On March 9th through the 10th, the Sci-Fi Spectacular was held at the Portage Theater in Chicago.
I am a veteran of events put on by Movieside in my wonderful city. I’ve attended The Massacre for the last five years, even flying in for two of them when I spent two depressing years living in Connecticut. I am not sure how many Terror in the Aisles events I’ve attended, but I am willing to bet I have been to at least 75 percent of them. So it comes as something of a shock to me that this was the first year I had attended the Sci-Fi Spectacular. This year marked the seventh such movie marathon. In the past, the Spectacular has only lasted twelve hours, but this year, wouldn’t you know it, Movieside decided to extend it to the full 24 hours. At the time when that decision was made, I didn’t feel like it was a good idea. My reasons were personal in that I am getting up there in age and it’s hard to stay awake that long, let alone cramp up my long legs in a theater seat. Judging by the lineup and my reluctance to commit to the full marathon, I knew I probably would not make it through to the end and was not shocked to discover that I bailed at the 16 hour mark. But I did get to see some great movies (one for the first time ever), revisit some old favorites, and reevaluate a film that was better than I remembered.
– Two was the number of the night. Two appearances by Charlton Heston (Soylent Green and In the Mouth of Madness). Two appearances by Brooke Adams (Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Shock Waves). Two inside joke cameos by the great Kevin McCarthy (Matinee and Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Two generations of the Sutherland clan make appearances (Donald in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Kiefer in Dark City).
– Frank Henenlotter’s story about making up the plot for Frankenhooker on the fly during a pitch session with a producer makes that film’s structure seem more understandable.
– I think the same people who decide how much leg room should be provided when flying coach are also in charge of determining leg room when it comes to movie theaters. Bear in mind, this is in the Portage Theater, where there is a bit more leg room than most places.
– I would watch a weekly TV show about John Goodman’s character from Matinee.
– I got to meet Frank Henenlotter and speak with him for about a minute, but I think I scared him with my barely coherent answers to why so many men in Chicago are named Matt. I was too star-struck to carry on a decent conversation and he seemed to sense I was about to go full movie nerd and gush about how much Basket Case has meant to me. Oh well, one day I will learn how not to make a fool of myself around my filmmaking heroes.
Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)
Barely feature length at just over an hour, this Roger Corman-produced cheapie is exactly what you’d expect from the title: actors in rubber suits that look only slightly faker than the sets, stiff acting, and lots of scenes of characters sitting around and talking about the plot to pad out the running time. The only thing memorable about the film is an over-heated subplot about an overweight grocer (Bruno VeSota), his trophy wife (Yvette Vickers), and her lover (Michael Emmet). Playing like the world’s campiest spoof of a Tennessee Williams play dropped into the middle of a cheesy monster movie, it’s a bizarre but welcome distraction from the rest of the film.
I liked this film the first time I saw it—twenty long years ago. This screening only confirmed my initial reaction. Deftly taking advantage of the serious backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis, director Joe Dante and writer Charlie Haas use gentle comedy to pay homage to the sci-fi films of the fifties and sixties. As a William Castle-like producer of schlocky sci-fi and horror films, John Goodman effortlessly steals the movie. Fun character work by Cathy Moriarty, Dick Miller, John Sayles (yes, that John Sayles), Kevin McCarthy, William Schallert, and Robert Picardo—many of whom actually appeared in the films being parodied—is just the cherry on the sundae of a film that easily mines a nostalgic vein for the cinema of old without ever feeling forced or cheaply sentimental. This is an extremely good film and the 35mm print was beautiful.
The Heart of the World (2000)
A parody/homage to German Expressionism and Soviet propaganda films by idiosyncratic director Guy Maddin was the first short film of the festival. At only six minutes, it was an interesting blast of energy with its driving score and breakneck storytelling pace. To say any more about it would lessen the fun of letting Maddin’s little experiment wash over you.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
Believe it or not, this was my first viewing of The Dark Crystal. It’s hard to believe there’s a better way to see the film for the first time than the terrific 35mm print that was shown, but I couldn’t help but feel I was missing something that a lot of the people who love this movie get out of it. Namely, I don’t have the nostalgic connection with it that viewers have who fell in love with it as a child. Because of this, I found myself unnerved by the expressionless faces of the Gelfling protagonists and couldn’t help wondering why so much detailed character work went into nearly every other creature in the film, while the Gelflings looked like mannequins with their faces slightly melted. Other than that nitpick, I really enjoyed the film and was floored by how dark and violent co-directors Jim Henson and Frank Oz were willing to go.
