Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Project: Metalbeast (1995)

Written by: Alessandro de Gaetano, Timothy E. Sabo, Roger Steinmann
Directed by: Alessandro de Gaetano
Starring: Kim Delaney, Barry Bostwick, Kane Hodder

Kane Hodder has probably chased more Final Girls than any other single figure in horror history, but even for him, tonight's movie is a unique role. Usually he's wearing a mask and carrying a knife or similar sharp implement. Plenty of other stuntmen can claim that, however. But I guarantee you no one else gets to put, “steel-skinned werewolf” on their CV. Yes, I said steel-skinned werewolf. I was about thirteen when I saw this movie for the first time, and I must have been exactly the audience Gaetano, Sabo and Steinmann were playing to, because I thought that was just about the most badass thing ever. And you know what? Thanks to a very cool monster design, the Metalbeast really does hold up to the inevitably high expectations the phrase, “steel-skinned werewolf” conjures up. I can only imagine that the very concept of, “steel-skinned werewolf” was the starting point for this whole project. I doubt they had a gub'mint makes werewolf super soldiers movie in the works for months and then one day, one of them came running into the room, feverishly retyping pages of script and adding it as an afterthought. No, I imagine one day Gaetano was brushing his teeth or taking a shower, or maybe just having an especially boring day at work (one of those times is usually when I get all my best ideas, anyway), and suddenly he got a gleam in his eye and a big grin on his face, and just couldn't wait til he got to tell his friends about the totally fucking boss monster he just dreamed up. Maybe he even found a piece of paper and drew some preliminary sketches, all the while bouncing up and down in his chair and giggling. Hell, that's basically how I reacted after seeing the movie, and I know if I had been the one to think of it that's how I would have behaved. I realize that from an objective standpoint, this movie sucks, like if I look at it out of the corner of my eye I can see it as most other people would see it. But when I view it straight-on, the rose colored glasses of how cool I thought it was as a kid obscure reality and I can't help but still love it. Ok, I'll settle down now. On to the movie.

The year is 1974, and somewhere in the Carpathian mountains a two-man special ops squad is carried across a lake by a boatman in a small rowboat. Their mission is to gather samples of werewolf blood, which we're told by a hold-the-stupid-audience's-hand scrawl that is rendered completely unnecessary by the werewolf that attacks the grunt about thirty seconds later, and is then shot to death by Dr. Butler, who proceeds to take several blood samples before heading back to the States.

Unwilling to wait for the lab results on the various tests that need to be run on the blood before they can use it for the eleventy thousandth super soldier project we've seen in these kinds of movies, and against project leader Colonel Miller's orders, Butler takes the last of the blood from the lab and shoots himself up with wolf juice. After all, once he's turned, they'll have all the blood samples they want, right?

With his senses heightened, he scents the blood from a cut one of the lab girls sustained after breaking a piece of glassware while working late. He heads down to the lab, where he corners the lone girl and pushes her behind a shelf. We don't see what happens, but it's very strongly implied from the way she staggers to the phone, in shock and covered in blood, that he wolfed out while raping her. Fucking ick. Thanks, movie. It's considerably more unpleasant when you think for a minute about how dogs mate.

You see, male canines have this thing at the base of their milkbones called the bulbus glandis. It's a big wad of erectile tissue that swells up once penetration has occurred, locking the penis inside the vagina to help insure fertilization by preventing semen leakage. The unfortunate couple can be stuck this way anywhere from five to twenty minutes (Funny story: One time our female chihuahua/dachshund mix, who hasn't been fixed, got impregnated by a hilariously old and toothless chihuahua/yorkie/pomeranian who we assumed was so ancient as to be impotent. They were in the back yard with the rest of the dogs when we heard some barking and snarling, and when we went to let them in, Trillian came tearing ass into the house dragging poor Bane along behind her by his dick!). Once the “tying”, or “knotting”, as it's called, happens, the male dog will swing a leg over the female's back and they'll stand ass-to-ass after ejaculation to make a better seal. Now all I can imagine is the poor lab girl lying flat on her face, wolf-Butler sitting grumpily on her butt waiting for his were-boner to go away so he can leave.

Eventually, Miller corners him and puts three silver bullets in his chest. After ordering a security official (whose painfully fake mustache screams, “REMEMBER, THIS IS 1974!” because nothing else in this segment aside from Barry Bostwick's dyed hair suggests it doesn't take place at the same time as the rest of the movie) to clean up the mess, Miller goes down into the basement, where Butler's body is stored in a huge cryogenic freezer.

Jump forward twenty years, and the top secret black ops werewolf soldier base has become a civilian science lab working on skin grafts and other cutting edge medical technology, except the lab is governed by a military presence, led by a general. Uhm...best not think about it too much. Anyway, Dr. Anna de Carlo, who we know is a super-pure-at-heart good girl and our heroine because the introductory pan across her work space shows several humanitarian award plaques and a teddy bear, is currently working on a new artificial skin substitute called bioferrin. It's a mixture of organic tissue cultures and an extremely durable and flexible metal alloy, because why the hell not? Problem is, every sample batch they've made so far only keeps the texture of skin for a day or two before it hardens into an iron-hard mass. Serious bummer for anyone who needs a skin transplant and winds up being encased in a metal shell. Unless, you know, you happened to also be a werewolf.

Miller has exactly the same thought, and so one day he shows up and takes over the operation, stating that they'll be moving the project ahead to working on human subjects. Cadavers, of course, and one very specific cadaver in particular. One that happens to have spent the last twenty years frozen in the basement. In a cryo tube powered by 1970's technology. So you can imagine the power drain those things cause. And no one wondered how a lab staffed by like ten people was somehow using up enough energy each month to power a city? No one is very happy about working on a mystery stiff with no paper work – who knows what kinds of disease the thing might still have lurking in it? – but Miller insists, and only after they have Butler half covered in bioferrin do they notice and remove the three silver bullets lodged in his chest. Uh oh. Good thing the general has a huge silver coin collection and one of the men just happens to have the equipment and know how to whip up some silver anti-tank bullets for the rocket launcher.

Barry Bostwick definitely gives the best performance of the movie, gleefully sinking his teeth into the role of the slimy military villain. The man's been in a lot of crap, but he's a pro and fun to watch. The rest of the cast mostly avoid hurting anyone's feelings, and Kim Delaney manages to give her awful dialogue (again, Bostwick is the only one who got any fun lines) an undeserved amount of effort, and really sells one of cinema's most unpleasant foot traumas (an explosion drives a piece of rebar into the outside top of her foot and out through the inside of the arch – gah).

The movie does have an interesting structure though. It's really three short movies in one. The opening segment, with the werewolf super soldier program, really seems like it should be a whole movie in its own right, but just when it gets going, BANG! It's over, and we move on to an admittedly really lousy pastiche of a pure research science fiction movie like Andromeda Strain, but stupid. Then just when that's actually starting to get interesting, we get the stalk-and-slash we were expecting to come after Butler shot up with werewolf blood. It does tend to drag a little when all you really want is some monster mayhem, but I think it was a smart move on the filmmakers' part, because by the time we do finally get some Metalbeast action, we've been waiting for it for so long it just enhances the excitement, like waiting to open your Christmas presents til after lunch.

