Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Whales, Giant Monkeys, and Pumamen: B-fest 2011

I've come around to thinking the A&O folks pick the perfect weekend for b-fest. After all if you're nuts enough to want to see a blaxsplotation version of Frankenstein why shouldn't you also be nuts enough to want to travel to Chicago in the dead of winter? I sat out last year and was rewarded with a nicely low key event this year, reconnecting with old friends, making some new ones, and seeing some more Things That Cannot Be Unseen thanks to the lineup.

Arrived on Thursday to have dinner with the mysterious El Santo (a.k.a. Scott) a learned gentleman of the tide lands who is said to have done something at a remote Antarctic research station that is only spoken of in awed whispers as "The Prometheus Incident." Joining us was Edward (a.k.a. erm, Edward) a warrior poet of his Queen's army and renowned for having been captured by a fearsome Raj and earning his freedom by bench pressing a tiger to impress the ruler.

Both made for great company at The Himalayan, a terrific Indian/Nepalese place where the sauces where so good you felt the only way you could express your full gratitude was to rub them into your face arms and hair. We resisted and retired to Hala Kahiki, a charming kitsch oasis where the drinks seemed designed to remove you from your dignity as quick as possible. The night closed in Bro Rag and Mal's room over an expensive bottle of Vodka and a Yokai film that deserves much closer examination at a later date.

The next day was the official start of the show but the day left plenty of time for sight seeing. I finally got to visit the Shedd Aquarium. There must be something in our evolutionary memory of the sea that can account for the pupil dilating, blood pressure lowering effect of just watching whales swim. It was a lovely afternoon watching a Beluga with her calf, a pod of Pacific Dolphins arc through the air, Sea Otters dance around each other, and strange creatures out of Weird Tales that make their homes in the dark crevices of the oceans. All too soon it was time to go but I settled into Norris Auditorium in anticipation of the other kinds of strange wonders that where about to be unleashed onscreen...

The Pumaman
This is one of my favorite MST3K episodes so I was curious if it'd feel flat without those cow town puppets in the corner. Happily it took flight with the audience with much greater ease than its hapless hero. Whisper thin paleontologist Tony Farms discovers he's the heir to the powers of Italians trying to cash in on Superman with just 10 dollars.

When he puts on a tacky belt he becomes The Pumaman! , clad in Dockers and a long sleeve crew neck t-shirt and endowed with the power of awkwardly flailing in front of aerial footage of London and the power of constantly getting his Puma-Ass handed to him. The belt is given to him by Andean Shaman Vadinho. There's a long, ignoble tradition of movie sidekicks doing all the actual heavy lifting but it reaches new ridiculous extremes here. Vadinho throws all the effective punches and takes down head villain Donald Pleasence when Pumaman finally gets painted into a Puma-Corner.

Sometimes these spaghetti exploiters are graced by a much better than they deserve score from folks like Ennio Morricone or Goblin. Not so here and it's prefect really, if your hero is wearing a poncho from the Juniors department it only behooves him that his soundtrack should sound like someone holding a tape recorder over the sample button on a Casio.

Top Dog
The real surprise entertainer of the night. What looked to be a tepid way too late riff on Turner And Hooch instead held interest by having some of the most schizophrenic tonal shifts ever. Scenes of cops getting shot point blank in the head are next to scenes of the dog waggishly stealing some food off of lead Chuck Norris's table. It's as if Cannon got the rights to the Benji property but decided to fashion it as yet another Death Wish sequel. It might not scale the heights of divine madness like Lone Wolf McQuade but it was quite fun to watch the dynamic non-acting of its cast or how the filmmakers took great pains to not take advantage of any of San Diego's many attractive shooting locations.

Mama Dracula
While the first two features tried to shamelessly ape previous successes to make a quick buck this bizarre wonder obviously had capital A Art on it's Laudanum soaked mind. An engagingly strange, at least until the 90 minute mark, romp that retells the Elizabeth Bathory legend by way of a lost Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey Dracula feature.

Louise Fletcher is in full Frau Blucher accent tending two Tiny Tim vampire sons in a sumptuous country estate and feeding her habit through luring young victims into the clothing boutique she runs on the side. And while all this going on she has a Harold Lloyd reborn as a new wave singer mad scientist on staff trying to invent a perfect synthetic blood so she can quit risking discovery to maintain her eternal youth and beauty.

This would have worked best as a hypnotically weird 20 minute short. As it is it doesn't have the loopy energy to sustain a 2 hour running time and devolves into a showcase of some admittedly splendid Art Nouveau furnishings. Still, I'm glad b-fest unearths films like this and I'd love a director's commentary.

Plan 9 From Outer Space
Ed Wood's masterpiece and one that's become as familiar as an old friend. I'm more interested in seeing what folks have scribbled down on the paper plates that are thrown during the flying saucer footage. You find some real gems, and some real care. One person does nifty ink drawings of beloved cult actors who've left us in the previous year.

Alas I had wanted to stay up for this but I could feel the dread hand of exhaustion clutch itself around my heart and so slept through it only to awaken to the eldritch horrors of...

Manos: The Hands of Fate
The Spiritual Ancestor of The Room in that it falls so outside the conventions of basic narrative storytelling let alone every kind of cinematic convention it almost becomes a brilliant piece of Outsider Art. Another MST3K classic this was a bit harder to endure without the wisecracks as the grainy landscape footage and queasy hopeless pall hanging over the film makes it feel like watching atrocity footage with the actual atrocity bits snipped out. But again, I'd love a director's commentary for this too.

