B-Fest 2019 Recap

Some people have the Oscars and some people have the Super Bowl. I have B-Fest, a 24-hour festival of B-movies held annually at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. B-Fest is much more of an endurance test than your average Netflix binge; 24 hours is probably longer than you think it is, especially at 5 AM when you’re locked inside a building on an unfamiliar college campus and your only options for entertainment are your phone, the vending machines, and one of the crappier Bob Clark movies. An activity like B-Fest appeals to a very specific type of person, and I’m not sure what that says about those of us who go year after year to throw paper plates at Plan 9 From Outer Space.  I’ve been attending since 2005 and only missed it in 2017 when my son was born, so I’ve committed… gosh, fourteen whole days of my life to this event. I have no regrets.

My friend Sarah picked me up on Friday morning and we got underway around 10:30. About 11:00 we arrived at our friend Jim’s house, and piled into his car to head to Chicago. I’d been vaguely aware that we were expecting some snow over the weekend, but didn’t realize that we’d be receiving the first major snowfall of the winter until Jim and Sarah started talking about it. Word was that it would be pretty heavy during the film festival, and should stop sometime during Saturday afternoon. Nobody was excited for the drive, but we’d already committed to it. We stopped at the Belvedere Oasis for a quick pit stop around 12:15 and arrived at Mitsuwa Marketplace about an hour later.

Mitsuwa Marketplace is a Japanese mini-mall with locations around the United States. We stop there annually on the way to B-Fest to get lunch in the food court and provisions in the supermarket. There we met our friend Tim who lives in the Chicago area (well, generally anyway. I have no idea where Tim actually lives these days) and his family. Tim was to accompany us to the festival. His wife Jessica has joined us in the past, but their two sons are a little young for B-Fest so she stays home with them (possibly to her relief).

Mitsuwa has changed a lot in the decade and a half that I’ve been going. The only real constants have been the grocery store, the food court (but not the establishments in it), and a bookstore; they’ve lost their toy store and the Yuki Discount Store which I used to describe (probably inaccurately) as being similar to a dollar store. You can still get a good meal, though, and buy a variety of Pocky and dried fish. I settled on Katsu Donburri, which is a fried, breaded pork cutlet served over eggs, rice, and onions. This is not a healthful choice, particularly, but it’s filling and tasty and the last guaranteed hot food for at least 24 hours. I’m pretty proficient with chopsticks, but I have a tendency to forget that they’re on offer next to the plastic forks. I realized, when I sat down, that I was the only person at the table without chopsticks, but it was like, a 30-foot walk back to the chopsticks and I was feeling very hungry and lazy, so I just let it go.

At the grocery store I grabbed a few… well, not necessities, really, but I picked up a few items that looked good. Nothing special that I feel like writing up here, but it’s always interesting looking at unfamiliar foods, and familiar ones in unusual packaging. I no longer bring my Mitsuwa purchases into the film festival because it’s mostly junk food, and junk food does not keep me awake.

After Mitsuwa, the drive to Northwestern University’s Norris Center is about 45 minutes. We have an accidental, annual tradition of making at least one wrong turn, but we managed not to do that which made me happy because I desperately needed a restroom. As usual we parked, lugged our stuff into Norris Center, across their food court seating area, and up to the next floor where I managed to use the restroom and then got into the line waiting to be let into the theater. This is probably the right place to voice a little displeasure at the staff of B-Fest 2019.

B-Fest is held annually by A&O Productions, a student organization that books arts and entertainment events on the Northwestern campus. Their website impressively features pictures of Actual, Genuine Celebrities they’ve hosted in the past; people like Laverne Cox and Samantha Bee and Nick Offerman. I can understand why B-Fest might take a back seat to A&O’s other activities, especially if they’re wrangling larger acts and none of the staff are terribly interested in B-movies, but they seem to have dropped the ball repeatedly on setting up this year’s B-Fest. Generally, the call for movie sponsorship goes out in September, a date is finalized sometime in October, and tickets go on sale in December for the event which takes place on the last weekend of January. This year, multiple attempts by my group and others to set up sponsorships were met with radio silence until late November when A&O finally reached out to us. It wasn’t until mid-December that they sent out their first mass-email announcing the festival dates, and tickets went on sale the week before the event, by which time a lot of longtime attendees were unable to request a Friday off work. As far as we can tell, the entire festival was thrown together in about a month, which is not enough time to secure physical movie prints and exhibition rights; online consensus is that the lineup was chosen based on what’s available easily on DVD or streaming services.

My own assessment, based on solely on assumptions, is that B-Fest’s long history makes it an obligatory annual event for A&O, but whether it’s a priority or not varies from year to year. Whoever is in charge this year probably thought they could sleepwalk through putting together a movie party. Individually the staff were all enthusiastic and helpful, but they were disorganized and didn’t seem to be communicating with each other.

Anyway, we were allowed to put our stuff into the theater, and then stood out in the hall for a few minutes until they began collecting tickets and letting us inside. I declined to buy a T-shirt this year because I just have too many T-shirts that I don’t wear (also, I’m not sure this year’s poster made a great shirt (though a negative image of it would have)). As always, the schedule was printed on the back of the poster, which used to be free but in recent years has cost $5. Going through the line I was told by the staff that posters were free, but later on I heard people grousing about having to pay so much just to know the schedule. A&O strikes again.

While we were waiting for the show to begin, we were treated to a visit from Tim Lehnerer (AKA TelstarMan), who makes an annual B-Fest mix CD. This year he ran a GoFundMe campaign, and I kicked in $20 which is just about the least I could do; he makes hundreds of these CDs each year and distributes them for free. I’ve given him $5 for the disc a couple of times, but the donations he receives do not cover his material costs. He’s good at finding ridiculous sport coats and suits to wear to B-Fest, and showed up this year in an insanely tacky lime-green suit which might not be appropriate anywhere else, but somehow lent his presence a certain dignity.

Anyway, eventually the staff spent a couple of moments welcoming us before the first movie. I don’t remember what their speech was; it’s never anything more than (essentially) “welcome to B-Fest, please be courteous, here’s a movie”. The intro has always seemed less grand than it should be, but I really can’t think of a better way to do it; I enjoy B-Fest, but time wasted at the beginning makes the ending drag.

The Food of the Gods (1976)
Directed by Bert I. Gordon and based (according the credits) “on a portion of the novel by H. G Wells”. Interestingly, this is Mr. Gordon’s second adaptation of The Food of the Gods; the first was 1965’s Village of the Giants which is notable for early screen appearances by Ron Howard and Beau Bridges, and for the fact that its theme music, “The Last Race” by Jack Nitzsche, was recycled as the theme to Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. What could compel Mr. Gordon to base two poor adaptations on the same book? Likely it was his fondness for making movies about giants so that he could shoot normal-sized people and animals stomping around miniature sets. People tell me that they used to call him “Bird-Eye Gordon” or “Mister B.I.G.”, which sounds believable but Wikipedia says “citation needed” about the former, and I can’t find a single reference to the latter online.

Anyway, The Food of the Gods is one of a handful of “eco horror” movies to have come out of the 70s, in which animals—usually unnatural in size, number, or both—menace the populace of an isolation locale (see Day of the Animals, Piranha, Squirm, Frogs, Jaws, Grizzly, etc.). In this case it’s rats and wasps who grow to an enormous size after feeding on a mysterious substance that bubbles up from the ground. They terrorize a small group of people including Ida Lupino who was far too good for this movie and should have been enjoying a nice retirement. On the other hand, maybe she was enjoying slumming it in B pictures; this was a year after she won a Saturn award for playing William Shatner’s mom in The Devil’s Rain in which Ernest Borgnine plays a satanic priest and dons heavy demon prosthetics for several minutes of screentime. The Devil’s Rain is more fun than The Food of the Gods, but I’m not sure I’d sit through it again voluntarily.

“What’s so offensive about Food of the Gods,” you ask? I’ll put it this way: the characters in the movie spend a lot of time shooting giant rats, and you see the impact of a lot of those bullets. This was at least twenty years before Hollywood could do such a thing convincingly with CGI, so a lot of us spent a lot of time feeling bad about the rats and angry with those behind the camera.