The Metalbeast itself is obviously the heart of the movie, and man is it ever worth the wait. It's one of my favorite cinematic werewolves. Yes, there have been better werewolf movies, but in paw-to-paw combat this thing would kick any of their asses. It's not shiny metal, it doesn't look like a robot, which I realize is what the name and the concept suggest. Instead, its skin is all gnarled black and bronze, with tufts of fur here and there, and a big mane of quills that, in a great bit of detail, makes a metallic rattling with every step the monster takes. Glowing red eyes and extendo-claws (because why not) complete the badassery. I couldn't tell you how many pictures I drew of this thing when I was a kid. The concept and look of the creature really appeal to my imagination and sense of aesthetic. On the one hand, it's such a cool idea, I would love to see what a more talented crew with a bigger budget could do with it. On the other hand, today that would probably mean a bunch of shitty CGI, and it makes me glad that this is the movie we got. After all, we could be living in a world where there are no movies where Asshole from Rocky Horror Picture Show creates a steel-skinned werewolf played by Jason Voorhees, and that would be a poor world indeed.



Tuesday, March 11, 2014

She Beast (1966)

Written by: Michael Reeves
Directed by: Michael Reeves
Starring: Barbara Steele, John Karlsen, Ian Ogilvy

Tonight's movie is an odd duck. Strange to say about a no-budget flick in a genre that was already almost past its sell-by date, but in some ways She Beast was as much ahead of its time as behind it, trapped in a sort of limbo between fads. From an evolutionary standpoint, what we're looking at here is the common ancestor that links the older generation of witchburners to the rougher stuff like Mark of the Devil that was on the horizon, and more interestingly, the 1940's-era horror comedies like the works of Abbott and Costello with the surreal and bizarre horror comedies of the 80's, like Mama Dracula and Psychos In Love.

We begin with a little prologue piece, where a rather batty old man discovers an extremely old book and begins to read the story of the execution of a witch who used to live in the mountains near the village. This is one of my favorite parts of the flick, as the guy playing the bishop (or whatever church rank he's supposed to be) sells the shit out of his role with this big booming voice and a load of gravitas. A little boy runs into the church, interrupting a service with the news that the witch has killed his brother. This is the last straw for the villagers, who have been putting up with the witch's predations for far too long, and they go up the mountain to drag her out of her cave and stick her in a tumbrel (one of those big, wheeled dunking chair seesaw things that were so popular in the Salem Witch Trials), drowning her in the lake. Inevitably, she vows to return for her revenge.

Veronica and Philip are a newly married American couple honeymooning in Czechoslovakia. Considering the sociopolitical climate of the country in the 60's, it's incredible that anyone would want to vacation there, but there you have it. They wind up at an inn run by the aptly named Ladislav Groper, where they meet the batty old man from the prologue. Almost as inevitably as the witch's vowing revenge, he is a descendant of Abraham van Helsing.

Ladislav proceeds to spy on them having sex, and is then beaten into unconsciousness by Philip (the huge streak of blood his head leaves on the wall of the inn sure looks like it would have been a fatal wound, but before long he's up swilling vodka and attempting to rape his niece, so I guess they come tough in the Carpathians). They decide to head for more accommodating accommodations, but the steering on their car goes out on the mountain road, and they wind up in the lake. Philip manages to drag himself to shore, but it's too late for Veronica. The truck driver they barely missed colliding with manages to drag them both out of the water and get them back to the inn. The trucker and Ladislav wrap Veronica's mangled body in a tarp and put her in the back room until they can figure out what to do with her. Meanwhile, Philip hooks up with Count van Helsing, and they discover that Veronica's corpse has been possessed by the witch, who goes on a rampage of revenge through the village.

Van Helsing, after studying the account of the witch's execution, thinks he might be able to get Veronica back, but first they have to figure out how to get the witch subdued and back to the lake. In a move that foreshadows Dead Alive, they round up a load of tranquilizer, shoot her up, and throw her in the back of a stolen police van. Que a rather ridiculous sped-up car chase (filmed by the second unit, Reeves hated this goofy Keystone Kops moment but had run out of money and thus couldn't afford a reshoot) with our heroes evading the police because they stole van Helsing's clunky antique of a car. They manage to get the witch back to the tumbrel (how the hell is that thing still intact, let alone functional, after sitting out next to the lake for the last three hundred years!?), but since impaling her with the huge iron stake the villagers used the first time (in a scene of relatively intense gore pretty unusual for this time period, hence my comment about this movie foreshadowing the ridiculously icky witchburners of the 70's) will obviously kill Veronica as well, tying her into the seat will have to do.

At first all seems well. After it looks at first as though the witch escaped, Veronica bobs to the surface, revived and well, and the three drive off together. After all, the authorities are still on the lookout for van Helsing as well as Philip, and Eastern European communist authorities aren't people you want to fuck with, so van Helsing decides to head out of the country with the couple. There must be monsters to kill in countries where a man is less likely to wind up in a gulag, right? As they drive away, Philip expounds on how awful a place the village was, but Veronica ominously mentions that some day she'll come back.

I mentioned the gore a bit ago, and although compared to, say, Mark of the Devil, it's pretty tame, 1966 was still early days to see that much blood being splashed around outside a Hammer movie. The impressively shitty film stock and bad lighting also work to the movie's favor, covering up a lot of flaws that would probably make the horror aspects a lot less horrible. While it can make it hard to tell what's supposed to be happening from time to time, on the whole it adds more to the atmosphere than it detracts. I've never been one to demand a beautiful, crystal clear image from my movies. On something like Pacific Rim, obviously it's desirable, but when it comes to old cheap horror flicks, the crunchier the picture, the better. Well, up to a point, at least, and She Beast is definitely pushing right up against the limits.

Barbara Steele turns in a predictably professional performance, although she never puts in any more effort than is absolutely necessary. I don't think she ever phoned in a performance, but this is as close as she ever got. John Karlsen is a pleasantly likeable van Helsing, and Ian Ogilvy at least manages to not embarrass himself. However, the real standout here is veteran character actor Mel Welles (probably best known to the likes of us for his work with Roger Corman, most notably as Gravis Mushnick in Little Shop of Horrors) as Ladislav Groper. Sure, Ladislav is little more than a bellowing cartoon, but Welles wrings every last bit of humor you can get out of a creepy alcoholic letch with a funny accent. His roaring, “CAPITALIST DOGS!” at Philip and Veronica as they leave the inn is one of the best moments in the movie. I know it doesn't sound like much, you'll just have to see it.

No, I haven't forgotten that I said this was also an, if not exactly missing, largely forgotten link in the evolution of the horror comedy as well. The two aspects of the movie are kept mostly segregated. I didn't begin to realize it was meant to be a comedy until Philip and Veronica arrive at the inn (the first clear joke, when they ask a man for directions to the village; “Do you speak English?” “No, but I speak very good English”, I thought was just a mistake at first – in retrospect I think it's pretty funny). Despite the fact that the movie is as much comedy as horror, I can understand why Reeves was displeased with the goofy high-speed car chase. The rest of the humor is derived from dialog, not slapstick, so it seems out of place. Granted, it's by and large not terribly sophisticated stuff, but it's still better than assuming skip-framing is by default funny. My favorite, and probably the cleverest joke in the movie, is when the witch goes to kill Ladislav, who is descended from one of the villagers in the mob who killed her. She decapitates him with a sickle, which she then tosses aside. It lands on the floor across a large hammer. Because it's communist, see? Yeah, well, I didn't say it was Blackadder, did I? Still, the type of humor here is mostly a lot more in line with bizarro stuff like Microwave Massacre (all hail!) than it is with the 40's spook show yukfests. It's driving across the bridge over that gap, but it's a lot closer to the modern end, very nearly ready to pull out its papers to present to the customs officer played by Jackie Vernon, and I think this metaphor has been tortured enough, don't you?

