Sci-Fi Spectacular 2014

My first event of 2014 was Movieside’s annual Sci-Fi Spectacular, held on April 13.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Movieside and their events, here’s a quick synopsis. They’re a small organization, headed by local filmmaker and fandom fixture Rusty Nails, who organize several film-related events throughout the year. The most well-known of these is the annual Massacre (formerly known as the Music Box Massacre), a 24-hour-long horror movie marathon. Terror in the Aisles are horror triple features, held sporadically throughout the year.

The Sci-Fi Spectacular is another marathon. If I remember correctly, it started off following the Terror format but gradually expanded to a marathon held in spring. It usually runs from noon ’til very, very late (but last year’s ran a full 24 hours). Despite the name, the Spectacular isn’t solely dedicated to science fiction; there’s often a couple of horror, fantasy or cult films on the schedule (last year’s bill included Matinee and The Dark Crystal), and many of the SF offerings have some horror crossover.

All three events also include vintage trailers, short films, previews of upcoming locally-produced films, special guests, and swag auctions benefiting local charity Vital Bridges, who describe their mission thus: “…to help people throughout metropolitan Chicago impacted by HIV and AIDS to improve their health and build self-sufficiency by providing food, nutrition counseling, housing, care coordination and prevention services.”

In the theater lobby, local artists and merch vendors set up tables and hawk their wares. A recent addition to the marathons is the Roger Corman ’50s Trailer Contest, a series of black-and-white B-movie fake trailers.

This year’s Spectacular was held at the Patio Theater on Irving Park in Chicago. The event officially began at noon and consisted of eight features (King Kong vs. Godzilla, Legend, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Night of the Living Dead (the original), Pan’s Labyrinth, Escape from New York, The Dead Zone and Phenomena. However, programming actually began at 10am with two “early bonuses”: the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Hush” and Stereo, an early short feature by David Cronenberg. Also on the program was Georges Méliès’s groundbreaking early short film, A Trip to the Moon, with live organ accompaniment. The guests were actor Doug Jones (who appeared in Pan’s Labyrinth and the Buffy episode in addition to Hellboy) and Kyra Schon (who played young Karen Cooper in Night of the Living Dead).

The Venue

I don’t give a monkey’s about Buffy, so I sauntered into the Patio at a hair after 11am. Being a big fan of Cronenberg, I was a bit worried I might miss the beginning of Stereo, but I needn’t have worried: “Hush” had just ended and someone was introducing Doug Jones to the crowd.

The Patio has been home to Movieside’s events since the Portage Theater closed last year. I love the Patio for individual screenings; it’s easy to get to, has very convenient parking and the ambiance is terrific. However, it also has a cramped lobby layout and a limited concessions menu, which–at least to me–are strikes against it for longer events.

Sadly, the Patio has been beset by financial woes including heating/air conditioning issues and looks likely to close by the end of April. Since the Portage drama shows no signs of resolving anytime soon, it’s not clear where Movieside and other organizations who held events at the Patio, such as the Northwest Chicago Film Society and the Chicago Cinema Society, will move to. Suburban theaters might be an option–Spook Show Entertainment moved their Chicago Horror Film Festival to the Des Plaines Theatre after the Portage closed.

I wanted to get some interior photos of the theater but only one was really usable (below). It’s really a gorgeous theater.

Inside the Patio Theater

And now, let’s get to the movies!


Stereo (David Cronenberg, 1969)

Kim Newman once said that the early (pre-Shivers) Cronenberg works prove that it’s possible to be simultaneously interesting and dull, and while I’m not always inclined to take Newman seriously, he’s got a point in this case.

Stereo is a pseudo-documentary about a telepathic experiment conducted by the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry, which really ought to be a real organization that people can join. The footage of the test subjects is presented without audio while various narrators explain the experiment–the details and the results. (I guess there’s a practical reason for Cronenberg to have made the movie this way: apparently the camera used for filming was too loud and the location audio was unusable, so he wrote and recorded the narration afterwards.)

Stereo ought to be a fascinating exploration of the relationship between identity, consciousness and sexuality. What it actually is, is seven actors wandering around strange architecture wearing bizarre clothing and behaving oddly while a series of narrators spew endless reams of oft-impenetrable psychobabble.

Sometimes the narration matches up to what’s happening on screen. Sometimes it stands in stark contrast to the action: for example, a narrator talks about a woman who created a new personality separate from her original personality to protect herself from telepathic intrusion, and how the new “fake” personality went on to overwhelm the “real” one. This narration accompanies footage of two characters engaging in a tickle fight.

Most of the time, though, there’s no readily available correlation between what the characters are doing and what the narrators are talking about.The narration is sporadically interesting, and the action is occasionally engaging, but overall the experience is like watching one movie with the sound turned off while listening to the commentary track for an entirely different movie.


