Garen Daly, the Somerville's owner and general manager at the time, was big on bringing unique and different films to the theater and embraced the spirit of the Marathon. When he lost his lease on the theater and the Somerville's future looked dire, Garen brought the Marathon to the Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline, where the Starship Coolidge held forth all the way up to 2003. Then the Marathon roamed, a ragtag fugitive fleet, for a few years -- 2004 at the Dedham Community Theater (with the Museum of Bad Art in its basement/men's room salon), a Triumphant Return (somewhat) to the Somerville in 2005, and last year, at the West Newton Cinema. Both the Dedham and West Newton theaters were happy to have us and their staffs were great, but their locations were out-of-the-way for us city folk and the twinned screens meant you may find a seat in one section but your other pals would've found a spot in the other auditorium.
Along the way the "SF Marathon" became the "Boston Science-Fiction Film Festival", with attempts at events before or after the main 24 hours, but the old-timers still just call it the Marathon.
Finally, this year, the Marathon made Another Triumphant Return to the Somerville, and with the help of Ian Judge, the theater's new manager, it look like the Starship Somerville may be the home of the festival for a few years to come. This is great for Davis Square and science fiction fans with butts of steel (or at least iron.)
I've been attending this crazy event for nigh onto 13 years now, with only one missed in 2002 (as I was having my own marathon 30-hour move at the time.) Garen affectionately describes the event as "our Brigadoon", a special community which only appears briefly once in a long time, though other cynics have commented sometimes it's more along the lines of "our 2000 Maniacs."
No matter what, when you go, you are treated to 24 hours of science-fiction features -- anything from Georges Melies' 1902 classic Le Voyage Dans La Lune to a new release (this year we had Slither), from schlock like Plan 9 From Outer Space to classics like Alien, from 3D movies to silent films accompanied by a real live theremin player. There's also classic movie trailers, cartoons (the Marathon is traditionally started with Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century, and Dodgers himself has become a de facto mascot), live contests for Best Tinfoil Hat or Alien Mating Cry, and sometimes an indie film with QA with the director afterwards. Sometimes the QA is good, such as when we spoke with the makers of this great Canadian film called Top Of The Food Chain; sometimes the QA is brutal, such as when the makers of a pretty stinky film called Niagravation got up onstage and had to answer the first question of "Did you mean to make this movie suck?" (Julie Corman, who was scheduled to speak after the viewing of Carnosaur, actually ducked out before she could endure the slings and barbs of the audience.)
The audience is united in its love for science-fiction, but that doesn't mean we don't hoot and holler at the schlock. Audience participation is moderately encouraged but it's not an MST3K fest. A well-timed quip during a bad film will get a laugh; constant commentary will cause your neighbors to start throwing stuff at you. The usual rule of thumb is "If you're the only one talking, maybe you shouldn't be." We also have our own callback traditions: We cheer the good guys and hiss the villains (especially any who mistreat animals or slap women around), any gruff, grumpy military figure will be met with "Grrrr!", many people bring ray guns to shoot the bug-eyed monsters on-screen (or sometimes shoot the humans), we clap once for every name featured during the opening credits of a film (hint: "Cinemascope" isn't a name!) and any mention of the word "mark" will be echoed loudly. It's a long story involving Planet of the Vampires a dubbed movie with a captain named Mark, whose name was mentioned almost every other line. We kept a running count one year; his name was said nearly 200 times. Then there's the Rice Chex/Wheat Chex "feud", which is an even longer story.
So it comes to this year. I went with the lovely Renee, who uncovered her alien antennae and let them remain loose and bobbin' along just for this event, and my high school pal, The Man Known As Pete. All three of us share a love for science-fiction, for schlocky movies, and for tests of endurance. To help things along, the Marathon sells bottomless mugs o' coffee; $11.00 gets you the mug and all the coffee you can drink. Amazingly enough, what with my current limited coffee diet, this was the first year I drank no coffee whatsoever during the 'Thon. Sure, I had my Penguin Mints and we had energy drinks around 11:00 pm or so, but not a single drop of coffee passed my lips. (Compare that to 1999, when I drank a mug between every movie and was jittering so hard by the end that not only did I have to leave before the last film, but I was actually blurry.)