It's not going to scare your pants off, or make you piss them laughing, but it acquits itself a lot better than one would expect, and the short run time means it doesn't wear out its welcome. You could do a lot worse of a dreary afternoon. Check it out.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Godzilla 1985 (1985 [duh])

Written by: Shuichi Nagahara, Tomoyuku Tanaka, Tony Randel, Lisa Tomei
Directed by: Koji Hashimoto, R.J. Kizer
Starring: Ken Tanaka, Yosuke Natsuki, Raymond Burr

I'm not entirely sure when I first saw this movie, but my guess is I would have been about four years old. In the days when a VCR cost about as much as a car, on weekends my parents and I would drive into town to the local five-screen (seemed like a lot at the time) movie theater, which also was one of the only places in town you could rent movies, and we would pick out some movies and rent a VCR. Then we'd go back home and I would anxiously wait for dad to hook the thing up to the TV and figure out how it worked so I could watch whatever cartoon was deemed suitable for my young eyes. Seems like a million years ago now, when any movie you could possibly want is available streaming in high definition any time you want. I remember even at that young age, I would spend almost all of the time looking at the lurid covers of horror movies until mom and dad would lose their patience and guide me to the movies they'd actually allow me to rent. The memory is a bit hazy now but I believe mom brought Godzilla 1985 home for me after work one weekend rather than me picking it out. I loved dinosaurs (what young boy in the 80's didn't?), so she figured this would be something I would enjoy. She couldn't know based on the monster's largely goofy past history and reputation (original movie excepted), that this would be a pretty dark flick or that the sea louse scene would scare the bejeezus out of me. She also could have had no idea what she was starting; a lifelong love affair, bordering on obsession, that would only be matched one other time a couple of years later, when I was around six and a family friend told me, “Hey, there's this show on PBS you might like, it's called Doctor Who.”

I won't bother recounting the story of the movie's production, or its perceived butchery at the hands of New World Pictures. These things are by now scripture that most Godzilla fans can quote chapter and verse. Instead, this will just be about my reaction to the movie. I'm in the minority on this one, in that this remains one of my favorite Godzilla movies. That probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was my first one, and the fond memories of watching it as a kid, but I think there's more to it than that. I've seen a lot of stuff that I loved when I was a kid through adult eyes and realized how awful it was. This one, though, I've probably seen more than any other movie. I can just about quote the whole thing from memory, and yet, I think it's actually gotten better with age.

The movie opens much as the original, with a fishing boat called the Yahata Maru in distress. Tossed in a storm, the boat makes for possible shelter at a nearby island...which explodes, stands up, and roars (while not 100%, I'm fairly certain the series of explosion sound effects used here is the same as the space monkeys' base going kerblooie in Terror of Mechagodzilla, just pitch shifted lower and slowed down). Not long after, a reporter named Maki, out for a cruise on his sail boat, runs across the drifting wreck of the Yahata Maru. He boards the ship looking for survivors (and less altrustically, a scoop), and discovers one man still alive amongst the shriveled, radiation-burned corpses. While trying to revive him, he is attacked by an enormous sea louse, and the survivor wakes up and hacks the thing to death with a meat cleaver just as it's about ready to bury its claws in Maki's neck.

When Maki brings Ken back to Japan, his survival is immediately covered up. The government realizes Godzilla has returned, but doesn't want to announce his presence until they've had some time to formulate a plan. While not officially allowed to publish the news of Ken's survival, Maki's boss sends him to talk to Dr. Hayashida, a scientist whose parents were killed in the 1954 attack, and who has somehow independently learned of Godzilla's return and is studying every bit of data he can get his hands on in the hope of finding a way to kill the monster. Coincidentally, Ken's sister Naoko is Dr. Hayashida's secretary, and Maki takes pity on the mourning girl and tells her her brother is still alive.

They manage to keep the story quiet for a little while, but then Godzilla takes the decision out of everyone's hands, escalating the Cold War a few DefCon levels by destroying a Russian nuclear submarine. In the interest of preventing a global nuclear firefight, the Japanese prime minster holds a formal press conference revealing the reappearance of the King of the Monsters. Russia and the United States both immediately want to take out their atomic aggression on the monster by re-aiming all their nukes at him, but the prime minister refuses to allow nuclear weapons to be used. Haven't these buffoons been paying attention? That's how they all landed up in this mess in the first place! The superpowers agree to stand down for the time being, but those sneaky Russkies have a ship linked to a nuclear capable satellite parked in Tokyo Harbor, just in case.

It isn't long before Godzilla arrives and heads straight for a nuclear reactor, which he rips the core out of to absorb the energy. Before his meal is finished, however, something draws his attention away from the city. Examining photographs of the attack, Ken realizes Godzilla was following the cries of a flock of birds heading out to sea. He's a dinosaur, after all, and dinosaurs and birds are closely related. Now all they have to do is duplicate the birds' frequency and voila! Instant Godzilla lure. But it will only be a matter of time before Godzilla returns to feast on all that lovely nuclear energy. A plan is put into effect to lure Godzilla to the edge of Mt. Mihara, and set off a bunch of explosives deep in the volcano to trigger an eruption that will drown the monster in lava. Will our heroes perfect their lure in time? Will the Americans be able to shoot down the nuclear missile the Russians fired at Godzilla? Will they ever explain how the hell the cool-looking but undeniably impractical Super-X attack craft manages to stay aloft? Will Raymond Burr please beat the shit out of that obnoxious ginger Major McDonahue? How much goddamn Dr. Pepper can these guys drink!? The answer to most of these questions and many more, in the exciting conclusion to Godzilla 1985.

Where to start? There are just so many things about this movie to love. What about Raymond Burr, you ask? Very well, it's as good a place as any. Rather than being meshed with the action this time, he's just standing around in a Pentagon command center watching the movie along with the audience, occasionally telling the assorted officers in the room that all their ideas for blowing up Godzilla suck. He doesn't have any impact on the plot, but despite the least subtle product placement in the history of film, I enjoy these scenes anyway. Despite the fact that everyone seems to hate them, they actually do add something to the story. Shortly after Godzilla destroys the Soviet sub, Major McDonahue is briefing the general on the situation, and rattles off a litany of the disastrous environmental effects caused by Godzilla's presence. It really builds on Dr. Hayashida's statement to Maki about Godzilla.

Oh, that bit of dialog sends shivers up my back every time. Maki has just come to Hayashida's lab for the first time, and Hayashida is giving him the rundown on his research.

“Godzilla is more like a nuclear weapon.”
“Nuclear weapon?”
“A living nuclear weapon. Destined to walk the Earth forever. Indestructible.”

A bit on the nose, perhaps, but it really brings home the power of the monster. We know from thirty years of movies that Godzilla can't be killed. No matter what kind of beating he's on the receiving end of, he gets back up and keeps coming. But the ominous way those few words are spoken give us no doubt that Godzilla is timeless, endless, deathless.