Soylent Green (1973)
My original plan was to take a break and get something to eat during Soylent Green. I hadn’t seen the film in over twenty years, but I remembered it as being obvious and, barring the iconic ending, kind of boring. But I wasn’t hungry and I ended up sticking around to discover the film is actually a pretty decent dystopian tale with well-placed doses of cynical humor. Where the film stumbles is the usual areas sci-fi films set in the future go astray: instantly dating itself through costume and production design. The film also goes too far overboard on the horrors of life in its vision of a futuristic Manhattan where stairways are impassable because they are jammed with so many people sleeping on them, thick smog gives everything a greenish tint, and people are reduced to tears by the presentation of a piece of beef. Still, it hums along with a mostly involving story, a parade of familiar faces (Joseph Cotten, Edward G. Robinson, Chuck Connors), and Charlton Heston’s appealingly flawed antihero. And of course, there’s that ending…
‘50s Trailer Competition
A mostly fun competition had filmmakers creating one-minute fake trailers for ‘50s Roger Corman-style sci-fi and horror films. The results were a three-way tie between Screams on Planet Zero by David Schmidt, Attack of the Cosmic Frank-Einstein from Haunted Space and the Moon by lowcarbcomedy.com, and The Day the Earth Spun by Ryan Oliver. There were nearly twenty entries and most were entertaining, a couple were—frankly—dreadful, and a few didn’t get the appreciation I felt they deserved. I thought the winners were all fun and worthy of recognition, but I also really enjoyed The Gamma Ray Man by Jason Coffman and Werewolf on the Moon by Trash Cinema Collective.
A mash-up of plot points and styles from The Evil Dead and George A. Romero’s Dead films, this proudly derivative short didn’t do much for me. It added nothing original in its attempt to pay homage to the films mentioned and ended up looking and sounding like a bunch of buddies throwing together a nonsensical comedy with impressive special effects. It’s not bad, but neither does it rate more than a shrug of the shoulders.
Brain Damage (1988)
From the singularly twisted and brilliant Frank Henenlotter, comes Brain Damage. By this point, there’s no reason for me to explain what the film is about or write a mini-review. It’s a classic horror-comedy and should be seen by all who claim to be fans of the genre. Of course, it had to be projected from DVD, but looked quite good on the big screen.
The real treat was Henenlotter’s Q & A after the screening. Brutally honest in his assessment of what he refuses to call his career, he related the immense difficulties involved in finding funding for his films, his insistence on continuing to shoot on film to make his movies look more expensive than they actually are, and his first foray outside genre film territory with the movie he is currently working on about street artists. Caustically funny, but seemingly stage-shy as he paced around talking into the microphone while keeping his head down, he served as both an inspiration and a warning to aspiring filmmakers in the audience with his tales of working in the low-budget trenches.
A short film by David Cronenberg about an aging actor (Cronenberg regular Leslie Carlson) works as a palate cleanser after the lunacy of Brain Damage. While not a genre piece, the film is fascinating as a look at what happens when an actor who has spent most of his life in front of a camera is unable to adjust to an old age not performing for anyone. While he borders on a nervous breakdown, a group of children bring in an old movie camera and secretly film him. I highly recommend watching it.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
This was the first film version of Jack Finney’s classic novel The Body Snatchers that I ever saw. It scared the hell out of me as a ten-year-old with the image of the incomplete Jeff Goldblum clone found in the mud baths. As an adult, it is still a good movie, using Finney’s story to satirize how the ‘60s counter-culture had been absorbed into the mainstream during the ‘70s. But it also works as probably the best sci-fi/horror adaptation of the novel. There is some seriously creepy stuff in this film with much of the effects work holding up very well 35 years after its release. And as a proud movie nerd, I absolutely love the Kevin McCarthy cameo.
In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
Why is it, when I look at John Carpenter’s filmography, the word underrated keeps flashing in my mind? So many of his films are made with modest budgets and given such little fanfare outside of genre circles (and let’s face it, sometimes within them), it’s easy to forget about a little gem like In the Mouth of Madness. I hadn’t forgotten about it. This is close to my favorite of Carpenter’s films. Witty, scary, strange, and operating on its own internal logic, it might be Carpenter’s cynical classic. I just wish there had been a 35mm print available because the projection from DVD wasn’t the best presentation of the film.
Dark City (1998)
Also presented as a DVD projection, Alex Proyas’ Dark City looked much crisper than In the Mouth of Madness. I mention this because, as the title of the film implies, almost every scene takes place at night. Thankfully, I didn’t have to strain my eyes and I was able to let the madness of this brilliant film wash over me. Proyas’ superior director’s cut was presented in all its disorienting glory, excising Kiefer Sutherland’s explanatory voiceover that opened the theatrical version of the film. Although it’s only fifteen years old, it almost feels like a forgotten film. That’s a shame because it’s everything a good sci-fi film should be: smart, exciting, mysterious, and, most importantly, it has a heart. Too many sci-fi films take a cold, clinical approach. While that works for some (Blade Runner being the most obvious example), too often, this is just an excuse for a screenplay full of underdeveloped characters. With Dark City, Proyas loves his stylish visuals, but he never forgets to make the characters sympathetic and worth rooting for.
After Dark City, I was a wimp and checked out. I only have regrets that I didn’t get to see Shock Waves, a film I’ve read quite a bit about, but never seen and that I missed seeing Battle Royale on the big screen. It’s been almost ten years since I first saw it and I am interested to find out if it holds up as a good film or if the novelty of its premise was all it had going for it.
Perhaps next year I will make it for the full 24 hours. But I know better than to promise myself I will.
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