The Hypnotic Eye (1960)
If you’ve seen The Mask (1961) and either version of The Wizard of Gore, then you’ve basically seen a better version of everything this movie has to offer.

What’s that? You haven’t seen any of those? Oh, all right. In the opening moments of The Hypnotic Eye, a woman attempts to wash her hair using her stove and sets her head on fire. She’s not the only one—attractive women all over the city have been disfiguring themselves after attending performances by Desmond, a hypnotist with a French accent. A detective teams up with a doctor to uncover the horrible truth, which is that Desmond is being controlled by his assistant, the beautiful Justine. Not to ruin the last two minutes of the movie for you, but Justine’s face turns out to be a mask which covers her own disfigurement, and her plan is to make everybody else as ugly as she is, one audience volunteer at a time.

The Hypnotic Eye was nothing special, but it’s notable for the fact that the poster makes a big deal of “Hypnomagic”, which sounds like a photographic process but refers instead to five minutes in the middle of the film where Desmond “hypnotizes” you by addressing instructions directly to the camera. Really, it’s just a handful of muscle memory tricks like the one where your arms want to move upward on their own after you’ve spent several second pressing them against a door frame. Also notable for the fact that the police investigation mostly consisted of the questions “Have you ever been hypnotized?” and “Does the name Justine mean anything to you?”, which caused us to shout those words at the screen for the rest of B-Fest.

Get Crazy (1983)
Of all the selections this year, Get Crazy might be the movie I most want to revisit. It’s a musical screwball comedy in which a young Daniel Stern plays an overwhelmed stage manager who has to wrangle the antics of several unruly stage acts while a slimy Ed Begley Jr. tries to seize the property. There’s a bomb scare, a possibly-supernatural drug dealer, and Malcolm McDowell—in the Mick Jagger-esque role of Reggie Wanker—has a frank conversation with his penis which talks back. Mostly notable for its ridiculous cast, which includes Lee Ving as (more or less) himself, Lou Reed as an over-pretentious and undertalented Bob Dylan figure and burned-out flowerchild Howard Kaylan of the Mothers as Howard Kaylan of the Turtles (some of my jokes have a very limited audience, but I assure you that this is a joke that makes sense).

To students of late 20th-century pop culture, it’s easy to trace the transition of the Baby Boomers from Hippies to Yuppies. By the time the early ’80s rolled around, the first wave of nostalgia for the late ’60s was in full swing as evidenced by the fact that Get Crazy’s credits end with the words “Thanks for the memories to the entire staff of the Fillmore East 1968–71.” The Fillmore East was a popular rock venue in the Lower East Side of New York, and must have been the inspiration for Get Crazy’s Saturn Theater. Once you’ve seen a few of these movies (200 Motels, Alice in Acidland, Gas-s-s-s, etc.), it’s obvious that Get Crazy was intended for the sort of people who frequented that environment. It seemed tighter, better written, and better (read: more soberly) executed than most of those movies which is a selling point because unlike those, it can be enjoyed and understood without chemical assistance.

That doesn’t mean that it was intended to be consumed sober, though, and it’s impossible for me to discuss Get Crazy without focusing on the aforementioned possibly-supernatural drug dealer. A few times over the course of the film, a dark figure shows up and opens a briefcase full of drugs which are incorporated into some kind of special effect (the cocaine, in particular, got a nice stop-motion sequence). The drug dealer is a striking image: he (or she or it) is slender, dressed in form-fitting cowboy duds, and lit from the back so that all we see is a silhouette with piercing, red eyes. Somebody from the group who sponsored the film came out at one point in a beautiful, screen-perfect imitation of the costume with red LED eyes and began distributing… Well, I’m not sure what, really, because I was too far away from the aisle. From my vantage point, it looked like mini-glowsticks, but I didn’t see any glowsticks later on. Somebody else told me the cowboy was passing out “fun-size Snickers bars and stuff”, but could not tell me what “and stuff” was. Anyway, it was a high point in one of the more enjoyable movies of the festival.

The Creeping Terror (1964)
And here we have our first real bomb of B-Fest 2019. Reduced to a sentence or two, The Creeping Terror is about a slug-like monster from space who roams the countryside devouring everyone it encounters until somebody blows it up with a grenade. At the end of the movie, the scientist who’s been tagging along with the rest of the cast observes that the craft has sent a transmission back to its home planet which is millions of light years away. Luckily, it takes such a long time to cross such a distance that none of these people will be around for the sequel.

That plot is pretty standard B-monster movie fare, and like a lot of those movies it’s full of questionable decisions on both sides of the camera. People keep crawling under the spacecraft to get inside (not a good idea unless you want to get eaten), and the monster is obviously made out of fabric; it’s not several blankets stitched together, but that’s what it looked like. I’m of two minds about movies like The Creeping Terror. On one hand, a 74-minute movie of this type is easily digested on its own or part of a double feature, and I’d happily sit through it on a weeknight with a bowl of popcorn. B-Fest is different though; scheduled early in the Fest it feels like a speed bump on the way to weirder, more engaging fare. Scheduled later, I’d be annoyed that I wasn’t sleeping through it. There are plenty of good movies of this kind, but The Creeping Terror was just sort of a waste of time.

The people behind me really hated The Creeping Terror, and at some point I turned around and said, “hey, come on, be respectful. These people obviously spent most of a Saturday on this.” I think they thought I was seriously offended.

The Wizard of Speed and Time (1979)
This was listed on the schedule as the feature-length The Wizard of Speed and Time from 1989, but based on the placement in the schedule it was clear beforehand that this was not the case. So, as usual, we were treated to the original, stop motion short from 1979. It’s the most exuberant five minutes ever committed to celluloid, but I don’t have much else to say about The Wizard of Speed and Time that I haven’t said a thousand times elsewhere.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that tradition dictates that The Wizard of Speed and Time be shown normally, then “upside down and backwards”. When it was projected from film, that meant that they’d show it through once, and then project the film while it was rewinding. The film has deteriorated, though, so they’ve been projecting a digital copy from a DVD for the last couple of years. Unfortunately, whoever put the DVD together misread “upside down and backwards” as “upside down, then backwards”. This year we sat through four projections of The Wizard of Speed and Time:

  • All the way through normally
  • All the way through upside down
  • All the way through backwards
  • All the way through normally again for some reason

It probably took twenty minutes to put the DVD together, most of which would have been rendering backwards and upside down copies, and then burning the disc. They need to spend another eleven minutes making a corrected version.

Plan 9 From Outer Space
Plan 9 From Outer Space is officially the Worst Movie Ever Made. That’s nonsense, but it is easier to sit through than the whatever the real Worst Movie Ever is. Plan 9 is good for everybody at B-Fest because newbies can have a good time shouting at the screen and throwing paper plates into the air whenever the flying saucers show up, while veterans like me can take a break if necessary, since we’ve seen it so many times. Not that there’s never anything new; every once in awhile somebody shouts a funny observation or finds a new way to interact with the picture.

Traditionally Plan 9 is projected from an annually-worsening film, but this year we were treated to a BluRay with subtitles. There was some grumbling about the subtitles but I had no problem with it; it’s still Plan 9, and at least the sharp picture won’t give anybody a headache. There was also some grumbling about the usual audience back-and-forth which was less spirited than usual, but I didn’t observe that myself, I only heard about it after the fact. Still, we can’t let traditions die, so I guess I’m going to have to pick a side next year for the ongoing argument as to whether the deck chairs are wicker or rattan.

Most of the paper plates wind up in the center of the theater. They fall sparsely around the edges, and I like to sit next to the wall, which means I don’t catch many. Here’s what I got this year:

….all in all a pretty poor catch. I miss amassing amusing plates, so I might try to grab more next year; they mostly end up recycled anyway. Some people like to write the year on the plate and recycle it next year, and in that spirit I’ve written “B-Fest Catch and Release Program 2019” on the back of each of these. The one that says “Belle O’ Da Ball” is dated 2009 on the back. Also: the QR code plate looks like my handwriting, and the joke is definitely written in my style, but I promise it’s the work of somebody else. I stopped bringing my own plates a few years ago, but before that happened my friends would always confront me with obscene plates that looked like I’d written them (but I hadn’t). One of these had a phone number on it, but I could never decipher a couple of the digits (and I was probably afraid to call it anyway).