Dubbing performances are always a subject of ridicule, but the translators and voice actors responsible for the American edit did a damn fine job to my ears. Of course there are the usual concessions to try to match the spoken English words to the lip movements of the Japanese actors, but no one seems to be taking the piss. There's nothing to suggest that the material wasn't respected, or that anyone did a half-assed job. The guy voicing the homeless dude seems to be having fun, but then again that's a comic bit part to alleviate the apocalyptic grimness of the rest of the movie. He should be having fun.

On to the score. Is it as thunderous and awesome as Akira Ifukube's original? Of course not. That's some of the most iconic film music of all time. If you ask me, nothing could ever top it, or even touch it for that matter. But Ifukube didn't want to do the music for this, so they had to do the best they could. Sure it's derivative of a lot of other, more famous things, but it really fits the movie. Even the bombastic, military pomp of the Super-X's theme song, reminiscent of Dragnet though it may be, is great. The music in this movie doesn't just sound like giant monster music; much like the more memorable original, it's giant monster horror movie music, and as a direct sequel to the original, this is definitely meant to be a horror movie. The red-tinged hellscape of the final reel, not to mention that damn sea louse, are some of the scariest, most atmospheric stuff in any kaiju movie since Gojra. The whole movie has a very ominous vibe, but everything after the Russian nuke explodes in the atmosphere and revives Godzilla from the Super-X's cadmium missile attack is pure nightmare.

Lastly, the big G himself. A blend of the 1954 and 1975 styles (with 1955's huge, jutting fangs for good measure), the eyes may be just a tad too big, but I don't think that undercuts the menace as much as most seem to. This is one mean-looking badass incarnation of Godzilla. The shorter, more rounded muzzle serves to make his face more expressive and vicious-looking. I like my Godzilla to look pissed off and evil, and while the longer, narrower, more crocodilian face adopted in the Millennium series went well with the way the rest of the body was designed, it robbed him of that intelligent malevolence he displays here. When he knocks that skyscraper down on the Super-X, he looks triumphant and satisfied.  And that pitiful, frightened howl he lets out while falling into the volcano.  Man, that brought me to tears as a kid, and even now it tugs the heartstrings a bit, even though you know he's going survive swimming around in there for the next four years before being blown free by the Saradian agent in Godzilla vs. Biollante.  Raymond Burr's great closing speech really brings it home too.  I have the whole thing as a ringtone.

There you have it. I usually see what others dislike in a movie I love, but love it in spite of those things. This is one case where I don't see anything wrong in the first place. This movie is great all the way through. One of my favorite entries in one of my favorite series, Dr. Pepper and all.

This is part of the Big Footprints kaiju roundtable.  The city smashing continues with:

Checkpoint Telstar:  The Monolith Monsters

Micro-Brewed Reviews:  The Sound of Horror

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Gamera vs. Barugon


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Brain (1988)


Written by: Barry Pearson
Directed by: Edward Hunt
Starring: Tom Bresnahan, Cynthia Preston, David Gale



It's kind of amazing the stuff you could get away with making in the 80s. The appetite for product of the home video market allowed not only the existence, but the profitable existence of an endless array of movies that would never see a major release today. Of course, today we have a veritable army of direct-to-video studios like Asylum and Brain Damage (are those guys still around?) cranking out one camcorder opus after another, but rounding up some of your friends and buying some fake blood and Halloween costume latex makeup appliances from Spencer Gifts doesn't represent nearly the mustering of labor and resources that shooting even a low-budget movie like tonight's feature did. Regardless of how cheap you think it may look (I see you in the back snickering about being able to see the stage hand pushing the giant brain across the warehouse floor slip out from behind the thing and almost biff it), a movie like this still required the input of considerably more than a couple of weekends' beer money. So Ed Hunt and company had to go around to studios and investors and try to convince them that a movie about a high school bad boy with a heart of gold fighting David Gale and his pet brain monster wasn't going to wind up costing them a second mortgage to stay out of Chapter 11.

Jim Majelewski is on the verge of getting kicked out of high school. He's failing all his classes despite being noticeably smarter than most of the other kids (although we meet him trying to scam homework off his girlfriend, which you'd think he'd be able to hammer out in no time if he was really such a...dare I start this early in the review...brain), and his idea of extracurricular activities is flushing blocks of sodium down the toilet and blowing up the plumbing (before the end credits roll we see WARNING: The washroom scene is a dramatic representation. Combining sodium and water may cause serious injury. Do not attempt it!!! pop up on the screen). The principal and Jim's parents decide that he will be allowed one more chance at avoiding expulsion on the condition that he submit to treatment at the Psychological Research Institute run by Dr. Anthony Blake. Blake also has a very popular local access talk show called Independent Thinkers.

The movie seems somewhat confused about both the size of Meadowvale, and the stature of Dr. Blake. During the opening scene, in which a mother watches Blake's show while her daughter hallucinates monsters attacking her, resulting in the daughter stabbing her mom to death while trying to free her from an imaginary tentacle, Blake thanks his audience for making Independent Thinkers the most watched show in the greater metropolitan area, and that they will be going national very soon. He is later referred to as a world-famous psychiatrist, and the PRI building is a massive, futuristic affair that looks to take up several acres, while Meadowvale is portrayed as a sleepy little town, which don't usually have greater metropolitan areas. One IMDB poster who said they live in Meadowvale confirms that it is in fact quite a large city, and that the PRI building is in fact a Xerox facility. So why would a world famous psychiatrist who runs an institution the size of an industrial factory only be able to get a local access talk show? This dude should have been bigger than Dr. Phil. I realize on the surface it's because we needed the threat of the Brain's control signal going global for our heroes to shut down on the night of the big broadcast, but it's a pretty glaring hole in what is, in most aspects, a fairly well thought out movie, which makes it rankle all the more.

Once inside PRI, Jim is subjected to what he is told is a standard psychological evaluation, but is in reality a test of his susceptibility to the Brain's control. The minds of the young and cynical have been giving the creature difficulty, and the result of a mind rejecting its thought patterns manifests as hallucinations and violent psychotic episodes. After failing his initial test, Jim is placed in a cell which he stays in for all of ten seconds before he goes walkabout and sees Blake talking to the Brain. He manages to escape, with Blake's henchman Verna (played by George Buza of the Red Green Show and human schnauzer impersonator extraordinaire) hot on his heels.

Janet and two of their friends come to rescue Jim, but only Janet and Jim make it out alive. The other two are brain chow. They go on the lam, but where do they run when every figure of adult authority in the entire town has already been brought under the Brain's control? The couple hide out in the school until they can figure out their next move, but while Jim grabs a cat nap, Janet turned on a TV, presumably to look for news regarding the search for Meadowvale's most wanted. Unfortunately, the TV was tuned to the public access channel, and when Jim finds Janet, she's already been hypnotized. Now Jim must return to the PRI facility (which apparently also houses a TV studio capable of boosting a nation-wide signal, once again bringing up the question of why the hell Independent Thinkers was ever a local program) and expose Dr. Blake and his monstrous master before the whole world winds up feeding the Brain. Hey, it's still better than watching reality TV.

Blake is exposed as nothing more than an ambulatory blob of protoplasm that acts as a mouthpiece for the Brain, but even after the world is safe from becoming drooling slaves, Jim and a now-fully-aware Janet now have to escape the furious, carnivorous alien Brain chasing them through the boiler rooms of the PRI complex. Wait, did that cabinet say, “DANGER: SODIUM IN USE”? I wonder if Jim saw Horror of Party Beach on TV as a kid?