Renee was well-suited for the event, having gained much experience in all-night anime rooms at Arisia, but even so, I was very proud of her for staying awake the entire time. Not many first-timers fare so well! Plus, she helped keep me up the entire time, and not only was this the first year I didn't have any coffee, it was the first year I didn't take a nap at all. I fully credit R-Jo with the motivation for this fine accomplishment.
Michael McAfee, our erstwhile Red Shift and baritono profundo, sat with us for some of the movies and we enjoyed bantering some good quips back and forth. The high school kids who were sitting a few rows ahead of us were digging it.
On with the movie schedule! The Marathon often has a theme to which most of the movies adhere; this year's theme was "Bots Over Boston" and, with a few exceptions, almost every film did indeed feature robots.
1. FORBIDDEN PLANET
One of the Marathon favorites. Everybody loves Robby the Robot! I think this is at least the second time I've seen it at the Thon. It's always fun, always worth watching Robby the Robot make booze for that nutty astronaut chef, and shoot a monkey with a laser, and it's always fun counting all the Freudian allusions and listening to Leslie Nielsen sincerely deliver some incredibly goofball lines into his See-N-Say Belt Communicator. We got a good laugh early on as Nielsen shoots a ray gun at an impenetrable door: Zap-zap-zap! Zap-zap-zap! whereupon we chimed in with "Jingle all the way!"
2. METROPOLIS (2001)
This was actually the animated feature adapted from a famous manga; subtitled and a lot of fun. Author Osamu Tezuka took a lot of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS story motifs -- the robot girl, the monolithic tower of Babel, the various social strata of the giant city, the immense machinations underneath -- but makes an entirely new story out of it. It's entertaining, the character designs are part-Western, part-Japanese (the protagonist is designed directly after Japan's beloved Astroboy) and has one of the best soundtracks ever, opting more for Dixieland and jazz. There's a beautiful, all-too-brief scene featuring "St. James Infirmary" that works so nicely, and the end song starts rather incongruously, but as it's shown over scenes of increasing destruction and character interactions, it works amazingly well. Even if some of the backgrounds and concepts looked like a late 90s Final Fantasy game ("Hey, I bet if he jumps up on top of that train, he'll find a Phoenix Down!")
3. FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER
We were originally slated to get THE CRAWLING EYE, a classic bit of 50s schlock (and first national Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode) but the print was in too bad a condition to show, so we got this instead. It was a true howler, a Z-grade movie made specifically as drive-in fodder to give the kids an excuse to make out and not have to worry that they're missing something good up on the screen. For one, the Frankenstein name is a tie-in for marquee value only; there is a half-human, half-robot character who goes on a rampage, and his first name's even Frank, but he's no Universal Monster creation, that's for sure. At one point, to illustrate his robot-ness, he "freezes" up in mid-sentence. This effect is achieved by simply freezing a frame and keeping it frozen for 20, 30 seconds, in complete silence. We all thought maybe the print had failed, and it was gonna melt off the screen in a moment. If only it had.
The plot, once we actually found one, involved a bunch of aliens right out of Plan 9 From Outer Space (including one charming fellow who looked and acted like a bald Jon Lovitz) who travelled to Earth to kidnap women for breeding purposes. They land in Puerto Rico and start grabbing bikini babes off the beach and, incongruously enough, from a swingin' poolside party. Apparently Earth girls really are easy, as they pretty much walk to the spaceship without any kind of struggle whatsoever. Oh, there's two American scientists, too; your typical square-jawed American thinker and the beautiful and smart woman who proves to be ABSOLUTELY USELESS when it comes to conflict. Renee began cataloging all the women characters who were useless, or who actually did stuff to help. In the end, it's pretty much Frank -- all corrupted after his rocket crashes -- to stomp over all the aliens and save the day. Thing is, he's no better than the aliens themselves; the aliens kidnap a buncha women and either "keep" them for the aforementioned breeding or, as subtly hinted at by Dr. Leering Jon Lovitz, "gotten rid of." But while Frank goes crazy, he roams all around, indiscriminately killin' random Puerto Ricans with machetes or Stranglin' Hands.
