fest, and the Wizard has become the unofficial mascot (after Bela Lugosi and the other stars of "Plan 9 from Outer Space"). The movie can be found here if anyone is interested. The short is always shown once while members of the audience lay on the floor below the screen and "run" in place along with the Wizard, and then stomp their feet in time with the song in the second half. Unfortunately this year, there was no sound at all for the short. This meant some confusion for newbies in the crowd, especially when the annual re-running of the film upside-down and backwards began — this time with sound. Because the crowd was not satisfied with a sound-less Wizard the first time through, the short was then shown a THIRD time. Oh, technical difficulties, must you punish us so?

Jim: Time for Mike Jittlov's classic short film, a long-running B-Fest tradition. And with like any tradition, there's a little ritual that's built up around the showing of the film. B-Fest fans run down to the stage to stamp their feet along with the running protagonist. And after the screening of the film, it's run backwards and upside-down.

Saturday, January 27, 12:00 midnight

Jim: Time for one of the most anticipated screenings of the festival: the Ed Wood classic Plan 9 From Outer Space. Like Wizard of Speed and Time, this film is a long-running favorite, and it shows in the amazing amount of audience participation that's packed into every scene. There are audience lines for everything in the movie, from the confusing shifts of daylight to the appearance of Bela Lugosi's posthumous stand-in. The one bit that everybody participates in is the tossing of paper plates into the air whenever one of the cheesy-looking UFOs appears on the screen. Literally hundreds of plates are in the air at these times; it really is an amazing spectacle. Piles of the plates will litter the aisles for hours after the screening.


Ellen: Plan 9 from Outer Space. For anyone new to B-Fest, or the movie itself, there'd be no chance of understanding ANY dialogue during the film. This is the most audience participation you'll find during the entire festival, with the crowd shouting in response to almost every line spoken, and when there's no dialogue to speak of the audience is busy flinging hundreds upon hundreds of paper plates into the air whenever the flying saucers appear. This, along with The Wizard of Speed and Time, are the only holdovers year after year. It's a classic for a reason.

Jim: During the sequence in Plan 9 when Tor Johnson's character rises from his grave (with some difficulty; Mr. Johnson was not the nimblest of actors), two women get up on stage to enact a strange Tor-worshipping ritual, and I'm reminded of the diminutive Peanut twin singers from the Mothra films. One of the women rushes to the screen and mimes helping Tor up by his arm when he gets stuck on his way out of the grave.

1:15 AM

Jim: After Plan 9, I step out of the theater to freshen up, and return to a very disturbing short film with a pair of French midgets in 17th-century clothing fighting over a place to sit. It's strange and confusing, especially at 1 in the morning.


1:30 AM

Jim: Time for a blaxploitation movie from the Philippines, Savage Sisters. At this point I start drifting asleep and don't recall much of the film, but I seem to recall that it has a pretty funky soundtrack.

Ellen: Savage Sisters. This was the selection to fill the Blaxploitation genre slot of the festival, though the heroines of the film were black, white, and Latina/Asian. It had something to do with a revolution in a Central American country, and Sid Haig was there wearing a sombrero. Utterly forgettable.

3:00 AM

Jim: Another one of the mystery shorts, this one being a 1960s black and white experimental short. The crowd is starting to wind down a bit as people fall asleep in their seats or stumble out to the hallway to sleep for a bit. Some people stretch out in the aisles in sleeping bags, and getting out of the theater becomes a bit of an obstacle course.

3:15 AM

Jim: The absolute nadir of the festival for me, a screening of Invasion of the Star Creatures. Starring a particularly appalling comedy duo, Star Creatures whips the audience members that are still awake into a B-movie frenzy with its long and drawn-out scenes of the main characters exploring a cave (no doubt in search of the star creatures). After about the sixth or seventh of the scenes the audience is crying out the refrain that greets any B-Fest film that overstays its welcome: "END! END! END! END!"

Ellen: At 3:15 they showed Invasion of the Star Creatures, which sucked beyond the telling. I tried to stay awake, but my eyes were burning and I had to shut them. I woke up to find the two bumbling "heroes" of the movie being chased, Scooby-Doo style, by the creatures who were nothing less than men in unitards and bad masks. Horrible.