The Manitou
This, THIS, is one of the great ones. An only in the seventies premise with an an only in the seventies cast. Tony Curtis plays a conman psychic running a racket on the rich little old ladies in his San Francisco neighborhood whilst wearing a Doctor Strange robe. His sweet deal is shaken up one day when he receives a call from a former girlfriend. She's asking for a ride to the hospital because it seems there's a fetus growing at an alarming right at the base of her neck. And nobody blinks. The next day the attempted removal goes disastrously wrong and it becomes clear the more Curtis investigates that the fetus is actually a reincarnated Medicine Man from a long extinct tribe desperate to be reborn and reclaim his powers. And nobody blinks.

Can Tony Curtis and Not Really Native American Shaman Michael Ansara stop Misquamacus from ushering in an era of darkness? Will a hidebound by tradition doctor finally accept the unbelievable when a floor of his new hospital is turned into a paper mache ice cave? And and is a topless Susan Strasberg shooting lasers at a space lizard enough to right the cosmic balance? Tune in, turn on, and completely loose your mind and find out. Highly, highly recommended.

Cynthia Rothrock attempting to act put me back to sleep so thankfully I apparently missed the cornucopia of audience rape jokes (stay classy guys!). And I kept napping through I Accuse My Parents to find I'd taken one hell of a wrong left turn at Albuquerque...

Night of the Lepus
Another of the great ones. With another unbelievable cast, this time serving a tale of giant killer bunny rabbits running loose in the Southwest. Yes Giant Killer Bunny Rabbits. And again, nobody blinks. I can tell you about this film, you can even look up clips on YouTube but nothing compares to sitting in a theater and seeing a herd of bunnies charging through a darkened miniature set, and the war drums are pounding on the soundtrack and you know characters are about to get killed and yet you can't stop noticing their wiggly little noses, or their pert little cotton tails, or their long, adorable ears. The producers tried, oh how they tried, but there is no way to make a horrifying Earth's Vengeance Reaper out of something you want to rub on the belly.

American Ninja
American Ninja 2 was one of my personal favorites of 2009's schedule so it was with much enjoyment I watched how the rich legacy began. Not as full on delightfully gonzo as the sequel the first concerns pouty Michael Dudikoff arousing the ire of his bunk mates at basic training by not remembering his past and being better at everything than them. Steve James is not at full Steve Jameson awesomeness yet but he gets his moments, particularly when he and Dudikoff team up to take down the bad guys and their Skittles ninja army.

And while it's not as mad as the second it's still a Cannon film and so takes place in the Cannon universe. A universe where there are more Uzis than cops, and the most surprising people have Uzis, and so long as your shirt is sufficiently ripped and your headband tight you can skirt due process.

This was an unpleasant surprise. I have a copy of this but I'd seen it in pieces. Watched in one sitting it unfolds into a paisley kidney punch of that hideously perfect Anti-Entertainment, The Unfunny Comedy. What felt like a wacky misfire is revealed to be a joyless slog watching Old Hollywood trying to deal with a counterculture that they are baffled by at best or have outright contempt for at worst.

The latter feeling is easy to understand as the hippie characters are as likable as the ones in a Dirty Harry film. But the squares, played by a once in a lifetime lineup of Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, and Burgess Meredith among others, are as embarrassing as your parents trying to ask about that "Tronic" movie and if your FacePlace friends like that Lady Gogo singer.

Still if you ever wanted to see all the villains from the Batman TV series together and tripping balls it's the only game in town. Notable for only achieving a measure of genuine wit at the very end as Harry Nilsson, who composed the film's score, sings the end credits. It's not just relief that the movie is at long last over but the bit actually achieves the breezy, let it all hang out tone that the film has been failing at for the last ninety wretched minutes.

Cool As Ice
I thought about sitting this one out as it played at my first b-fest back in 2003, and I was more than content to go another 8 years without seeing it again. I absolutely hated it this time too but it turned out to be fun to revisit my hatred, nostalgia hatred if you will.

Vanilla Ice does a remarkably good job playing a hateful tool bag whose motorcycle gang gets stranded in a small town leaving plenty of time for Ice to charm the locals and nearly decapitate his love interest with his bike by way of tying to impress her. Michael Gross is on hand to give the required "I've got electric bills like everyone else okay?" performance.

Perversely the film looks great, it has some neat production design and it's beautifully shot by Spielberg's frequent, Academy Award winning collaborator Janusz Kaminski. But the seeping charisma vacuum that is Vanilla spoils any chance of this elbowing its way onto the shelf of terrible musicals I have far too much patience for. A Jager shot of a movie, in that every so often I have one to remind myself I really, really don't like Jager shots.

Mighty Peking Man
I love giant monkey movies. I even love terrible giant monkey movies. Which is fortunate because because outside a few notable examples most are complete rubbish. Expecting the 1976 King Kong to be a hit pretty much every other country with a functioning film industry rushed out a copy. Most were as regrettable as their model but managed to suck in a far more entertaining manner and for far much less money too.

Our mopey hero leads an expedition into the jungle where he discovers that once again Eastern ape suit technology lags far behind the West. He also makes the acquaintance of a manque Sheena who was able to forage a Lancome counter in the unforgiving heart of the jungle. He makes the rather easy to foresee as unfortunate descision to bring both back to civilization. It ends badly for just about everyone save him.

Another example of the evening's odd mini theme of so called heroes causing more trouble than they solve and suffering no consequences for it what so ever. It was a great capstone to the lineup and as the lights came up I felt that traditional pang of sadness that another year had come to an end and I relief that I would soon be able to grab a hot shower to slough the filth of too many caffeine drinks and Vanilla Ice's complicated haircut off me.

Thanks again to the A&O folks, and to everybody who made it. And to those who couldn't here's to 2012 and you were there in spirit. Even when Carol Channing did a striptease for Frankie Avalon. In fact especially then.

(photo taken from jima's flickr stream)


Edward said...

It was a stuffed tiger, I should mention.

Jessica R. said...

It seemed churlish to bring up that part.