A Trip to the Moon

A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)

The moon just don’t get no respect. I mean, there he is, just floating away in synchronous orbit with the Earth, minding his own business, and then blammo! Someone shoots him in the face with a spaceship.

Seriously though, this one’s a sheer delight from start to finish.


King Kong vs. Godzilla

King Kong vs. Godzilla (Ishirô Honda, 1962)

If ever there was a movie that begged to be given the MST3k treatment, this is the one. The riffs were practically writing themselves in my head as I watched it, particularly when the American reporter is on screen (the actor delivers every line like he can barely believe what he’s being asked to say), or when the pharmaceutical company people distribute cigarettes to kids on Monster Island (yes, I know it’s not actually called Monster Island, okay?), or every time we cut to that one Japanese scientist.

Sadly, the vast majority of the film slips out of the memory not too long after seeing it, with the exception of the more laughably bad elements and a couple of set-pieces. Still, it’s worth it to watch King Kong shove a tree into Godzilla’s mouth.



Legend (Ridley Scott, 1985)

About thirteen years ago, I needed someone to explain the provenance of the phrase “never get involved in a land war in Asia” and my friends thereby discovered that I managed to somehow get to my late 20s without having seen most of the adolescent-targeted fantasy/adventure films of the early-to-mid-’80s (or at least, those not prominently featuring characters named Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones). My cinematic experience was missing The Princess Bride, Labyrinth, Krull, Clash of the Titans, Willow, The Goonies, The Dark Crystal, Ladyhawke and a few others. One of those films that I never saw was Legend.

My impression of it at age forty is that the script is regurgitated Joseph Campbell hogwash and the world-building is lazy (it takes place in a fantasy world, but the dialog features terms like “shish-kebab” and “on the agenda” and one character is named after a baseball term).

Plus, it’s topped off with one of the worst pieces of aural dreck I’ve seen attributed to the band name Tangerine Dream. I’m never going to be a TD fan (although I can enjoy some of their ’70s work, like Force Majeure), and this score is the reason why: it’s every new age electronic music cliché at once. Just to add insult to injury, one of the songs is sung by Jon Anderson.

It’s got several things in its favor: Ridley Scott’s direction, Rob Bottin’s creature design, Tim Curry’s performance as the villain and one of Bryan Ferry’s best solo songs (the sublime “Is Your Love Strong Enough”) over the closing titles. But the overall effect isn’t a net positive.

Once again, though, that’s me at forty saying this. I turned 12 the year it was released, and I had I actually seen it then, I probably would have gobbled it down and asked for seconds. It’s an ’80s kids’ film, for ’80s kids. I’m not the target audience, at least not anymore.


The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (W.D. Richter, 1984)

The reason I never saw movies like Legend as a kid was because I was too busy watching stuff like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, one of my absolute favorite ’80s movies of all time.

The script is a gold-mine of quotes:

“Shut up, John Bigbooty, you coward! You are the weakest individual I ever know!”

“Evil, pure and simple, from the eighth dimension!”

“People are gonna come from all over. This boy’s an Eskimo.”

John Lithgow and Christopher Lloyd have put in better performances, but they’ve rarely been more fun to watch.

Its gleefully anarchic story is a bit–okay, a lot–messy but what it lacks in storytelling polish it makes up for with pure gusto. It’s got a ’60s science-fiction heart (one suspects Buckaroo Banzai might be another form of Jerry Cornelius) beating in an ’80s body and melds them both together in a way that makes perfect sense. It’s just right that it should sit on a bill with Godzilla flicks and David Cronenberg; it belongs there.

And, let’s be honest, Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League is a much better idea than Ghostbusters III.


Short film and trailer block

Next up was a block consisting of a trailer and two short films. The trailer was for Chrysalis, an upcoming apocalyptic horror feature from Glass City Films. Looks interesting.

The first short subject was …Jack, written and directed by Jake Jarvi, is the winner of this year’s Studio 360 Scary Short Film Festival, and is thirty seconds long. It is one of the most effective uses of thirty seconds I’ve ever seen.

Finally, there was Hunting, by Logan Toxic. Apparently it has a number of different endings. I don’t remember which ending we saw.

House on Nightmare Lane

Roger Corman ’50s Trailer Contest

The ’50s Trailer Contests were a highlight of last year’s Sci-Fi Spectacular and Massacre; here are a few of the best entries from those:

This year’s slate was:

  • Let’s Invite Satan to the Slumber Party
  • Sangria Nightmares
  • Attack of the Mutant Moon Germs
  • Hands of Fate
  • Leave it to Creature
  • Snow Beasts from Beyond the Moon
  • Platoon of Power Squadron
  • Slave Girls from the World of the Weird
  • House on Nightmare Lane
  • Corn Stalk

I don’t think the overall field was as strong as either of last years’, but there weren’t any that I didn’t enjoy. My absolute favorite was Leave it to Creature, with Slumber Party, Slave Girls, Nightmare Lane and Corn Stalk also being excellent entries.