I think I might bring my own plates again next year.

Truth or Dare: A Critical Madness (1986)
The aforementioned Tim Lehnerer sponsored this one and introduced it from the stage saying that he’d seen it at the tender age of eleven or twelve at which time he did not realize that the 18-year-old writer/director had no particular understanding of how police investigations or marriages work. So.

Truth or Dare is the story of Mike Strauber, a businessman who arrives home one afternoon to discover his wife in mid-coitus with his best friend. Incoherent with anger and sadness, Mike picks up a hitchhiker and goes to a campsite where they play truth or dare. Mike chooses “dare” and has to cut off a finger and pull out his eye. Around this time a park ranger shows up, the hitchhiker turns out to be imaginary, and Mike ends up in a mental hospital. A year later budget cuts and overcrowding cause Mike to be released, so he murders his best friend and ends up back in the mental hospital. They keep letting him out and readmitting him after he commits acts of violence, and eventually he goes on a murder spree while wearing a mask that makes him look like a potato. Eventually the police catch up with him and send him back to the mental hospital, but not before setting fire to a shed and killing an innocent homeless man who they think is Mike. Presumably he’d have gotten out again to continue killing a few months later, but the movie has already hit 90 minutes so they just wrap things up by rolling the credits.

Wikipedia says this was made for the direct-to-video market, which is no surprise; in its early days the home video market saw a glut of amateur productions that literally cost less than the equipment used to make them (seriously; consider Cannibal Campout or Black Devil Doll from Hell). Somebody behind the camera knew what they were doing because the camera work is surprisingly pretty good, but in general I’m surprised that they got actual adults—people old enough to have standards—to appear in this film.

It’s worth pointing out that every few tracks on the B-Fest 2015 CD, the same eight-note music cue repeats itself a few times. I had just made a mental note to track Tim down and ask what it was when suddenly it started playing in the movie. Truth or Dare’s soundtrack is neither remarkable or laughable, except for the fact that this plays every time Mike gets into a car:

It was somewhat improved by Tim Lehnerer slowly bopping his way across the stage using a paper plate as a steering wheel, but I’m afraid that performance is unlikely to be repeated in my future.

The Great Crash of 2019
I had hoped to last longer, but it was almost 3:00 AM and I was on the verge of passing out so I opted to sleep through Showgirls (1995) and Street Fighter (1994), both of which I’d like to revisit on my own soon. B-Fest often includes more adult fare during the small hours of Saturday morning, but Showgirls is a much harder NC-17 than we’re used to, and at 131 minutes, it’s unusually long; like The Creeping Terror, it might be good for Bad Movie Night at home but is probably not a choice for B-Fest. I don’t think I’ve seen Street Fighter, but in my experience it’s worth watching anything that features Raoul Julia.

Last year I discovered that there’s a practical paradise on the next floor of Norris Center—clean bathrooms, spacious couches, and barely anybody else—but this year the door was locked. I found a nearby couch and slept, waking only occasionally when B-Fest staff went in or out of the locked area. Hopefully last year wasn’t a fluke.

By sheer coincidence I returned to the theater just before the next movie while the lights were still up.

The Manster (1959)
I actually quite enjoyed The Manster which largely falls into the same general classification as The Creeping Terror but had the advantage of being scheduled at 7:10 AM which means that most people were either fast asleep or easing back into things like I was.

The Manster is sort of a rehash of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: an American journalist named Stanford has spent a large chunk of his career in Japan, somewhat to the consternation of his wife who is somewhere in the United States. He’s about to head home when he gets an assignment to interview the famously brilliant (but reclusive) Dr. Suzuki who lives on top of a volcano with various genetic experiments that nobody knows about. The two of them get along famously, and Suzuki introduces Stanford to the pleasures of Japanese women, alcohol, women, massage, women, mineral baths and women. He also surreptitiously exposes Stanford to a drug he’s been working on, and Stanford begins experiencing a pain in his shoulder. His wife arrives to work out their marital difficulties, and his drunken carousing blossoms into full on acts of violence. One day he takes off his shirt to discover a new eye set into his shoulder, and eventually the eye becomes a second head which splits off into a new humanoid creature and throws a couple of people into the volcano before Stanford pushes it over the edge. The movie ends with everybody shaking their heads and tut-tutting about whether or not Stanford is responsible for the whole thing.

Look, I watched this thing after slightly less than four hours of sleep, okay? I barely remember the sequence of events, but in the moment I had no trouble following the movie, and it was a good wake-up film.

Howard the Duck (1986)
When I was a kid, we had a VHS copy of Howard the Duck which went unwatched for nearly a decade before the extraction of my wisdom teeth. In the hazy, anesthetized aftermath, I decided that I needed to go home and watch Howard the Duck and eat a bowl of tomato soup. It’s a chore to eat soup if you can’t close your mouth, and Howard the Duck is not a good film. I did enjoy it though, this second time around.

It’s another iteration of that tired old story where a duck from space sleeps with Lea Thompson and tangles with an alien inside the body of Jeffrey Jones. It was also famously produced by George Lucas. I probably have a good George Lucas rant in me somewhere, but I think it boils down to this: My childhood was Star Wars-adjacent, meaning that Star Wars was ubiquitous and my opinion was generally positive, but I wasn’t an enormous fan. Star Wars became inescapable during the release of the prequel trilogy, and I rebelled against George Lucas and all the properties associated with him, but it’s been almost 14 years since Revenge of the Sith, and I am wiser and more able to view Star Wars in a wider cultural context. The failure of George Lucas’s bad films is exaggerated by the magnitude of the good ones, and even the worst are enjoyable because he knows how to pace a blockbuster popcorn movie.

Granted, watching a movie requires you to give it the benefit of the doubt, and that’s not easy with Howard the Duck because none of the main characters is especially likable. Still, its easy enough to go along with the plot and root for the good guys in their effort to determine how Howard was transported from his planet to ours, and how he might be sent back. Most writers could generate enough conflict within that premise to sustain a movie (they’d throw in, I dunno, maybe a street gang to menace the Lea Thompson, and they’d have made Tim Robbin’s character into an evil biologist), but this one ups the ante with a possible invasion by the Dark Overlords of the Universe. The D.O.o.t.U. are formidable enough for our heroes, but I get the feeling that the National Guard could dispatch them pretty quickly.

My biggest problem with Howard the Duck, though, is the one everyone points out: who on earth was the movie for? Howard might appeal to kids, but he reads PlayDuck magazine, his wallet is stocked with a condom (which, after the internet’s obsession with duck reproduction a few years back seems charmingly naive), and Jeffrey Jones’ transformation as the D.O.o.t.U. takes over his body is unsettling as hell. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that adults—even Star Wars fans—were excited to buy a ticket to a talking duck movie.

Anyway, my group sponsored Howard the Duck, and I think most of us—along with most of the theater—have mixed feelings about that. All I can say is that we provided a list of the films we’d be willing to sponsor, and the organizers picked this one. So, to those who enjoyed it, you’re welcome! And to those who didn’t, I’m still pushing for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls!

Breakfast is BBC One’s morning news program, but that’s unrelated to anything. As usual, they put a breakfast break on the schedule, which is a good idea but I think I just stood around in the theater waiting for the next movie.

Nothing But Trouble (1991)
This is the movie I was waiting for, and I feel like I need to explain that. I’d never seen Nothing But Trouble before, but it’s a movie that often shows up in budget DVD bins. It has an impressive cast (Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Demi Moore, John Candy, Digital Underground…) so if you weren’t previously aware of it you might wonder how it passed you by. I must have seen trailers for Nothing But Trouble when it came out, but I was ten years old and I don’t recall it. In recent years I’ve heard more and more about it, and I had come to understand that it was basically Dan Aykroyd’s attempt at making The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a comedy, and that it failed because audiences found the all-star cast misleading and bought tickets expecting a mainstream comedy. Also because it’s disgusting and/or disturbing.