Anyway, the film's padded out with extended driving scenes (both automobile and scooter!), the use and re-use stock footage, cheap sets (I nearly lost it when we saw the overhead fluorescent lighting in the spaceship), the Now Sounds of Today's Youth with two "hit" songs from groups you never heard from again, guns which kill people by emitting a puff of steam, and -- for absolutely no reason whatsoever -- some guy in a gorilla suit with a crazy monster mask. This is why I love the Marathon.
This was a regional premiere; a thought-provoking independent feature about the nebulously bleak future (a broken-down society after "The Decline", which is never fully explained but that doesn't really matter.) Walter, a reclusive scientist hiding out in his brownstone, designs and builds an android, whom he affectionately names Puzzlehead. Puzzlehead looks very human-like -- in fact, he's the spitting image of Walter himself (both roles were played by the same actor and clever use of body doubles) and the first act of the film involves Puzzlehead's learning and his first forays into the outside world.
However, Walter becomes infatuated with Julia, a bleak and lonely girl who works at the corner grocery store, watching her through the eyes of Puzzlehead (who does all the outside things for Walter, including shopping.) When Puzzlehead starts to interact with Julia and she begins to take a kind interest in him, Walter decides to take over from there, seeing his big chance. It's a great concept -- a human posing as the android he created to pose for him -- and things just keep getting incredibly muddled through the second and third acts. Puzzlehead begins to resent his slave-like treatment, resents Walter's co-opting of his identity just to get to a girl, Julia eventually ends up a "guest" of Walter's, kept under lock and key in his apartment much like Puzzlehead is, Puzzlehead disguises himself to look like Walter in turn, and that's all I'm gonna say without more spoilers.
The problem was that Julia's character was weak and, when you're a weak character in a film with only three main characters, the weakness is really apparent. The director, James Bai, was in attendance after the screening for a little QA, and the question of why Julia didn't just escape, or do something -- anything -- self-assertive, came up. It first came up in the form of a rambling question by a younger girl who began by listing off all the bad things that happened to Julia, to which Bai sarcastically responded "I know what happened; I've seen the movie." The audience, sensing that there may be someone with an axe to grind who was about to hijack the entire QA session for their own personal dialogue, began to heckle, but from what I heard from someone sitting near the girl, she really wasn't intending to do that. She just had difficulty articulating her question. Another audience member asked the same question later on, rephrasing it in simpler terms, and Bai's answer was something along the lines of "Well, you know, I just really hadn't given her character that much thought." Honest, yes; good storytelling, no.
And to his credit, Bai offered to speak with the girl in the lobby after the QA and answer her questions; from what I heard they did so and she ended up satisfied with the answers he gave, but still, he didn't have to be a dick to her from the get-go. And it really wasn't kind of the audience to heckle the girl, either. But that's QA for you and thankfully the drama subsided.
Up in the balcony, we were trying to come up with theories to justify Julia's behavior in terms of the story, and not in terms of technical writing -- this future was bleak, people had lost hope, and we'd already seen Julia being accosted by not only desperate criminals but a leering, horrible landlord. Perhaps she felt the crazy scientist guy and his identical android twin was the best of all possible evils, as cold and unfeeling as they were to her. Renee also noted that there will always be people, male and female alike, who are pretty much human doormats and will operate on inertia, living their life along the path of least resistance, but boy it's difficult to watch them onscreen. And there wasn't any love shown between any of the characters. No love. Just this resigned feeling of "might as well stay with you." Not so much fun.
5. FLASH GORDON in ROCKETSHIP
Yes! Another fun, goofy, mind-boggling feature. The film was a 77-minute cut of a full-length Flash Gordon serial, one that pretty much set up the mythos for the 70s film extravaganza -- golden college boy Flash Gordon and pretty (pretty looking and pretty useless) Dale Arden flying off in Professor Zarkov's rocketship, Ming the Merciless, his daughter Princess Midriff, hawkmen, wrasslin' in the Arena of Death, many chases through caves, many parts where our heroes are taken prisoner, and ... some seriously disturbing costumes. Every guy wore short pants. REALLY short pants. This includes guys with more hair on their legs than legally allowed. Cut from this feature were all the serial cliffhangers and their resolutions, but you could easily see where some of them had been (Flash needs to jump behind this Explosion-Proof Wall after he blows up the furnace! But before he leaps, we see the explosion? Did he make it-- oh yeah, he did, look, he's behind the wall now.)