As I said before, a few glaring plot holes aside, The Brain is a pretty clever little flick. It even gives the old monster movie trope of the adults not believing the kids that there's a monster on the loose some logic beyond the fact that that's just how things work in these movies. Every kid who has attempted to warn someone that Dr. Blake is plotting dastardly deeds has wound up having a psychotic fit and killing themselves or their parents. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't feel terribly inclined to believe anything being told me by a person trying to stab me to death!

The clothing and hair styles, not to mention the plot and the monster itself (tell me you wouldn't love to see a team-up movie featuring the Brain and Gor from The Brain from Planet Arous), all have a wonderfully retro 50's feel, but updated with some gore and nudity for 80's horror sensibilities (John Agar may have pushed the boundaries of good taste but he never got to cut anyone in half with a power saw). The biggest disappointment of the movie is that David Gale never gets to cut loose the full power of his scenery-devouring insanity like he does in Re-Animator and Syngenor. Dr. Blake is a pretty low-key dude, which is understandable when he's on TV giving motivational speeches to housewives, but during the lab scenes and the final confrontation with Jim, it would have been nice if Ed Hunt had let him off the leash.

It's not quite on the level of something like Night of the Creeps, but if you're looking for a fun, fairly smart, if rather impoverished genre homage/pastiche with a memorable monster design and some decent performances (or if, like me, you just get a kick out of seeing people from the Red Green Show in other things), you could do a lot worse than spending 90 minutes with The Brain.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Emanuelle In America (1977)

Written by: Ottavio Alessi, Maria Pia Fusco, Piero Vivarelli
Directed by: Joe D'Amato
Starring: Laura Gemser, Gabriele Tinti, Roger Browne

I'm watching these things all out of order. For a series of virtually plotless sexploitation movies, it's starting to seem like that matters more than you would expect. I'll grant you, you're not exactly going to be lost if you don't watch them chronologically, but judging by the two I've seen so far, there is a certain amount of character development going on with Emanuelle. Contemplate this shit on the Tree of Woe: Joe D'Amato, one of the most notoriously sloppy directors in a film industry famous for nothing if not sloppy directors, advanced his main character more over the course of five movies made in two years than the entire James Bond franchise has in over six decades. That may seem like comparing apples to Walther PPKs at first glance, but the comparison is a fair one. Think about it; both characters are morally vague heroes who operate undercover to bust international bad guys on a series of adventures that take them to exotic locations all over the world where they have sex with everything that moves whether it's trying to kill them or not. Hell, Emanuelle Around the World featured a white slaver with an extremely distinctive deformity that practically made him a Bond villain!

D'Amato and Gemser's first collaboration with the character, Emanuelle in Bangkok, is supposed to be the least violent of the bunch, more a straight up softcore sex flick (and the way things are going I'll probably end up watching that one last, sort of like if Irreversible was a franchise, where we finish up seeing our heroine happy and relatively innocent, as far as that term applies to someone whom we see have sex with about seventy-five people in 90 minutes, but we're fully aware of the horrible things that await her) without most of the rough, nasty exploitation elements that would come to define these flicks. D'Amato starts getting serious stretching his evil bat wings out in that direction in Emanuelle In America, but not til the movie is two thirds of the way over.

We join Emanuelle at her side job as a glamor photographer, taking pictures of a bunch of nekkid chicks. One of them is complaining about how her new boyfriend is a prude and she's getting quite antsy in the pants. On the way home, a man who was concealed in the back seat of her car sits up, pulls a gun on her, and forces her to pull into a secluded area. It's the model's boyfriend, who is clearly batshit insane, bent on murdering Emanuelle for corrupting his woman into showing her body for money and – horror of horrors – wanting to have sex with him! She disarms the situation by blowing him and he runs screaming into the street. Ludicrous as all this is, it really sets up just how much of a badass Emanuelle is. With no weapon other than sex, and not once losing her cool, she disarms a madman with a gun to her head bent on killing her without batting an eye, keeps control of the situation the whole time, and regards the whole thing with nothing more than an, “Oh, you!” smile before driving off and never even mentioning it again! Clearly this is a woman who can handle herself and doesn't need a big strong man to protect her. You know, the more I think about it, I really would love to have seen Emanuelle and James Bond cross paths.

Her assignment (I use the term loosely because her editor never actually tells her to do any of this stuff, and it's not entirely clear if she's actively following the trail of the snuff movies she winds up confronting or just sort of blunders into the situation) begins in earnest by getting into the harem of some big beardy Dutch guy who has a girl for every month of the year, and even calls them by their star signs and has them wear red bikini bottoms with a gold zodiac symbol to denote which is which. The girls inevitably have sex with each other more than they do the beardy Dutchman or any of his wealthy friends who he has over for fuck parties, but the real high point (if you want to call it that) of this segment is Pedro. When Emanuelle is introduced to the other girls, they tell her one of them has found a new lover to keep her occupied when her services aren't required, and say she hasn't been the same since she met Pedro. And then during one of the aforementioned parties, everyone goes to the outbuildings to spy on her jerking off Pedro. And Pedro is a horse. Yeah.

Next it's off to Italy with a duke. Maybe the Duke of Earl, I don't know. Anyway, he takes her to a big party which ends with a girl covered in frosting popping out of a cake, and then everybody has sex. I just assume this is every night in Italy, it's probably not that big a deal.

Somehow this leads her to a top secret sex resort on a Greek island where bored, extraordinarily rich women while away their lonely lives being jackhammered by burly men in a variety of fantasy situations. I guess it's possible that the point of all this is she's just doing a think piece on how far people will go to get their jollies when they get bored with missionary, but if that's the case it could have been elaborated on a little more. Look at me demanding plot development from my smut. This segment surprised me by having some hardcore shots that seemed to have been filmed as part of the movie rather than inserts shot later. My copy of Emanuelle Around the World is the X-rated cut, with the porn inserts re-inserted (huh huh huh) and is advertised as such. This flick made no such claims, and not only do the film quality and actors from the hardcore shots match the rest of the movie, they're considerably more graphic than in the other movie! Thankfully the money shots were in this segment and not back in the horse barn...

Emanuelle gets busted taking pictures and is taken to the...what, concierge? I keep wanting to call her warden for some reason. Anyway, the woman who runs the place seems to be on the verge of having Emanuelle killed (can't really call the cops to complain about someone taking pictures of your illegal sex business), when our heroine all but force feeds her one of the aphrodisiac-laced dick-shaped cookies from a jar on the counter (I couldn't make this shit up if I tried) and essentially rapes her 'til she likes it, then scarpers while the warden is still basking in the afterglow.

Then it's finally back to America for the last fifteen or so minutes, where Emanuelle hooks up with a sleazy senator. She seems to be fully aware that he's got something nasty going on, and again it would have been nice to see her do a little more investigating and digging up clues that would have made this seem like she did more than walk by this guy on the street and have a psychic flash that told her he was running snuff movies. She jumps into bed with him and keeps telling him that she wants to try something really intense, until he finally shows his cards and rolls one of his snuff reels. He then drugs her and takes her to the facility where they're made.