Just as I have made peace with George Lucas, I have changed my mind about Dan Aykroyd. He’s full of ideas and some of them (namely Ghostbusters and The Blues Brothers) have become classic movies, but he does his best work when he’s being reined in by producers. Unleashed, he makes stuff like Nothing But Trouble and Doctor Detroit which, in contrast to Howard the Duck, are aggressively distasteful.

So, Nothing But Trouble follows a bunch of yuppies into rural New England where they get arrested for a minor traffic violation. They become the guests of the local judge who plans (as far as I can tell) to turn them into sausages. In the meantime, the characters are tortured and introduced to a variety of mostly unpleasant characters including John Candy as the sheriff, John Candy in drag as the sheriff’s sister, the judge’s severely deformed adult grandchildren, etc. etc. I’m sure I’m not making it sound good, but I don’t think I’m conveying the authentic ugliness of this movie, nor do I want to. It doesn’t help that Chevy Chase—the character we’re most supposed to identify with—is an abrasive jerk through the whole thing. I don’t know that I want to see him brutally murdered and turned into sausage, but it’s hard to feel anything but schadenfreude for his character.

After all of that, I do see the intended appeal of Nothing But Trouble, and I sort enjoyed it in some perverse way. I’d like to revisit it sometime, but I might not feel that way if I hadn’t been thoroughly prepared for it and knew what I was getting into.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
I hadn’t really thought about it until writing this, but the Saturday morning block of B-Fest 2019 is maybe the closest we’ve been to replicating the feel of B-Fest 2006, a year during which everybody felt pretty disappointed with the lineup as a whole. There are so many good, forgotten, low-budget movies that there’s no real reason to show movies that are famously bad, and Showgirls through The Island of Dr. Moreau are all high profile flops that everyone’s seen. I remember that my dad took my sister and me to see The Island of Dr. Moreau back when it first came out. My parents were big on taking the family to see adaptations of classic literature, which sounds like a good philosophy toward movie-going until you consider that this movie and the previous year’s oversexed Demi Moore/Gary Oldman version of The Scarlet Letter are pretty representative of literary adaptations. I don’t remember being terribly impressed or offended by this one at the time.

That opinion more or less holds. I’ve voluntarily sat through worse (only minutes before, in fact), but I didn’t get bored with it, which is important at B-Fest. In 2010, an Italian Star Wars knock-off called War of the Robots played at 2:40 PM and broke me through boredom. Every fifteen minutes or so I glanced at my watch only to discover that it had only been five minutes—if that. The Island of Dr. Moreau, for all its faults, may not have been intensely engaging, but it never got so boring that I found myself thinking wishing it were over.

I’m a little embarrassed to say that I’ve never read the novel; it’s embarrassing because it’s the kind of thing I like. My assumption is that the movie resembles it in the same way that a potato resembles an apple, but it’s still fun: David Thewlis gets rescued in the middle of the ocean by Val Kilmer, assistant to Marlon Brando’s Dr. Moreau who is performing genetic experiments to perfect a race of human/animal hybrids. Moreau’s work depends on the administration of drugs to repress the animal instincts of his “children”, and when the drugs fail, their whole system crashes hard.

This is an accurate description, but fails to mention that Marlon Brando, at this point, had become a self-important parody of himself, and his portray of Dr. Moreau is absolutely nuts. There’s a truly amazing documentary called Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau about the making of the film which details the trajectory from artistically promising concept to barely-coherent mess. I’ve just spent several minutes thinking about how I might briefly to describe it, and the best I’ve got is to say that the first time I watched the documentary, my wife was on her way through the living room toward the kitchen when the original director, Richard Stanley, said “knowing that the odds were stacked against me, I resorted to witchcraft.” And she had to sit down. If that doesn’t spark your interest, consider this quote from the director John Frankenheimer: “If I was directing a film called The Life of Val Kilmer, I wouldn’t have that prick in it!”

Anyway, The Island of Dr. Moreau is better than its reputation, but your time would be better spent watching Lost Soul instead.

…is the title of a 2012 documentary about comedy writers, but we didn’t watch it. During the lunchbreak I had a short video chat with my wife and son, and I got another cup of coffee from the Starbucks on campus. I bought three drinks from them over the course of the weekend and they never once asked for my name. That’s fine when business is slow, but during the lunchbreak I ended up in an argument with the guy who paid after me about whose latte was up first. I was just about to concede that he could have it when somebody else who had just finished paying waltzed up and grabbed the drink we were arguing about. He left to fight with her, and I took his drink when it came up. Presumably he eventually came back and got hers.

Surprisingly there is no movie called Raffle. There are multiple films called The Raffle or Raffles, but no singular Raffle without the definite article.

The raffle for door prizes is a big part of every B-Fest, and usually an annoyance because I’ve donated at least a couple of dozen DVDs over the years, but I never win anything. Or rather, that was true until 2016 when I won a small stack of DVDs that I never bothered watching and re-donated in 2018.

This year somebody won a copy of Criswell Predicts Your Future from Now to the Year 2000!, and it occurred to me that I’ve always wanted a copy of that book. I pulled out my phone, located and purchased one, and was just finishing the transaction when they called my ticket number. I won Mitch O’Connell’s President Trump “Tijuana Bible”, the novelization of Cutthroat Island, a couple of BluRays that I can’t watch because I refuse to invest in a new physical media format, the R-rated cut of Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge (the original of which is actual pornography), and Criswell’s Forbidden Predictions which I had never even heard of. Not bad!

We brought along a copy of the Howard the Duck soundtrack on LP and the people running the raffle were instructed to get a photo of the winner holding it, but of course they didn’t because they don’t seem to have communicated with each other; the aforementioned Mr. Lehnerer donated complete sets of his B-Fest mixes which were supposed to be awarded as sets, but the staff tried to split them up.

I do wish they’d run the raffle much earlier in the festival. For my first few years the raffle was scheduled before The Wizard of Speed and Time. People donate so many items that it makes sense to run it later when the staff have had some time to go through that stuff and separate it into prize packages (always multiple items because there are just too many to give them away individually), but people start going home after Plan 9 and spending more time outside of the theater as the movies drag on. If they run the raffle early, it’s a relatively short event. If they run it on Saturday, they spend a lot of time drawing tickets that belong to people who have left the theater.

Lisztomania (1975)
I was surprised to see Lisztomania on the bill for B-Fest, especially mid-afternoon on Saturday. I’ve considered that it might be a good B-Fest movie, but never recommended it because it’s long and because it’s really, really dirty.

Lisztomania is a “biopic” about the life of the composer Franz Liszt, who you know as the guy who wrote Chopsticks and the piano duel that ducks Donald and Daffy are playing in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The word biopic gets quotes because I have a twinge of doubt regarding the film’s historical veracity as it follows Franz Liszt’s various difficulties with various women, and with the vampire (!) Richard Wagner who plans to rid the country of Jews. The Who’s Roger Daltrey plays Liszt, Ringo Starr plays the Pope, and at the climax of the movie Rick Wakeman, as a Frankenstein-Hitler, stomps through the streets of wielding a guitar that sprays bullets.

It’s a very weird movie, and I have not even touched on the pervasive prevalence of penises all over the set design. None of this is surprising if you know the work of director Ken Russell, who made Lisztomania immediately after The Who’s Tommy which I still have not seen. Ebert loved Lisztomania. I have no idea how the average B-Fest attendee felt about it, but I bet it woke people up.

Army of Darkness (1992)
Finally, the end of B-Fest 2019. Initially a lot of us were disappointed to see Army of Darkness on the schedule because everybody’s seen it and it’s too well-known to be an appropriate selection here, but I’ve changed my mind. Traditionally, the final movie of B-Fest is an annoyance to be endured while I’m waiting to leave, but as it turns out it helps if it’s a movie that I’ve seen before and already like because I don’t need to spend any extra brainpower interpreting it; I was able to tune in and out as appropriate.