The rocket ship effects were great fun (some of the space armada featured these top-like things suspended on strings, swinging back and forth whenever they got hit) and the acting, especially Ming and Voltan, the leader of the Hawkmen (whose best fight scene involving him sumo-bumping Ming's henchmen away with his ample belly.) Meanwhile, Flash turns invisible for a while and runs around choking some of the bad guys, and it was hilarious to watch henchmen run up to nothing, stop, then clutch their throat in a desperate fight for consciousness. However, Dale Arden is still an enigma; she's blonde and skinny and completely useless in a fight, but everybody and their freakin' uncle wants to marry her. This includes Ming and even Voltan for a while. Meanwhile, Princess Midriff is lookin' damn good, but we can't have Flash going off with the exotic, slightly-chunkier woman when he needs to be with the innocent, pure, and rail-thin Dale. Not for Princess Midriff's lack of trying, mind you. Renee gnashed her teeth a bit over this, and I don't blame her.
At any rate, you can bet the running joke of the feature was singing "Aaaaah!!" every time someone said "Flash". Now my rule for this is that you only sing if someone just says his first name, not his full "Flash Gordon" moniker, because that's not the Queen lyric anyway. What was really fun was echoing the singing in the tone of the line. Excited exclamation of "Flash!" brings an "AAAAHHH!" while someone sadly says "Flash..." and we barely murmur "ahhhhh." Oh, that shit never gets old, I tell you.
6. THE TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD
We were told in advance that this was a "special sneak preview film" but we couldn't be told what it was beforehand. It turned out to be a ludicrously deadpan alien invasion parody from the people behind the ludicrously deadpan LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, involving the "I'm as mad as a mad guy who's mad" style of dialogue and whatnot. Some of it worked well; there was a floozy and her scheming pimp who spoke mostly in 40s slang even though the film was set in the modern day, and two affably sincere "golly gosh" sailor types who always amused me. The whole film revolved around alien forehead creatures that were seeking to control Earth by attaching them to people's own foreheads, turning them into alien-controlled people who often spoke in needless non-sequitur. Meanwhile, two scientists are working on a theory that the "forehead controls all thought" and not, say, that silly thing called a brain; one scientists drinks serum made from foreheads and his intellect expands, along with his cranium. By the end of it he looks like John Lithgow after an attack by an angry swarm of bees.
Our gang o' three was split by this film: Pete loved it mostly for the dialogue, R-Jo outright loathed it (though she appreciated the fact that the film definitely didn't take itself seriously at all) and me, sitting literally between the two, had an opinion somewhere in the middle. See, last year we'd seen a similar ludicrous feature called NAKED MONSTER, which was a 15-minute short needlessly expanded into a nearly 2-hour feature, and it was excruciating. SCREAMING FOREHEAD was definitely better than NAKED MONSTER in that regard, but just because it was better didn't mean it was good. There was one bit of dialogue that we all kind of enjoyed, as Dutch and Big Dan, the two sailors, await an attack with their librarian companion:
DUTCH: Uh oh, we've got company!
BIG DAN: Where?!
DUTCH: Oh, not yet -- but don't you think that'll be a great thing to say when they do show up? If I see them, I'll let you know by saying "Uh oh, we've got company." How's that?
BIG DAN: Okay, sounds good. You say that. But no falsies!
I was later told this film ran 88 minutes, and I responded by saying I believe a "1" was left off the beginning of that figure. We were a test audience for this movie and were encouraged to fill out a questionnaire after the film (and I certainly know Renee gave her two, three, ninety-five cents on the film) but my overall consensus was that while it wasn't reprehensible, it'd be better suited as a straight-to-DVD kind of thing.
Next post: Midnight movies, shorts galore, and we eat crepes.