Up until now this has been an extraordinarily goofy and tacky sex flick, but still fairly innocent stuff (apart from the horse masturbation, anyway), but here it takes a serious turn for the nasty. The reel the senator shows Emanuelle is a silent, black and white thing on really low grade film, and it looks every bit as horrific and convincing as the worst stuff from Cannibal Holocaust thanks to the same trick of hiding less convincing effects with the shitty film quality, coupled with the fact that you really only ever get quick glimpses of it, so the images burn themselves onto your brain and then are gone before you have a chance to scrutinize them too closely. I'm not sure exactly where this studio is supposed to be, it looks like it might be in Cuba or maybe South America somewhere, but the atmosphere of it isn't so much a little back room black market job like you would expect, but something more akin to a slaughterhouse. It's pretty awful. On the one hand, this stuff is so strong that I really wish the movie as a whole had been more focused on this element. D'Amato missed an opportunity to make what could have been one of the most upsetting exploitation movies of all time. On the other hand, it's possible that it has the power it does precisely because it comes so out of left field after the rest of the movie being so light-hearted. It's kind of like getting a really nice blow job, and then just as you're about to come she stops sucking and smashes you in the face with a cinder block.

Emanuelle takes what she is sure is the story of a lifetime back to her editor, only to be informed that the owners of the magazine refuse to print a single word or photo of her story. Fed up, she quits on the spot and runs off to a tropical island with her boyfriend to live a free and simple life. Out of nowhere, a movie crew shows up to make a documentary about the tribe they joined, and so, unable to escape the modern world even in a primitive paradise, they wander off down the beach to make a raft out of coconuts and sail off to Caprona or something, I guess. The end.

Emanuelle Around the World is the entry immediately following this, and picks up right after the events of this movie, with Emanuelle ditching her boyfriend on the island and hitching a ride back to America, where she apparently picks up her old job with no trouble and goes back on the trail. Whereas at the end of tonight's movie, she gets fed up and leaves the country in frustration when her editor won't help her bust the snuff movie ring (and I can't help but think she maybe should have shopped the story around to a few other places – I can't imagine no news service in the country would be uninterested in high ranking politicians murdering women on camera to get off), in the next flick she's a lot more focused, tougher, and doesn't stop chasing her story until the police cars show up to cart the bad guys away. It's interesting to see her grow from worldly-but-out-of-her-depth reporter to aggressive, full-on badass who won't take no for an answer. I have a feeling if her editor had told her he wouldn't help with the sex slavery ring in Around the World, she would have wound up using his balls as a key fob.

That's what I was talking about before, actual character growth, learning from the experiences in one movie and seeing that learning put to use in the next installment. They don't just hit the reset button and go back to fucking, the conflict and violence get ramped up between the two movies with one having a direct effect on the other. Even when Bond gets a little character moment like mourning his dead wife, within a couple of movies he seems to have forgotten to whole thing and gone back to being a smarmy womanizer. I enjoy Bond flicks, mind you, I just thought they made a particularly good comparison in this case. So yeah, proper attention given to the dramatic journey of a character in a series of Italian smut movies. It's unexpected surprises like this that really make watching these kinds of movies fun. Well, that and all the greasy, grimy sex and violence.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

B-Fest 2014 Part 2: For Tomorrow We Watch Bad Movies!

Once we settled in to our seats in the auditorium, one of Paul Tennessen's delicious cookies and a Bolthouse Farms fruit smoothie helped restore my body to its original, pre-whiskey factory settings. We got our tickets and shirts, and I put a copy of Colony of the Dark into the raffle prize pile, and had a couple of hours of chatting before the movie starts. Mike Bockoven got me all excited to see The Act of Killing, which had just been added to Netflix streaming. Mark brought his daughter Gaz along for the first half of the show, and she was really excited for her first B-Fest. Alas, there's never enough time to spend just visiting with all these wonderful people I get to see just once a year, and before you could say, “Push the button, Frank”, the movies began.



Robot Jox: The K.O. Brothers sponsored this one, and those boys have a knack for choosing good opening flicks (they also sponsored Best of the Best in 2012). This movie is a really startling mix of cheap, stupid set design and bad model work, combined with fantastic stop-motion robot fights by Dave Allen. Tim and Mike shadowed the opening robot fight dressed as luchadores, and when the evil Russkiebot sprouts a giant chainsaw from its area at the end, Tim went back up on stage with his costume plus a toy chainsaw tucked between his legs, and performed the Buffalo Bill dance from Silence of the Lambs.



Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: This was supposed to be The Amazing Colossal Man, and I was really looking forward to that one. I wish they would have told us why the schedule had to change at the last minute. I picture a squad of Burt I. Gordon's lawyers dressed up in S.W.A.T. gear abseiling through the roof of the projection booth, leveling guns at the A&O crew, yanking the DVD out of the player, maybe firing a couple of rounds into the projectionist's thigh for good measure, then being airlifted out by one of the space marines' landing craft from Aliens. Anyway, SCCtM is a fucking awful movie, and no one was happy about this. We riffed along as best we could, but things kinda ran out of steam towards the end and we all just sat there grinding our teeth and waiting for it to go away.



Megaforce: Now that's more like it. Barry Bostwick stars as Ace Hunter in a movie that predates G.I. Joe's rebirth as a series of increasingly ludicrous toy ads by a few years, and was no doubt an inspiration to the later series. You will never see a human being have more fun than Henry Silva as Duke, leader of the opposing mercenary team. Ages ago they soldiered together, and easily my favorite thing about this movie is that, though they are fighting each other with lethal force and wouldn't flinch from killing each other, it's nothing personal. They've both been hired to do a job, and do it they shall whatever it takes, but it's nothing more than a day at work. Past the fact they've been hired by opposing forces, they're still good friends and genuinely happy to see each other on the occasions they get a respite from blowing things up.



Fistula and myself have both seen this movie plenty in the last few years, because as part of his doctorate in communications studies, he put together a show something like a more audience-interactive version of a live Cinematic Titanic performance but with skits akin to MST3K host segments, which tied in to his study of riffing culture. The movie he chose was the eminently riffable Megaforce, and as groundwork for the show he, Bob and myself wrote a full riff script worth of jokes, so we were well prepared. He likes to go stag, as they say, meaning he didn't know this was on the schedule, but as a bit of serendipity, he showed up wearing his Ace Hunter costume from the show. Unfortunately, the sound had been turned up to compensate for SCCtM's virtually incomprehensible soundtrack, and it didn't get turned back down for a few more movies. Since Megaforce is virtually 90 solid minutes of engine noise and explosions, a lot of our material got drowned out and we wound up having to ease off or risk losing our voices far too soon into the Fest.
The Wizard of Speed and Time: Getting on stage and stomping along to this is one of my favorite parts of B-Fest. Beware the thundering of stenchy nerds.

Plan 9 from Outer Space: One of these years I'll stay in the theater for this again, but the movie after it was generating a lot of curiosity as no one had even heard of it before, and I wanted to have a fighting chance of staying awake, so it was nap time.



Thomasine and Bushrod: An old west blaxploitation version of Bonnie and Clyde with a dash of Robin Hood. It was maybe a little too serious for the typically wackier blaxplo slot, but it was an interesting oddity and I enjoyed it for the most part. It got a little draggy and repetitive toward the end. I wonder how influential it was on Django Unchained.