And it’s just plain fun! I don’t know that we get a lot of Bruce Campbell movies at B-Fest, which is surprising because his default setting of “Cocky Action Hero” fits perfectly into the type of movies we watch. The first two Evil Dead movies are pretty brutal; they’re bloody and violent cabin-on-the-woods zombie movies that necessarily included few moments of levity to keep the action moving. Army of Darkness takes the action back to the middle ages and swaps out most of the zombies for more interesting monsters. Judging by the first two thirds of the trilogy, this could have been more of the same: darkly comic, but mostly brooding and oppressive. Luckily, the humor here is broad and the horror is not very serious and like any good popcorn action movie it contains a lot of good climaxes; the cinematic equivalent to watching your team score a touchdown.

It’s dumb, but it’s gloriously and self-consciously dumb, and they kept the feeling going by running the theatrical ending rather than the original one. For those unaware, Army of Darkness originally ended with Ash overshooting his return to the present by a hundred years; he awakens in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and the movie ends as he despairs that he’s slept too long. It’s appropriate to the character and to the series, but it tested badly and was replaced with a much happier ending in which Ash returns to his department store job, survives another zombie attack, and Gets the Girl. I didn’t say it was brilliant, I only said it was fun, and it was a good way to end B-Fest.

Anyway, after the final film the lights came up and we collected our belongings and cleaned up the trash we’d dumped on the floor. There are always a few people who leave a mess behind, but thankfully the only thing left in the seats behind mine was a couple of candy bars. Back In The Day they used to encourage cleanup by bringing up the lights between the last two movies, and that’s a tradition I’d like to bring back, but I don’t miss it as much as, say, running the raffle before the audience starts getting smaller.

The walk back to the car is my least favorite part of B-Fest. Recently it’s been more temperate, but no such luck this year; the temperature had dropped significantly below freezing. Luckily (for us, not for anybody else), it had also been windy to the point that we didn’t even have to dig the car out of the snow. We said our goodbyes, and headed out for supper.

We ate at Omega Restaurant, where we’ve generally had good luck in the past, but I wasn’t too keen my sandwich. Doesn’t matter terribly; it was hot food. Afterward we checked into the Motel 6 in Glenview.

It had been my job to choose the hotel, and I settled on Motel 6 on the grounds that we’d stayed there before without incident, and it was literally half the price of the next cheapest option. A more expensive place is fine when there are six of us to pay the bill, but since our numbers were down and we only needed beds and bathrooms I reasoned that barebones accommodations would be all right. Unfortunately, a problem with the first room relocated us to a louder one much further down the hall. These are the issues you face when you stay in a Motel 6. I have no regrets, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the group explicitly votes against Motel 6 in the future.

The night was largely uneventful. I showered and slept for about nine hours. On Sunday morning I noticed blood in the sink and realized that my hand was bleeding from a blister that had popped. Coming out of the bathroom, I saw that it had happened during the night I’d bled all over the pillowcase and sheets, which is not a problem for me, but was probably worrisome for the housekeeper. I feel awkward about it.

We’d considered returning to Omega for breakfast but settled instead on Elly’s Restaurant which is immediately across the street from the motel. I took a chance on an omelette which I didn’t much like, but I knew that was a possibility and I have no one to blame but myself. We’ve been there before (probably the last time we spent the night at the Motel 6) and the food is good, but there are times when you should take a risk and times when you should trust your instincts, and I think restaurants for me are the latter.

Regardless, it was an uneventful and pleasant morning. We chatted at the restaurant about movies and podcasts and books, and then we got back on the interstate and drove back to Wisconsin, stopping briefly at the Belvedere Oasis. We actually got home quite a bit earlier than usual—no complaints—and the post-blizzard driving was great until we got off the interstate. Again, the wind had kept Sarah’s car largely free of snow, so it wasn’t long before we got on the road back to Madison. At home, I spent the afternoon with my son who had just gotten up from a nap before I arrived home. Amazingly, I always want to watch more B-movies when I get home from B-Fest, so I put on Shock Treatment, and watched it in small increments over the next several days because little kids are not actually that interested in cheesy rock musicals.

Dollar Store Halloween Roundup

Ah, the Dollar Store: that magical place where off-brand Cheetos are densely packed into bags three times larger than any reasonable person could ever consume, and name-brand shampoo costs more per ounce than at the grocery store. It’s a place where injection-molded plastic reigns supreme. They have three brands of crayons in Crayola-lookalike packaging that leave a colorless indentation when you drag them across the page, and the entire back wall contains an array of sketchy-looking drain and oven cleaners that are only a thin layer of non-recyclable plastic away from turning the place into a Superfund site. You can get cases for the latest smartphones from Huatomi and Nokiba, screen protectors that only fit an ePad, and a neoprene “tech sleeve” that’s exactly the wrong size for anything you own. If you’re lucky, you might stumble onto a zen garden pen, which is a pen topped by a plastic globe full of sand and pebbles just waiting to be stepped on and ground into your carpet, and if you’re really lucky the ink in the pen will still be wet.

In short, when you patronize the Dollar Store, the Dollar Store patronizes you.

But I do like their Halloween merchandise.

I like their Halloween merchandise because it’s exactly the sort of thing I coveted when I was a little kid. The local, independently-owned office supply store always had wax lips and vampire fangs for sale around Halloween, and they sold the stuff for considerably more than a dollar which meant that four-to-seven-year-old me couldn’t afford any of it. I recall saving my allowance for weeks, only to be told on November first that the googly eye glasses had gone into storage earlier an hour ago, and it was too much hassle to retrieve a pair from the basement—in spite of my willingness to pay the significant markup. Now that I’m an adult, I can afford many dollar’s worth of vampire fangs, which means I could roll in this stuff like Scrooge McDuck if I wanted to (I don’t). And the crazy thing about all of this is that the value of a dollar has more than halved since then, and the quality of these things has only gone up; when you adjust for inflation, I could purchase nine pairs of googly eye glasses at a modern Dollar Store for what the office supply store was asking.

So I did. Well, not googly eye glasses—those things are available year-round now. But I did make buy plenty of other fine pieces of spooky crap:


Vampire Teeth.  

You kids today have no idea how good you have it.  Back In My Day, your dollar only covered the cost of one set of vampire teeth, and they didn’t even glow in the dark.  Now you can get a dozen for a buck, and the only downside is that they’re too small to fit an adult mouth.  Back when I was in my early 20s, someone told me seriously that vampire teeth are a good way to pick up girls at goth clubs.  Whaddaya think, ladies?



Party Favors.  

That’s not a general category of items; that’s what these things are actually called: Party Favors.  Just take a moment to consider the mindset of a parent who, confronted with several dozen ideas for party favors, decides to go with this one. Next, take a moment to think about the sort of child who would be happy to receive this toy. That second scenario is a trick; the only possible reaction to this thing is indifference.

The lady running the checkout thought they should go on the bridge of your nose like a pair of glasses, but I assume they’re intended for your finger, which is exactly the rating I give them: 🖕 out of 🖐.


Blood Energy Potion IV Bags.  

Okay, this is cheating.  They sell these things as an alternative way to hold your Halloween beverages, but they’re really the re-purposed packaging from either an energy drink or liquid candy, depending on whose description you’re reading.  Why are they selling these things empty?  And how on earth do you fill them?  A regular kitchen funnel is slightly too big.  A Google search indicates that this is a real product whose website indicates that it has “similar nutritional makeup to real blood”, along with a small-print disclaimer at the bottom explaining that the FDA has not evaluated such statements.


Sticky Eyeballs. 

Quick, how many uses can you think of for a pack of eight sticky, glow-in-the-dark eyes?  If you’re the type of person who asks such questions before making a purchase, then these aren’t for you.  They have a texture similar to gummy bears but you probably shouldn’t eat ’em, and they’re reminiscent of the wall-walking octopus toys  you used to get at the bottom of a box of cereal, but they don’t so much walk down the wall as splat against it, and then drop anticlimactically to the floor.  Also, every pack in the store had at least one eye with a malformed pupil.  I’m not saying they’d be worth the dollar if they were shot through with red veins, but it would be an improvement.


