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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Monday, June 24

Gapers Block

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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.

The bill usually starts with a black-and-white "horror" movie from the '50s or '60s. It is followed by two more movies (one is usually an '80s flick) and a raffle. At roughly 11:45pm, the first of two B-Fest staples, The Wizard of Speed and Time, is shown. Those who wish to "run" along with the wizard in this creepy little short go the front of the auditorium, lay on their backs, and stomp their feet on the stage. The short is then shown again, this time upside-down and backwards.

The second staple, Ed Wood's notorious Plan 9 from Outer Space, has the most predetermined quirks. For example, the audience yells, "Tor" each time actor Tor Johnson appears onscreen. There is is also a shout-off as to whether the furniture on the patio in certain scenes is wicker or rattan. And, the most fun, every shot of a flying saucer prompts hundreds of paper plates to fly through the air. They usually obstruct the screen. Some people write notes on the plates beforehand, so reading the plates between flying saucer scenes can be quite entertaining. It pays to be cautious—those paper plate slice many a face and hand before the movie is over. In fact, the organizers tell ticket holders not to bring plastic or thick paper plates. "Yes, they fly much better but it stings to get hit in the face with one."

After Plan 9 B-Fest unveils its blaxplotation flick. This is almost always an audience favorite for the slang and clothes alone, not to mention the large amount of ass-kickings. Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Jim Kelly? They're all good. Sho'nuff!

At this point, most people try to catch some sleep, but for those who remain awake, there is a soft-core film (usually from the '70s) to "enjoy." Previous offerings include The Happy Hooker, Flesh Gordon and Can Hieronymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?, which prompted screams of terror I have never heard the likes of. This was also the second film that year (2002) that prompted the audience to yell "END! END! END! END! END!" well before the credits rolled.

Three or four films, depending on length, are shown before the late-morning breakfast break. These vary from horrible to soul-crushing, and this is when many people hit the wall. It is not unusual for people to just start screaming for no reason (unless you think terrible movies are a good enough reason) or bury their heads in their laps or cover themselves with blankets in order to escape what appears on the screen. Delirious from lack of sleep and beaten down by subpar images, this break is the time to stretch and perhaps leave the auditorium and remember, "Oh yeah, it's daytime again!" A half hour later, the movies roll on until the final feature.

Throughout the festival, there are several short films in addition to The Wizard. Sometimes they play the same short more than once. And then, at around 6 on Saturday night, it's over for another year. Puffy-eyed minions gather their belongings and shuffle out into the cold winter night, hoping next year's B-Fest will be just as horrible, as fabulous, as horribulous as the festival they just suffered though.

The burning question: Why? Why would anyone willingly subject him/herself to an entire day's worth of admittedly B-level movies? And this is being generous; some of these films could barely make a Z rating, if there was such a thing. Maybe it's because one knows going in that the fare is not going to be Oscar-calibre -- there's no chance of disappointment. Another large part is the camaraderie created by being among those who share one's love of cheesy, oddball, and sometimes just plain silly films.

But mostly it's laughing at bad movies. Groaning when you spot a stagehand in the background. Rolling your eyes at the thought of ANYONE finding Vanilla Ice attractive, wearing acid-print overalls without a shirt, no less. Shouting for the film about "magic walnuts" to just end all-frickin'-ready.

This year the inaugural film is The Island of Terror, which contains "creeping, blobbish, tentacled monsters which liquefy and digest the bones from living creatures" -- at least according to the Internet Movie Database. The blaxplotation feature is Black Belt Jones. This year's lineup has forgone its usual late-night showing of soft-core pornography -- unless you consider Mamie Van Doren and her girls pornographic even when clothed -- with the film Beauty and the Robot (a.k.a Sex Kittens Go To College). And the final film is the classic Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.

The doors of Norris University Center are locked shut at 2am and no one is allowed in or out. Because of city curfew laws, anyone under the age of 18 must leave at 11:45pm Friday night. The doors reopen at 8am. For more information about rules (and where to get food), go to B-Fest's Frequently Asked Questions & Tips page.

Unfortunately for those who were unaware of this gem of a festival, this year's B-Fest is already sold out. However, there is a ticket exchange program for those who want to try to get seats. Good luck!


About the Author(s)

This will be Dee Stiffler's fourth year at B-Fest. She has actually paid money to add Can't Stop the Music, Grease 2, Newsies, The Pirate Movie and Xanadu to her personal movie collection.

Gordon McAlpin returns next week.

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