4:30 AM

Jim: 4:30 AM. Time for a couple more shorts between feature films. We get a hilarious Koko the Clown short where the animated character hypnotizes his animator into believing he's a high diver. After this comes the excellent Canadian short A Chairy Tale, which uses a variety of puppetry tricks to animate a chair that its human protagonist tries to sit upon. The B-Fest audience of hardened veterans of every bad film made by man give this short a huge round of applause when it finishes.

4:50 AM

Ellen: There were more technical difficulties at 4:45, and they switched the order around to show The Hypnotic Eye, a movie about a hypnotist and his assistant convincing beautiful women to disfigure themselves in horrible accidents. This probably had the best opener of any movie shown, as a woman set her head on fire in the first minute, complete with 1960s special-effects flames. Brilliant! Probably one of the most coherent plots of any film shown during the festival as well.

Jim: The next film shown is The Hypnotic Eye, a thriller about a mysterious hypnotist who's hypnotizing women against their will. The audience is still trying to sleep, but a scene in the middle of the movie featuring a beatnik reading some faux hipster poetry causes much merriment for those still awake.

6:15 AM

Jim: The 1987 film Street Trash is screened. This movie has a plot that could have been taken from a Troma film (a mysterious drink that liquefies people is being sold by an unscrupulous liquor store owner), but there's a whole secondary plot about a Mafia-type criminal trying to prevent one of his employees from squealing on him that just kicks the movie up a notch. This is the kind of film that B-Fest audiences obviously live for, and the special effects sequences are greeted by rounds of applause. I manage to stay awake for most of the film and am surprised and pleased that it contains much more than I was expecting.

Ellen: 6:15 brought a showing of the Troma-style film Street Trash. While Troma films have a huge cult following, I have to say that I'm not a fan at all. The extreme gore plus the gratuitous nudity, excessively juvenile humor, pointless violence, and aggressively misogynistic tones turn me off to the Troma films entirely. I tried my best to sleep through this, but was woken nearly a dozen times by the audience making "eeeeeeew!" noises. While a good portion of the crowd tends to like these films, I hope the B-Fest organizers will leave Troma off the roster for future events.

8:00 AM

Jim: Time for the giant insect film Tarantula, featuring a handful of very large animals and an unusually large usage of the word "acromegaly". During the appearance of the gigantic tarantula on a desert road, one audience member holds up a huge "Tarantula Crossing" road sign next to the screen, and the audience dutifully applauds.


Ellen: At 7:45 even more technical difficulties brought about a viewing of Tarantula two hours early. It was this year's entry for the 1950s "science screws with nature" genre, and as you can imagine there was a giant tarantula on the loose. Riveting.

9:15 AM

Ellen: Following this was Krull, which beat out "Revenge of the Creature" for the most REAL actors in a movie: Liam Neeson, Robbie Coltrane, and Freddie Jones (a "hey, it's THAT guy!" of British films). Unfortunately reel three of the film came after reel four, and so right in the middle of the big fight to save the princess in the Black Fortress, we found ourselves back in the forest, seeking help from the Widow of the Web. Wuuuuh? If I hadn't had someone with me who had seen Krull one too many times, I would have been completely confused. Then again, most films at B-Fest leave one feeling confused, so it's par for the course.

Jim: This strange 1983 film obviously took a tip from the Star Wars movies and tries to present an alien world and immerse its audience in the experience of that world, but after a night of little sleep the film just feels weird and arbitrary. The screening of Krull is notable for the fact that one of the reels is shown out of place, so in the middle of the final climactic battle between good and evil we get a completely unrelated sequence that should have come much earlier in the story. There's a palpable tension in the audience at we near the end of the out-of-place footage, as everybody's unsure if we're going to get back to where we were before. We do, and the audience cheers.

11:00 AM

Jim: Lunch break! Most of the B-Fest audience heads down to the food court in the basement of the student center. Some people stand up, have a stretch, and talk in the aisles. There are still piles of paper plates on the floor, and these will all have to be picked up by the end of the festival, so some people start to tidy up a bit.