Sticky Spider Webs.


A middle-aged, mousy-looking man in a conservative suit and wire-rimmed spectacles is addressing his remarks to someone offscreen.

–whoopee cushions, and other flatulence-simulators. We’ve also seen strong growth in itching powder and a 33% year-over-year increase in the sale of smoke bombs…

TRACKING DOWN the LENGTH OF the board room table. Executives line either side. We are APPROACHING the man at the far end of the table, to whom the report is being directed. He is in late middle-age, and wears expensive, conservative dress. His attention smilingly fixed on the Executive who drones on, as he winds a set of plastic chattering teeth. This is WINCHESTER ACME III.

X-ray specs? Don’t talk to me about x-ray specs. We’re making so much money on x-ray specs it isn’t even funny. Now for the bad news: sticky hand toy sales are down.

TRACK ENDS IN A CLOSEUP of ACME whose smile abruptly vanishes as he stops winding the teeth. There is an audibly sharp intake of breath from the other board members, and it is suddenly very quiet.

Previously they’ve given us a big third quarter boost during the Halloween season, but this year the competition has been bringing out holiday themed shapes: hearts on Valentine’s Day, shamrocks for St. Paddy’s… They’re releasing Halloween bats on September first; the hands just haven’t been moving.

Bats, eh?

B-bats, sir. Yes.

Let’s do spiderwebs. Less surface area, so they’ll be cheaper to produce.

This draws appreciative remarks and nods of assent from the other board members. ACME places the teeth on the table, and they begin chattering vigorously.

Masterful stroke, sir. Spiderwebs.

Self-Inflating Balloons.  

These are small, Mylar bags which contain slightly larger Mylar bags which contain… well, as far as I can tell it’s a little baking soda and a third, smaller bag diluted vinegar.  You’re supposed to slap the bag, thereby releasing the vinegar, and the reaction with the baking soda causes the largest bag to inflate, which you’ve already figured out by now meaning that I could have ended this sentence after the first comma.  The outer bag pops violently open revealing a puffy, not-entirely-inflated balloon version of the same picture.  I can’t decide whether these are neat or not.


Sexy, Glow-in-the-Dark Pinup Skeleton.  

Actually, none of those words appears on the packaging; it just says “MADE IN CHINA”.  Poor guy was sitting on the shelf in pieces when I picked him up.  Or her; it’s hard to say because I’m not a forensic expert, and because whoever designed this thing wasn’t too concerned with detail.  Anyway, (to the tune of “Dem Dry Bones”:) the leg bone’s connected to the… hip bone.  The arm bone’s connected to the… torso bone.  You repeat the same process on the… other side and suddenly you have a skeleton which can be posed into all kinds of compromising positions.  Be thankful I only bought one.



Ah, the onward march of technology!  Back in the ’80s slime came in much bigger tubs, and you got a lot more of it.  Presumably the reason these are so small is that technology (or oozology, if you like) has improved to allow slime to be dispensed in less fun quantities, and the wicked awesome packaging of the past has gone the way of car fins and gull-wing doors.  Also, this stuff holds its shape surprisingly well, which is a selling point and definitely not the result of being last year’s stock which has been sitting in the back room for eleven months.


Fabulous Glitter Skull with Glowing Eyes. 

This thing only warrants a mention because while I was trying to decide whether or not to buy Frankenstein pencil toppers, a middle-aged woman popped up from the other side of the aisle and shouted “BOOGA BOOGA” as she thrust this thing into her husband’s face.  The husband ejaculated a loud stream of profanity and blasphemy which will not be reproduced here.  Another woman browsing with her young daughter said, “we’re in public.  This is… How old are you?  Who acts like that in public? In front of my [expletive] daughter?”  The middle-aged couple quickly retreated to a different part of the store where the man picked up a couple of toothbrushes and pretended they were antennas or rabbit years or something while the other woman looked at me as if you say, “why didn’t you do something?”

Oh, but what was my point?  I didn’t buy the pencil toppers after all.  I did buy this thing, and it’s neat that the jaw opens and closes, but it also sheds glitter like a stripper so I can’t recommend it.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark or How to Eat Boiled Toe

I think I can speak for most Americans my age when I say that Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books were the most frightening thing ever.  Bar none.  Absolutely, scalp-prickling, teeth-chattering, pants-wettingly terrifying.

Actually, it wasn’t the stories.  It was those damned illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  Mr. Gammell has been a prolific illustrator of all sorts of children’s books since the early ’70s, but his style is so unique and unusual, and so wedded in my mind to the Scary Stories series that even his most whimsical pictures scare the hell out of me. Those lines and spatters (roots? Hairs? Dripping blood or whisps of… what?) in his watercolor and ink illustrations surfaced over and over in my mind.  They didn’t give me nightmares, but they were disturbing enough that overly protective adults all over the country spent the 1990s trying to get the Scary Stories series pulled from libraries.  Kids are made of strong stuff though, and indulgence in horror of the pretend helps them safely test their mettle and blow off steam while building the tools they need to counter the horrors of reality.  The most recent edition has toothless illustrations by a different artist, but if you ask a kid, they’ll take Gammell’s surreal terrors any day.

Anyway, the Scary Stories themselves were sourced from the vast folkloric traditions, and were intended to be read aloud though I suspect we spent more time paraphrasing them on the playground and in the cafeteria.  The audio version (which I originally encountered on a well-worn vinyl record, thanks to the Stoughton Public Library) is beautifully narrated by George S. Irving who strikes just the right tone between horror and playfulness.  This copy on YouTube must be taken from a CD because it’s missing the clicks and pops of a library LP.  The illustrations are mercifully pixelated, but a Google Images search for Stephen Gammell will yield results that you are not emotionally prepared for.

Dim the lights, close your eyes, and don’t turn the volume up too high because seriously, the italicized, capitalized sentence at the end of every story WILL BLOW OUT YOUR EARDRUMS!

A Damn Fine Title Sequence

October’s a few days away, but it’s not too early for me to start talking about scary movies yet, is it? No? Good.

A few days ago I found (more or less by chance) the opening titles from Ernest: Scared Stupid which, if you haven’t seen it, is not a good movie. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was an Ernest fan as a kid, mostly because I discovered him through his single-season Saturday morning show, Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! during its original run. I was eight years old, and I had outgrown the character by the time I was in fourth grade and we watched Ernest Goes to Camp in class. That was more than a year before Ernest: Scared Stupid came out, by which time I was no longer interested. I must have been in high school by the time I watched it, and I remember being in that weird, pre-streaming video mood where there’s nothing to watch, but you don’t really feel like doing anything else. Also, I remember it being after midnight, which probably means I could have spent my time better by going to bed.

None of this is the point of the story.

The point is, this is an amazing title sequence. The music is perfectly cheesy/spooky* and catchy, the clips from old, public domain movies are beautifully chosen and inserted, and Ernest’s mugging… doesn’t interfere too much.

I recognize most of the archive footage they used, but there are one or two shots that don’t look familiar, so I did a search and found an interview at Art of the Title with Barbara Laszewski, who designed the titles. Worth looking into. The interview, I mean, probably not the movie. In spite of the paragraphs above, I think I’ve come full-circle on my appreciation for Ernest P. Worrell, but I’m not sure I can recommend the movie to adults unless you know what you’re getting into.

* The internet has a word for this: spoopy. This is probably the only place you’re ever going to see me use the “word” spoopy.

Remembering John Henry

Today my phone popped up a reminder that it’s John Henry Day, the 24th anniversary of the release of the album John Henry by They Might Be Giants. Some years ago at the suggestion of another fan, I entered all of their album release dates into my calendar, but this blog post is the closest I’ve ever come to celebrating.