I wanted to at least watch the opening sequence of Lifeforce, but the people behind us started almost immediately ragging on the special effects, which for some reason really irritated me. I realize they're not exactly realistic, but they're certainly extremely cool-looking, and probably the least mockable thing about this bizarre flick. Compare them against the FX of any other big budget sci fi flick of the time and I think you'll find they more than hold up. To each their own. It was also still intensely loud, and I had bought and watched Scream! Factory's excellent Blu-ray of this one just months before. More nap.

When I was in college, there was a great little thrift shop near the campus called Trinkets and Togs. One year I got this huge, Russian-looking thick wool coat with a faux-fur collar there, and since it was so damn cold this year (Polar Vortex, while a great name for a band, is a fucking obnoxious bit of weather), that was definitely the coat to take on the trip. Best $5 I ever spent. Not only is it an excellent, warm coat, it's doubly handy at B-Fest because I don't need to bring a pillow to the theater. I just wrap the coat around my head, and the soft, fuzzy lining is a nice cushion, while the thickness of the shell cuts out all light and is a highly effective sound baffle. I'm sure I look like a weird homeless guy lying in a corner on the floor with my head and shoulders mummified in a giant coat, but what the hell do I care? I'm comfortable and asleep.



Kitten With A Whip: I woke up just in time for this one, which I had been hoping to sleep through, but I was well rested, early morning student traffic was picking up (how dare these students infest the student center at the college they pay exorbitant tuition to attend?), and so I headed back to my seat. I'd watched its episode of MST3K recently, and it's not one of their better efforts, so I figured the movie would be awful. You know what though? I think it's a weak episode because they weren't expecting the movie to be as good as it is. Turns out that on its own merits, it's a very solid little thriller with some fine performances, and it really holds up well. It was one of the more pleasant surprises this year.



Super Mario Brothers: I remember when this came out, I was really excited. I hadn't played the video games much (I grew up with no Nintendos or anything, so the only time I ever played video games was at friends' houses.), but all the magazine articles and things really played up the dinosaur and special effects aspects, and I love me some dinosaurs. I don't recall what I thought of it at the time, but I assumed it was going to be an awful kiddie movie that aged badly, and was expecting a painful slog of almost SCCtM proportions. Boy was I wrong.

I know a lot of people hated the hell out of it, but it's so fucking bizarre it's kind of hard not to love. It's dark and bleak and goofy all at the same time, and it has sweet fuck all to do with the game. The few things they did try to work in from the games, they came at from some really odd angles. Mario and Luigi have to enter an alternate dimension New York City ruled by germophobic dictator King Koopa, played by Dennis Hopper of all people, to rescue Princess Daisy and prevent Koopa from merging the two dimensions and taking over the Earth. The bits with the dancing goombahs crack me up.

Code of the Secret Service: Fuck you, Ronald Reagan, I'm sleeping through your shitty, boring movie. I do have some fond memories of his presidency, though. I never got to know my maternal grandmother very well, she died when I was 5. But I spent a lot of weekends with her and grandpa, and I learned just a few years ago that apparently I get a lot of my sarcastic sense of humor from her, which surprised me. Of course, you don't really pick up on those things when you're a preschooler. But one thing I do remember is she hated the fuck out of Ronald Reagan and every time he'd show up on TV she'd get all mad about whatever he was talking about and say over and over what an idiot he was. My grandma was awesome.



Doctor Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine: I slept through Reagan's shitfest in my seat to avoid missing this, which I was greatly looking forward to since I enjoyed the insanity of Beach Blanket Bingo so much last year. Vincent Price plays Doctor Goldfoot, a mad scientist building an army of sexy robot bikini girls to con rich men into marrying them so they can steal all their wealth. I really wish Vincent Price had done more comedy, because he is absolutely hilarious in this movie. The whole movie is a blast, though. A.I.P. main man Sam Arkoff is from Fort Dodge, Iowa, about 90 minutes from where I live, and us Midwestern boys love our corny humor right off the cob, as Chad says. Some people found Price's performance the only enjoyable thing about this movie, but I'm equally happy with doofy Jerry Lewis-style slapstick wackiness as I am with more sophisticated types of humor, and I loved the whole thing. Easily the highlight of this year.



The Deadly Mantis: One of the best giant monster puppets of any 50's atomic bug movie is unfortunately saddled with an aggressively boring movie. Thankfully it loaned itself to riffing better than I hoped, and I actually had a lot of fun with this one.



Yor, Hunter from the Future: Reb Brown is Yor, a caveman who discovers that he is the heir to the master race and has to fight some dinosaurs and a fake Darth Vader, because it's actually the future. Don't complain I spoiled it, it's right there in the title. It was fun, but not nearly as nutty as I was hoping. Of course, compared to Barbarians, any barbarian movie is going to be a little disappointing.  It does have maybe the greatest poster of all time though.



Drunken Tai Chi: Young Donnie Yen loses his family to a brutal assassin and has to go live with his alcoholic uncle and fat aunt (who kicks his ass in one of the most entertaining fights in the movie). Uncle Drunkie teaches him tai chi to counter the assassin's invincible style. This might be the only old school kung fu flick I've seen that takes such great pains to humanize the villain by showing what a good dad he is, and having Yen's character rescue the kid from kidnappers to give their final fight an extra element of tension. Of course, almost nothing is done with this added layer of depth because the movie is too busy bombarding the audience with one furious (and occasionally hilarious) fight scene after another. It's not nearly as insane as some of the Yuen Clan's other drunkard movies (check out Taoism Drunkard some time...holy balls is that a bonkers flick), but the breathless pace and enormous athletic talent of the cast make this one extremely entertaining movie, and it ended B-Fest 2014 on a very high note.

After cleaning up our area of the theater and heading back to the hotel to get some much needed soap and water action, most of our group hit Portillo's for supper. The last few years the tradition of a big farewell Sunday breakfast has transformed into a farewell supper. While we're all usually pretty fried by lack of sleep after the Fest, we all have such different drive times that it's hard to pick a time that's good for everyone to set off. Of course, it hasn't helped that the last two years Malorie and I have driven home into shit weather. Last year was an ice storm, and this year, we set out at about 6:45 to try to beat a blizzard home. We had a few shitty roads on the way, but the real nasty stuff didn't hit until I went to pick up the kids from my parents' house, when halfway there it went from a moderately heavy snow to one of the worst whiteouts I've ever seen in about ten seconds.

Again, thanks to Tim and Chad for the wonderful gifts, and as always, thanks to all our friends who make this such a special event. All those years ago, when we discovered B-Fest through badmovies.org, I couldn't have imagined it would lead to so many great and lasting friendships. I kiss my thumb to you all, and wish you all the best until next year, when Bela takes us under his cape once again to shelter us from the snow and the cold and keep us warm with the glow of brotherly love and lights our way with the flicker of the projector to the hallowed halls of McCormick auditorium. Skoal!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

B-Fest 2014 Part 1: Eat, Drink, and Be Merry!

A few months ago, I was diagnosed with hypertension and had to start blood pressure medication. I also cut even more sodium out of my already not particularly salty diet (I prefer pepper as a seasoning), and started exercising for the first time since I was in college. I'm not horribly out of shape or anything, I work outside at an ethanol plant so it's not like I'm a total slug, but beyond work I didn't do much in the way of activity. I don't have a lot of free time and work and kids and life tend to make one tired. But I'm glad I finally got the motivation again, because it really does make you feel better. It also gave all my old VHS tapes a second life, with an old tube TV and the VCR downstairs I've been working my way through piles of MST3K bootlegs and Doctor Who serials that I haven't updated to DVD yet, and stacks of movies as well. Yet, even with all that, I never could get it down any further than the very highest end of normal.