Ellen: There was a break for lunch a bit after 11:00, but unfortunately not all of the restaurants in Northwestern's Norris Center were open. Most of the auditorium filed out, blurry-eyed and in rumpled, stinky clothing, to find the building swarmed by the Society of Women Engineers. Pants suits, pumps, and briefcases were everywhere. The women's bathroom was a combination of power suits and pajamas. I'm sure they must have looked at us funny, but after so many hours of B-movies, we wore our funk with pride.

11:45 AM

Ellen: At 11:40 there was even more schedule re-arranging, and the Chuck Norris movie Invasion USA came at us early. Chuck Norris lives in the Florida swamps and fights terrorists. This movie taught me that terrorists are willing to blow you up when you're at church. Is nothing sacred? But when even God needs protecting, He calls on Chuck Norris to kick terrorist ass to protect the innocent. God bless America. And Chuck Norris. This was a Golan & Globus production, which is always the mark of quality. Golan and Globus are the patron saints of all things B-Fest.

Jim: Lunch break ends with about a third of the audience still out getting food, so most of them are not around when a scheduling change is announced: the following two films on the schedule are switched around, so the next film is Chuck Norris' pre-9/11 ode to domestic terrorism Invasion U.S.A. There is much chanting of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" during the film espcially when something gets blowed up real good on the screen.

At one point in the middle of the film Chuck is at home watching the Ray Harryhausen film Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, and when some animated saucers appear on the screen some people who still have paper plates left over from the Plan 9 screening toss them into the air. Some people chant "U.F.O! U.F.O.! U.F.O.!"

1:30 PM

Ellen: Around 1 pm was a movie called Teenage Doll or The Young Rebels. It was about a girl (who looked eerily like Lee Ann Rimes) who spent the night being chased by a girl gang for accidentally killing one of their members. Completely forgettable, save for the character of Lee Ann's mother, who dressed in poofy sleeves, pigtails, and a hairbow. She was like a cross between Minnie Mouse and Miss Hathaway from "The Beverly Hillbillies."


Jim: The screening of Roger Corman's girl-gang film Teenage Doll starts up, but I am unable to follow the plot due to lack of sleep. I nap through most of the picture.

2:50 AM

Jim: The third of the mystery shorts, this one being Rendezvous, which is basically a compilation of scenes from classic monster films like Frankenstein, Dracula, House of Wax, etc. set to the Frank Sinatra version of "Strangers in the Night."

3:00 PM

Jim: During the beginning of the screening of the special-effects-laden The Incredible Melting Man, the film projector is turned off to deal with a technical issue. The high-pitched tones being played on the soundtrack slow down in a particularly funny way, and the punch-drunk sleep-deprived audience laughs. By the end, the crowd has shouted "END! END! END!" several times.


Ellen: By the time 3:00 rolled around, B-Fest had broken me. While in past years I'd managed to make it for the full 24 hours, this year was too much. I missed out on The Incredible Melting Man and King Kong vs. Godzilla, but I'll live. Besides, by that time the funk of body odors (pick one, you'll smell it) and food was getting to be too much. The idea of heading home to a hot shower and a warm bed was more enticing than seeing King Kong and Godzilla battle it out. Maybe next year I'll do a full 24 hours again. But I'll definitely be going back in 2008.

4:30 PM

Jim: There's one final film to be screened, but before we are allowed to see it we are asked to clean up our mess (because who wants to stay around after the final film?) Trash bags full of paper plates are carried out of the auditorium.

4:50 PM

Jim: After a final few words from the B-Fest organizer, they begin the final screening of the festival. The movie is King Kong vs. Godzilla, and it's the first ever B-Fest screening from a DVD. Even with the new technology there's some technical difficulties, as they struggle for about 5 minutes to get the video projector to show the picture. Eventually they get it, and we enjoy the film.


6:20 PM

Jim: The final film is over, and everyone applauds mightily. The lights come up, and people struggle out of their seats with their possessions packed up in pillows, backpacks, coolers and shopping bags.


About the Author(s)

Dee Stiffler, Jim Allenspach, Ellen Pinneo and Andrew Huff are all fans of B-movies ...and gluttons for punishment.

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