The crowd that gathered for the 24th anniversary of B-Fest, the 24-hour marathon of so-bad-they're-good movies at Northwestern University, was the greatest collection of indoorsmen ever assembled in one auditorium. They began filing into the Norris University Center just before six, carrying sleeping bags, pillows, laptops, Cheetos, bags of paper plates, and inflatable mallets with American-flag designs. Every kind of trash-culture mania was represented, often on the body of a single person: one man sported a soul patch, a crew cut, and a Hawaiian shirt worn over a T-shirt with the command cut your mullet. The burly leader of C.H.E.W.--the Consortium of Hammy Entertainers of the World, which was sponsoring the festival's screening of The Swarm--wore a safari vest containing a water bottle, a toothbrush, a flashlight, a sleep mask, a pen, and his business cards, all to help carry him through the 16 features and five shorts, starting at 6 PM last Friday.
"We always have a few freshmen working the front desk, and when they see people coming in, they're like, 'What's going on?'" said Andy Freeberg, one of the Northwestern students who organized this year's B-Fest. "They're overweight Internet nerds mostly, social rejects and really some of the nicest people you'll ever meet. There's a few people that'll really power through it. There's a lot of Mountain Dew in there. The smell gets worse and worse."
Matt Singer flew in from New York City, where he writes a column called "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" for moviepoopshoot.com. This was his first B-Fest.
Singer, a slight man with thick-framed rectangular glasses, was standing outside the door, next to a stand selling B-Fest T-shirts. "All the T-shirts they've sold are, like, really small, for people like me, or really huge," he said. "There are no normally proportioned people here."
He excused himself. The Apple was about to start. Produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Israel's greatest and wealthiest enemies of good taste, The Apple (1980) is a disco musical set in the dystopian future of 1994, when Earth is ruled by the music corporation BIM and its satanic chief executive, Mr. Boogalow. His hegemony is threatened by a wholesome folksinger who won't sell out to his star machine. The dance numbers and costumes steal from Hair, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Can't Stop the Music. The movie, which features buff male lead George Gilmour (who never acted again) in butt-floss briefs, is so bad that at its premiere the audience damaged the screen by using their free sound-track LPs as missiles. But one era's trash is another's camp. After the big finale, in which a tribe of hippies follows a golden Cadillac into the sky, the B-Fest crowd erupted in a standing ovation.
"B-Fest seems to be homoerotic dancing and tiny pants," Singer said. "Embarrassing."
Just before the midnight showing of the 1959 classic Plan 9 From Outer Space, the organizers raffled off videos of Curse of the Demon and Evil Dead II and awarded prizes to B-Fest veterans. Mitch O'Connell, who has attended every B-Fest and now draws the festival's poster, won his annual prize for longest-running attendee--a copy of Video Hound's Groovy Movies. But when second place was announced, a man wearing a tweed jacket over a Monster Bash T-shirt demanded to be recognized.
"Thirteen times!" he shouted before running down the aisle to buttonhole organizer Dannah Shinder. It was David "the Rock" Nelson, ex-marine, ex-Golden Gloves boxer, 1998 guest of honor at the horror-movie convention Monster Bash, and prolific B-movie producer. His latest project, The Devil Ant, is a 113-minute movie that he made for $200. "Is 13 times enough?" he asked. Not quite. Second place went to Rosalie Cyrier, who has attended every B-Fest except the first, in 1981, and is a minority here--only about 10 percent of B-Fest attendees are female, according to Shinder, "if that much. And a lot of them are spouses who are dragged there by their significant others."
From what I can gather from Nelson's description, The Devil Ant consists of endless scenes of Nelson waving a giant plastic ant in people's faces. "The ant cost $1.67," he said, "plus the blank tape, and I had to buy meals for my girlfriend, Janet, who helped me.
"I use ketchup for blood," he continued. "I use 25-cent fangs for vampires. I'm not worried about realism. They can take that Oscar and stick it where the sun don't shine. I'm going to do it my way, like Lucas or Altman. I may not make as much money as those guys, but that'll come around. I've sold more tapes this year than ever. I'm selling four tapes a month."