The point is, from Tuesday the 21st until Sunday the 26th, Malorie and I were in Chicago for B-Fest, so it's been almost a week of no exercise and not even remotely watching what I eat. Seafood pot pies, gigantic hamburgers with gravy and fried cornbread on them, hotdogs, onion rings, chocolate malts...hell, the food we took into the theater for B-Fest with us was probably the healthiest thing I ate the whole trip. And yet, I read my blood pressure tonight for the first time since we got back, and it was 111/81! That's as low as it's probably ever been. B-Fest isn't just fun, it saves lives. Ask your doctor if B-Fest is right for you. Side effects include sleep deprivation, kissed thumb, not Bela, doubled invincibility, moose yell, forgetting Mercy Humppe, electric boogaloo, and black widow.

We arrived Tuesday around 1:30, and since Tim Lehnerer was delayed in a massive traffic kerfuck, no one else was coming til the next day, and we'd been up since 5am, we figured it would be a good time to take a couple hours' nap and then head into Kuma's Corner for a heavy metal hamburger. Tim finally rolled in and gave me yet another great looking box of books, as well as the traditional B-Fest mix CD and a flash drive with all of the Joe Meek music he has on it, which is probably all of the Joe Meek music in existence plus a couple of tracks he willed into being with his fandom. We watched Streets of Fire and called it a night.



Wednesday morning saw us make a rather expensive trip to Half Price Books, then it was off to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Mal didn't have any interest and opted to stay in the hotel to read and nap some more, so it was Tim and I experimenting with taking the L for the first time. Considering how much we all hate driving, and what a pain in the ass parking in Chicago is, it's kind of amazing none of us ever thought to do this before. It worked out well, but the museum was a bit on the meh side. I mostly wanted to go there because Svengoolie's old coffin was supposed to go there when he got a new one last year, but for some reason it never happened. It was interesting enough that I don't regret the time spent, but I think it's definitely a one-and-done thing. After that, we had a quick burger at the Billy Goat Tavern, famous as the “Cheezeborger cheezeborger cheezeborger!” place from Saturday Night Live. It's a fast and tasty burger, and they also have some really good house beer.



I'm not entirely positive that we didn't die on the train ride back. After the correct train at our last transfer blew past without stopping, another train with OUT OF SERVICE on all the digital signs stopped, insisting it was the one we needed to get home. Everything after stepping on that train may be some kind of bizarre afterlife hallucination. Are you real? Can you prove it? Didn't think so. Not convinced.

By the time we were either mulched into Soylent Green or got back to the hotel, Jacob Smith had arrived, and he and Tim watched Gymkata while I took Malorie to TJ Maxx. Then it was off to a new place Tim discovered online for supper. Gavin Smith joined us at Circa '57, which is a 50's diner with several themed rooms. The drive-in room, similar to the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater at Disney World, wasn't open yet, but it should be by the time we go back next year. Sitting in a vintage land yacht eating spectacular food and watching b-movie trailers is a little slice of heaven. The owner overheard us gushing about the place to the waiter, and came over to talk with us for a bit, and they're not only looking to do trailers, but licensing full movies as well. I hope it works out for them.

The whole B-Fest Irregulars crew has been using the Morton Grove Best Western since 2010, and we've become known by faces if not names there. The desk clerk says she's going to try to make at least part of the Fest next year, and we're such groovy people she let us plug a Blu-ray player into the lobby TV so we could do our gatherings in a place where everyone would actually have a seat. The utterly baffling “Grow Up Little Turtle” episode of Ultra Q and Gamera 2: Advent of Legion rounded out the night.

The next day started off as I only wish every day could, with breakfast at the Omega Pancake Restaurant and Bakery. Then it was off once more to the Skokie L station to meet Gavin at the Art Institute. It's a place more suited to Malorie's tastes than mine, but they have a few things I really enjoy. The Hall of Arms and Armor was open this time, which it wasn't on our first visit in 2009, although the arms and armor weren't remotely as impressive as the collection of medieval jewelry at the back of the room. I also got to gander once more at a few Hubert Robert paintings I quite like, as well as Cornelius Saftleven's “Witch's Sabbath”, and discovered there's a picture of Dr. Freex in there as well.



From there it was back on the train to a place I'd been wanting to go to since I saw it on the Food Network a couple of years back. It's called Glen's Diner, and they specialize in fresh seafood, being located not far from the local fish market. It doesn't look like much from the outside (in fact we almost walked right past it), and it's not very big, but holy good goddamn is their food delicious. I think this has been the most successful B-Fest trip so far from a culinary standpoint. While there was no foreign food included this time, which I usually like to work in because Mason City's idea of culture is Mexican food made by Mexicans instead of surly teenagers in paper hats, I got to have things I can't get at home, and every one topped the last, culminating with the crab, shrimp and scallop pot pie at Glen's. I'm not a foodie, I don't pretend to know things about food, I just know that I like good food, and this year was some very, very good food.



By this time, the rest of the crew was staring to roll in to the hotel, so we headed back to meet up with the Nebraska Contingent; the mighty Chad Plambeck, who brought me a couple of wonderful books I had as a child, Mike Bockoven, and Bill Rinehart, plus a girl who I somehow never get introduced to. Also Paul, Lisa, the K.O. Brothers, Kelvin and Melissa, Tim's friend Dave, and later at the Hala Kahiki, the inimitable Mark Mitchell, Scott Ashlin, and Jessica Ritchey. You know, as much as I love everyone who comes to this thing, I think this may be my last year for the tiki bar. The drinks are overpriced, the staff tends to be a little prickly (hey, a whole bunch of friendly customers who drink a lot and tip well, let's ignore them!), and Hawaiian kitch is really not my thing. 



But before long we were heading back to the hotel lobby once more to watch the adorably racist Black Masai robot take on Super Robot Red Baron and progressively pay less and less attention to The Manitou as we drank more and more hooch. Paul brought a bottle of Wisconsin bourbon, and I brought a bottle of Iowa bourbon called Cedar Ridge to share around. Once everyone else cashed in their chips for the night, Scott and I went back to my room to visit quietly in a corner while Malorie slept, and we put away nearly the entire .750ml bottle of Cedar Ridge between the two of us, plus a couple of Bass pale ales and Old Rasputin Russian Imperial stouts. The night got away from us a bit, and before long, Malorie was looking up over the covers and informing us that it was 5:30a.m. At least no one wound up handcuffed to the drain with their clothes flushed down the toilet.

The next thing I knew, my phone was ringing, it was 11:00, and it was Malorie texting me a picture of me, asleep, with the caption, “WAKE UP, I'M HUNGRY!” Apparently she had been poking me for a while to no avail. We walked veeeeeeerrrrry sllllllooooowwwwwwwly over to Seven Brothers for lunch before trying to find a grocery store, since Dominick's near the hotel had closed. We happened upon a nice place called Super Tony's Finer Foods and stocked up before heading back to the hotel to meet Gavin and my partner in cine-crime since junior high, Matt Foy (known to some of you as Brother Fistula), and head to Northwestern to get settled in. And you know what? I was still fucking drunk.