Judging from the audience reaction, Corn Stalk won the contest.

EDIT: Just got word that Nightmare Lane has been posted to YouTube; here it is. If I hear about other entries being posted online, I’ll feature them in Quick Cuts.

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)

About three or four years ago I pretty much summed up everything I have ever wanted to write about the original Night of the Living Dead in a review I wrote for Forced Viewing, and there is only more thing I want to say:

It is one of the greatest horror movies ever made, and I still find it as powerful as I did when I first saw it when I was in my teens. If someone tries to tell you it is no longer scary, kick that person in the shin.



My friend Meg arrived during Night of the Living Dead. Seeing that I’d only eaten movie-theater food (popcorn and a box of Buncha Crunch) all day, and she had barely eaten at all, we decided to forgo the Kyra Schon Q&A and the beginning of Pan’s Labyrinth and grab some dinner at the Mexican place across the street from the theater.

Pan's Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

The first time I saw this was at a movie night at a friends’ house, and we watched this and Children of Men. Good times, those. I’d nearly forgotten about this one until I picked The Devil’s Backbone for a Forced Viewing Podcast episode a couple of months back. Both films being about kids, tragedy and the Spanish Civil War, they’re two sides of the same coin.

I’d forgotten how great this film is and what a powerful storyteller Guillermo del Toro can be when he’s firing on all cylinders. Like a lot of heavily effects-based filmmakers (Peter Jackson, James Cameron) he sometimes disappears down the CGI rabbit-hole and can’t be found but this one is a perfect example of how CGI can be used to build a totally immersive cinematic environment.

It’s also a heady reminder of how humans are often the real monsters. Franco’s men were just as bad as the Nazis. Capt. Vidal really is one of the greatest film villains I’ve ever seen–kudos to Sergi López on that one. A masterpiece.


Doug Jones

The next film on the docket was Escape from New York, which I’ve seen about a bazillion times. It’s my favorite John Carpenter film. I figured if I could forgo any film on the program in favor of meeting Kyra Schon and Doug Jones this would be the one.

Meg and I ran into our friend Nicki, another horror blogger and proprietor of Hey! Look Behind You!, who’d already met and had photos with the guests. She warned us that Mr. Jones was very touchy-feely. In the lobby, the line to see him literally stretched to the other side of the lobby, so we went to see if Ms. Schon was still around. She wasn’t, so we got in line and were there for…quite a long time, really, but I didn’t mind, because I could see that Jones really liked spending time with his fans. We also got into a discussion about Gilliam and Jodorowsky with a vendor, and that was interesting.

When we finally got to see Doug Jones…yeah, Nicki wasn’t kidding. He’s a very physical and affectionate guy, very nice, in an almost childlike way. We talked a little bit about his work with del Toro, and being on Buffy, but the main thing I wanted to discuss with him was Absentia, a 2011 movie I reviewed for Forced Viewing last year, and that I thought was terrific.

Great guy, really enjoyed meeting him. We had photos taken with him, which are below.

Doug Jones & LackeyDoug Jones & Meg

Escape from New York

Escape from New York (John Carpenter, 1981)

One of the things I always tell people about John Carpenter is that it’s important to understand how influenced he is by Westerns, and how many of his films–the personal ones more than the work-for-hire ones–have Western elements to them. Assault on Precinct 13 is a Western with a police station instead of a fort and a gang instead of Indians. Macready, the protagonist of The Thing, is essentially a Western anti-hero.

And Escape from New York is essentially a spaghetti Western, with Snake Plissken standing in for the Man with No Name. If you don’t get the film, imagine Clint Eastwood in as Plissken and the film will make a lot more sense. It’s not an accident that three of the key supporting roles are played by actors with Western experience (Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton and Ernest Borgnine).

Anyway, it’s a great film. My favorite Carpenter movie. He could make dreck like The Ward for the rest of his career and I’d give him a pass because, hey, he made Escape from New York.


The Dead Zone

The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983)

I skipped the last film (Dario Argento’s Phenomena) so it’s kind of appropriate that my Spectacular both started and ended with Cronenberg.

The Dead Zone is one of my favorite Stephen King novels and one of my favorite Cronenberg movies. The film version really nails the themes of the novel, and there are a lot of great performances, particularly Christopher Walken in a rare non-creepy, heroic role. Back in the ’90s, I used to think Martin Sheen went a bit too over the top in his performance, but many of the political figures of the late ’00s make him look restrained by comparison.

It’s probably the least Cronenbergian entry in his filmography, but I think it does fit in fairly well with the rest of his body of work even though he did it for hire.


*   *   *

Don’t know what the next event is gonna be, but I’ll do my best to be there. Seeya later!

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