Nelson is a purist. His tastes hark back to the 1950s, the golden age of B movies, when directors churned out parables featuring rampaging monsters that embodied the atomic age's worst nightmares about the excesses of science. His idol is Ed Wood, auteur of Plan 9.
"Plan 9's gotta be the best," Nelson said. "I've seen it 120 times, but it's still fun to watch. Ed Wood just gets the job done. Ed Wood shows everybody can make movies. You don't need a budget. You can use hubcaps for flying saucers."
Plan 9 is the only movie that has been shown at every B-Fest, and it's acquired its own rituals, like a mass. When flying saucers appeared on the murky print, the air filled with paper plates. Many of them bore handwritten mottoes referring to other B movies: "Damn Dirty Plates," "Plate 2: Electric Boogaloo." Wood famously had a few continuity problems in Plan 9, whose plot deals with aliens reanimating the dead. Star Bela Lugosi died early in the filming, and was replaced by an actor who held a cape over his face.
The crowd at B-Fest noted the difference.
"Bela!" they shouted, when Lugosi appeared.
"Not Bela!" they greeted his stand-in.
After Plan 9, the auditorium settled down: the dilettantes went home, and the room got as quiet as the wee hours of a cross-country bus trip. Sleeping bags were unfurled, pillows plumped.
I don't know how anyone could sleep through Golan and Globus's 1985 movie Death Wish 3, but around 5 AM slumbering movie buffs were sprawled throughout the building like Charles Bronson's victims. There was a guy sleeping under a curtain. In a hallway, a couple rested on an inflatable queen-size mattress. A few people perked up when Bronson pulled out a .457. Then Martin Balsam opened his closet to reveal a machine gun. A man in the back row leaped to his feet and cheered. During the final showdown, as Bronson and Balsam mowed down the multiethnic gang of street scum who'd been menacing their Brooklyn tenement, a man who identified himself as a member of the Soylent Green Party tossed a dummy in front of the screen whenever one of the bad guys took a spill from a balcony. The Soylent Green Party also invented the Bronsometer, a poster with a cutout of Charlie's head, which they moved up and down a green-to-red scale to indicate his appetite for vengeance.
We were still only halfway home. The diehards pounded coffee and Diet Coke and stuffed themselves with bananas, potato chips, and Reese's peanut butter cups during Three Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain, Robot Monster, and Class of Nuke 'Em High.
It's hard to say which is the worst movie at a bad-movie festival, but the most hated at this year's B-Fest was easily Lassie: The Adventures of Neeka, in which an orphaned Indian boy learns about life through his relationship with the collie. The flagging B-Festers rose up and heckled.
"Lassie learned a lesson too!" Matt Singer shouted. "Demand your agent get better scripts!"
Some guy: "There's more women here than there are in this movie."
Another guy: "That's really sad."
During a reel change, the projectionist raised the lights to tease the audience. But the movie went on. There was a roar of disappointment when Lassie reappeared.
"Can't we just skip this and get to The Ice Pirates?" someone moaned.
By 4:30 Saturday afternoon, the auditorium was trashed. The aisles were littered with pizza boxes and the floor had collected a tide wrack of garbage: a scarf, a napkin, an unmated sneaker, a Ruffles bag. The stage was covered with a snowdrift of paper plates.
The day ended with another Golan and Globus classic, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984). When the dance scenes started, fat men moonwalked in front of the screen. The crowd hissed at the developers who planned to tear down the community center to build a supermarket. During the talent show in which Shabba-Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp try to raise $200,000 to save their center, dance lines broke out everywhere.
What is a bad movie? Can Breakin' 2 be a bad movie if 200 people groove on it at once? Can Plan 9 be a bad movie if David "the Rock" Nelson has seen it 120 times, if the B-Fest crowd demands it year after year? Matt Singer had an answer.
"It's fun," he said. "A great movie is great, and a movie that's terrible does the same thing. It's a bell curve. The ends are where it's interesting. The middle is mediocrity."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.