Like a lot of people my age, my familiarity with the band They Might Be Giants started in the early ’90s when an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures parodied MTV. Scattered among animated music videos for other, older songs (namely “Respect” and “Money (That’s What I Want)”) were Tiny Toons’ interpretations of “Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”. I found them pretty amusing, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought until the summer of 1993. One of my parents’ friends had generously loaned me tapes of his Beatles collection; he had purchased original, vinyl pressings of the albums in England, and preserved them by copying them onto cassettes. I was flipping through his albums when I found myself face to face with Flood by They Might Be Giants. Remembering the name and the songs, I asked to borrow it. “Oh,” he said, “I don’t remember why I bought that.” I went home with a 90-minute tape that had Flood on both sides.

It took me awhile to warm up to Flood. At the time, I was most interested in the two songs I knew, but eventually I came around to the other songs, though maybe not the ones you’d expect. I remember being initially lukewarm to “Birdhouse in Your Soul” until learning that it had been a top-10 hit in Britain, a tidbit from the unofficial They Might Be Giants FAQ. Around this same time I remember getting my first taste of Internet access, and realizing that They Might Be Giants had a pretty substantial and rabid fanbase.

Gradually, I got more and more into TMBG, which required more active work in the ’90s than it does now. My parents had no specific interest in contemporary music and for some reason at that age I needed to hear a song several times before I liked it. I hadn’t figured that out yet so I assumed that none of the music on the radio was any good. TMBG caused me to work out how to interface with modern music and with pop culture in general. TMBG were not hugely popular enough to be in your face all the time, so I approached my fandom as a research project. I got their 1992 album Apollo 18 through interlibrary loan, and learned to use a microfiche reader in order to consume reviews and interviews in People Magazine and Stereo Review. One by one I collected the albums, and eventually sent a letter (never responded to) to the TMBG Info Club. This must have been in the early months of 1994, and I would have been thirteen years old.

That summer, I received my first issue of the Info Club’s magazine: a cheap, blue pamphlet containing answers to fan-submitted questions, an essay or two by the band members themselves, and the announcement that their fifth album, John Henry, would be released in September of 1994. After 12 years as a duo, John Henry would be TMBG’s first album with a six-piece band, including a horn section. The title, they explained, was a reference to the legendary black railroad builder and represented TMBG’s triumph over the tyranny of their drum machine. The announcement included a list of the songs on the album and (for some reason) each song’s tempo. At the time, I imagined that the beats per minute might be useful information to savvier music fans than myself. Now I wonder if one of the band members thought it would be funny.

I was terribly excited for the upcoming release of John Henry. In fact, I can’t remember having been excited about the release of a media property prior to that time, other than maybe an upcoming movie. In the interim, I remember placing my first call to They Might Be Giants’ Dial-A-Song Service (“Twenty five hours a day, six days a week, free when you call from work!”) and hearing a low-fidelity version of the song “Subliminal”, after which I went to the dictionary to look up the word subliminal.

The release date came and went because none of the stores in town carried something as exotic (read: unpopular) as the new They Might Be Giants album. A couple of weeks later, I picked it up while running errands with my parents. I remember reading the liner notes in the car and trying to guess based on the lyrics how the songs would sound.

At last, we got home and I went up to my room to listen to John Henry through headphones. It was not what I was expecting. TMBG albums had previously been loaded with a large number of short songs which wasted no time on instrumental breaks or long intros. By contrast, John Henry put musical virtuosity in the spotlight, and featured longer, jammier songs that rocked harder than their previous output. Predictably, it took me a few listens to like John Henry, during which time I started actually thinking about and appreciating the lyrics, which I had previously failed to do. I kept listening, the weather got colder, and I started growing up.

In my mind, John Henry represents the nexus point of several different influences on my life, and a clear break with the past. It was the beginning of my freshman year of high school. I began several long-term friendships during the fall of 1994, and a lot of my current interests firmly solidified at that time. My maternal grandfather, whom I’d been close with passed away.

I also think of John Henry as the official division between early-period TMBG and late-period TMBG. That’s not actually true but it seems that way because those neurons fired so many times in my young mind. TMBG was formed in the summer of 1982, which means that as of today John Henry came out at almost exactly a third of the way through their career (a fact which I’m using to justify this arbitrary 24th Anniversary post, rather than waiting until next year). I couldn’t see that at the time, though. In fact, it felt like the beginning of the end. The reviews I read at the time were good, but it didn’t chart very long or terribly well. Behind the scenes, Elektra Records was going through some management changes and dropped most of their support for TMBG. The album received one music video (the visually disappointing “Snail Shell”) where previous albums had several. The marketing budget for their next album, 1996’s Factory Showroom, was too small to accommodate a music video. At that point, TMBG parted ways with Elektra. Without the backing of a label to make them visible and in light of the constant personnel changes, it felt like TMBG were slowly sinking during the latter half of the ’90s.

In retrospect, it was exactly the opposite but I couldn’t see it at the time. The immediacy of the Internet made it possible for TMBG to increase the amount of material they were releasing, and the speed at which they were releasing it. By the year 2000, They’d released the first MP3-only album (1999’s Long Tall Weekend), and contributed the theme song “Boss of Me” to Malcolm in the Middle which probably earned them more exposure than any other single part of Their career. If anything, John Henry was the moment where Their momentum took over. If They Might Be Giants were a hobbyist’s experimental aircraft, John Henry would be the moment in the movie where the music swells as the wheels leave the ground and the craft stays up. The protagonist’s doubting assistant would take off his cap, wipe his brow and say “by God, it will fly.”

Anyway, TMBG have generously uploaded all of their albums to YouTube, including John Henry, which you can listen to below.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Last week “back to the salt mines!” (a favorite phrase of my grandfather’s) popped into my mind in conjunction with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants. I’ve been trying to figure out what the connection was until this morning when I had the good sense to Google it and found this feature from 2008 in which various New Yorkers briefly detail how they’ve spent their summer. Here’s how I would answer that question:

One of the nice things about working in downtown Madison, Wisconsin is that the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center is a short walk from my office. The convention center, which overlooks Lake Monona, opened in 1997 and I had the pleasure of singing at the Grand Opening with one of the choral groups to which I belonged in high school. I had no intention of including that fact in this post, but I just remembered it as I was typing this. I can’t remember what we sang, and I’m not 100% sure which group it was—either the Madrigal Singers or the Men’s Ensemble.

Anyway, I’ve only been inside Monona Terrace a couple of times, but I spend as many lunchbreaks there as I can during the temperate months of the year. The rooftop has a large seating area and a promenade facing the lake. I usually eschew the tables and chairs for the little garden area on the west end of the roof where I sit DIRECTLY ON THE GRASS to the horror of out-of-towners who have come to look out across the lake and snap pictures that they will never look at again. I’m not the only person who does this, and it’s extremely annoying when I round the corner only to find somebody else doing reading or doing yoga or just sprawled out on the grass sleeping. How dare they!

Usually I go to read. Sometimes I grab a coffee or a sandwich, or if it’s Wednesday I’ll spend too much money on cheese curds at the farmer’s market. I’m pretty happy with my reading progress over the summer; I’ve probably read an average number of books, but I’m trying to get through my backlog of physical books as opposed to reading them on my Kindle (which is what I usually do). The act of finishing one volume and starting another feels productive. It takes me too long to read novels because I only typically read during my ten-minute commute and on my lunchbreaks, and I’m sure that I actually read faster when I can see the end of the book approaching. It’s certainly more satisfying than gauging it as a percentage. Here’s an incomplete list of my summer reading, in the order I consumed them:

  • That Darn Squid God by Nick Pollotta and James Clay — I feel like I should have enjoyed this one more. A couple of Very British explorers keep a stiff upper lip in the face of world-ending madness. Might’ve been better in a shorter form.
  • The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole — Been planning to read this one for agrees, just because it felt like something I should have done by now. Otranto is the original Gothic novel and commits all the sins of the genre, but it helps to remember that they originated here. Notable in that it begins with a young Prince being crushed to death by a giant helmet which falls unexpectedly out of the sky, a bit like the 16-ton weights in all those Monty Python sketches.
  • Madwand by Roger Zelazny — This is actually the second book in Zelazny’s Wizardworld series, but that wasn’t immediately apparent from the edition I was reading, which is probably why new editions list the title as “Madwand: The Sequel to Changeling”. I dunno, I like Zelazny and I enjoyed this book, though I don’t think I could summarize it for you.
  • Changeling by Roger Zelazny — I was not, however, taken by Changeling, probably because the main points of the novel are either summarized or implied by Madwand. It’s probably better if you read them in the right order. Annoyingly, this was intended to be a trilogy, and the final chapter never happened.
  • Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier — After Otranto, I decided I should tackle another classic. I bought this one secondhand after having seen the Alfred Hitchcock film years ago, and should have read it sooner. An engaging, modern Gothic classic! Had a hard time recommending it to my coworkers who thought it was a romance novel. Well, it is, kind of, but it’s also a suspenseful thriller. I think I described it as “Jane Eyre but with more emotional abuse.”
  • The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge — I won this book in an online contest more than a year ago, and feel bad about letting it sit for so long. What if H.P. Lovecraft was gay? No wait, what if he wasn’t gay, but one of his friends forged a diary to make it look like he was? No wait, what if… and so on. I don’t usually like HPL as a fictional character because authors like to turn him into an action hero. In this case it’s a different kind of action and work about a fifth of the novel to go, I gave no idea where its headed. I expect to finish it tomorrow and will be recommending it to everybody.
  • …and various short stories because I read a lot more short fiction than novels. I tend to bounce back and forth between several anthologies at any given time, but in particular I’ve been crawling for months through Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe which have been surprisingly unsettling.
  • Honorable mention: Vathek by William Beckford is another one of the original Gothic novels, and I made an abortive attempt to read it (my second, actually) because I have it in the same volume as The Castle of Otranto. I get bogged down in the fact that the edition I have is probably 60% footnotes. One day I will just read the damn thing and ignore the footnotes, and I may miss some important context but I think that’s the only way I’ll get through it.

Sooner or later Monona Terrace will close for the fall and winter months during which time I will read less and less because sitting in the break room always makes me feel like I should be working.

* * *
“Are you done?” my editor would say


“I asked you for a paragraph of text, not an autobiography.”

“Oh. W—”

“You know what? It’s fine. I’m an editor. This is what I do. ‘I wasted all summer reading books at Monona Terrace.’ Good enough.”

Science Fiction Double Feature Podcast Archive

“Hey, look at this amazing thing I found!  More people need to see this!”

That was the philosophy behind Science Fiction Double Feature, a moderately successful B-movie podcast I released in 2006 and 2007.  Each episode presented summaries of two thematically-connected movies, along with production history, trivia, and my own commentary.

I decided against the conversational multi-host format employed by most movie podcasts in favor of a more scripted, documentary style (I was working through This American Life’s back catalog at the time, and the main movie podcast I was listening to regularly released 3-hour episodes with maybe 40 minutes worth of material).  After a couple of movies were chosen, I’d watch them each again in order to write a summary and choose soundbites.  If the DVD had special features, I’d comb through those for interesting trivia. I aimed for half hour episodes, and the scripts usually came in around 10-12 pages.  The process of recording and editing would usually eat up an entire evening after work.  The episodes were hosted on Odeo, a now-defunct podcasting platform, and garnered a few hundred listens each.  I should have set it up on iTunes, but never got around to it.  The snazzy logo you see above was designed by my friend Matt Anderson who was riffing on the old RKO logo.

In the end I abandoned the show, not on purpose but because I found myself with less and less time to devote to such a project.  I’m really not as fond of  unscripted conversational podcasts, but I now see the appeal of working that way. I have a small child now and I have to watch movies in increments; SFDF wasn’t that time consuming to create, but I think I’d have to make some significant format changes if I were ever to relaunch it.

Anyway, I’ve been hoping to relaunch the show for… well, forever, really.  Maybe one day.  In the meantime, here are the original nine episodes for your consideration:

Episode 1: The House on Haunted Hill / The Tingler

Episode 2: Zardoz / Logan’s Run

Episode 3: King of the Zombies / Ed and His Dead Mother

Episode 4: Santa Claus: The Movie / Santa Claus vs. The Martians

Episode 5: Wendigo / Ravenous

Episode 6: Enemy Mine / Ice Pirates

Episode 7: April Fool’s Day / Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter

Episode 8: The Wicker Man / Horror Hotel

Episode 9: Spider Baby / Bloody Pit of Horror

Rain, rain, go away

My wife is a teacher, and returns to school tomorrow when classes resume.  We’re in southern Wisconsin where the weather has been alternately rainy with flooding, cold yet humid, or intensely hot and muggy.  I can only imagine that the kids returning to school are miserable.

Anyway, I was reflecting on the weather and my own childhood when Giant-Size Mini Comics #2 suddenly popped into my head.

I liked the daily comic strips as a kid (particularly Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side, which pretty much goes without saying for people around my age), but I was never much into comic books because I didn’t care for superheroes.  Sometime in middle school I made a deliberate effort to get into comics, but the stores in town that sold new books really only carried the big names (i.e., the ones ending in -Man), so I got my fix from used bookstores.  Somebody in town was buying, reading, and donating a lot of weird stuff on a consistent basis, and I tended to gravitate to books from the smaller publishers, particularly Aircel and Eclipse.

A lot of this stuff was completely inappropriate for an eleven-year-old; lots of violence, more sex than my parents would have approved of (but not as much as I’d have liked), and a level of defiant cynicism that made South Park seem trite when it premiered a few years later.  I developed an early appreciation for the works of R. Crumb and his creative descendants (particularly John Pound, whose book Ground Pound is out of print but definitely (in the opinion of both present-day and early-1990s me) worth your while to track down).

And then there was Giant-Sized Mini Comics, which introduced me to the concept and format of minicomics:  eight Xeroxed pages drawn on a single sheet of paper folded into quarters, then stapled and cut to make a book.  Each issue of G-SMC collected a sampling of minicomics in an attempt to bring them to a much larger audience than they’d otherwise reach.  I grabbed a copy of G-SMC #2 sometime during (I think) the summer between seventh and eighth grade, and was fascinated by the idea of self-publishing on a micro basis, which struck me as the sweet spot between the artwork your mom hangs on the fridge and the kind of Serious Professional Publishing that Demands Capital Letters.

I made a handful of minicomics my pre-college years.  I doubt that any still survive, and if they do they’re probably not worthy of even the humblest blog post (also, they’re probably embarrassing as hell).

I wanted very badly to complete my collection of G-SMC, and eventually I did come across the other three issues (there were, as far as I can tell, only four issues), and it’s amazing:  the one issue I found is the only one whose contents really appeal to me.  It’s not that the rest of them are without merit, but I’d have glanced over them in the shop and moved on to something else.

I bring all of this up because today I remembered a two-page spread from G-SMC #2, a mediatation on water of the running and falling varieties which bored me at the time.  It’s an issue of Walking Man Comics, and I probably haven’t thought about it in more than a decade, and I find that I like it better now.

Enjoy (at least until someone sends me a cease and desist). And click the images to expand them, obviously.

Walking Man Comics Page 1Walking Man Comics Page 2

Hello, World!

Well, this seems as good a time as any for this post. September first has always seemed a significant date; summer is over, school is right around the corner, the days are shorter and the nights are a little colder.

At least, that’s what it feels like. It’s still summer for the better part of the month, school starts at some ungodly early date in late August (at least, it did during my childhood), and the nights are warm enough that you can’t fall asleep without the fan on, but you have to creep across the frozen bedroom at 2:00 am to turn it off.

I had a point, but I can’t remember what it was.

At any rate, I’ve been planning the conversion of this website to WordPress for a long time (like, a long time; I installed it years ago, and haven’t really used it until now). Prior to that, it went through several different configurations, losing content each time. If you can believe it, SacredPotato.com used to be a well-maintained and frequently-updated site with regular features and a constant stream of new, downloadable music. At some point Real Life got in the way and I began updating less and less. So, I’m starting over and giving it another go, this time with WordPress because really, who does all their web design manually in a text editor anymore?

Anyway, welcome back. I promise there’ll be more content and regular updates. At the very least I should have replaced the bog-standard WordPress aesthetics by the time you see this (because trust me, nobody is going to notice this post when it first goes up).