Surviving 26 Hours Of Horror At The Music Box
(originally posted on Chicagoist -10/22/13)
11 AM – I’ve been coming to the Music Box’s annual marathon of horror films since 2009 (when it was called The Music Box Massacre), but this is the first year that I decide to try to do the full 24 hours (inexplicably, extended this year to 26 hours). I had thought of ways to prepare, but I eventually come to the conclusion that there simply is no way to prepare for something like this and drive over to the Music Box with my coffin-shaped flask of whiskey, a cooler of beer in the trunk, and my insanely accommodating girlfriend. Okay, Music Box. Let’s do this.
11:30 AM – We arrive at the Music Box and are among the first 200 people through the door, so we receive an actual barf bag full of “goodies.” It’s mostly local business cards and paraphernalia advertising the new Carrie remake, but the real score is a free pass to any screening of the upcoming Wicker Man revival playing at the Music Box next week. We find two isolated seats in the far right of the front row (perfect), and I look around at what will be my home for the next day. These people are definitely prepared; they have sleeping bags and back-packs full of supplies. They’re either old pros or big Burning Man fans. I am suddenly glad to be going commando.
11:40 AM – The classic trailers start, and they’re pretty entertaining. King Kong Vs. Godzilla is great but the best trailer by far is for the Albert Brooks comedy, Real Life. It mocks exploitation movies in general, and 3-D movies in particular, but Real Life wouldn’t be anybody’s idea of a horror film—unless you belonged to the Loud family—so its inclusion here is a little strange. But whatever. It might be the funniest trailer I’ve ever seen.
12 PM – Projection Manager Doug McLaren hits the stage with some cat named Wolfman and that dude Capone from Ain’t It Cool News to introduce the first film and get things going. I’m not sure if Doug is doing the repertory bookings at the Music Box now but his boundless enthusiasm over the next 26 hours leads me to believe that he had a very large hand in booking this particular festival. Wolfman and Capone are both agreeably snarky, with the slight snark-edge going to Wolfman (who seems to have a personal vendetta against that Carrie remake). Doug tells us that of the 15 films being presented at the fest this year, only the brand new 4k restoration of Maniac Cop 2 will not be shown on 35mm. Considering recent events in film presentation—like the Music Box’s Noir City fest—this is a pretty impressive number and judging by the positive audience reaction the effort is greatly appreciated. Capone makes a crack about other fests that are content to show movies on DVD and I can only assume he’s taking a shot at The Massacre the previous weekend at the Patio Theater.
The Massacre split from the Music Box two years ago and I’m guessing this righteous obsession over quality control on the part of the latter might have had something to do with it. But it’s only a theory. At any rate, true to Doug’s word, almost all of the prints presented today will be in uniformly excellent condition. After a few words about how much puke our completely functional barf bags would actually hold—about a liter—the first film of the day is introduced: a silent version of Poe’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher from 1928. The subtitles are in French but read in English. However, the narrator’s accent is so thick that I would have had better luck translating myself. No matter, the film is eerily beautiful (it was co-written by Luis Bunuel) and it would be a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, but I am acutely aware that the film is approximately 1/26th of a 26 hour regime of self inflicted punishment that I am just now beginning. I dutifully abandon all hope.
1:15 PM – Island Of Lost Souls (1932) is up next and it’s one of the few really famous horror films of the period that doesn’t rely on a really famous monster, but from what I’ve read about his real life, Charles Laughton would certainly qualify as both famous and a bit of a monster. His delightfully hammy performance as Dr. Moreau is key to the film’s longevity but it’s soon overshadowed by the groundbreaking make-up effects by Charles Gemora and Wally Westmore (both were uncredited). Of course, the film’s true cultural significance lies in being the source of the phrase “The natives are restless tonight” as well as the inspiration behind the title of Devo’s debut record (Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo). But all that aside, the intense ending is still pretty goddamn scary. I can only imagine what they thought in 1932.
2 PM – My girlfriend is hungry. She wants popcorn. And that is what happens.
2:30 PM – People have already begun to roll out their sleeping bags on the floor space between the front row and the stage. I find this tacky for two reasons:
1. Too many people are thoughtlessly invading the space that I believe should be universally recognized as leg room for those intrepid souls who came early enough to procure a front row seat.
2. If you can’t make it past the bed time of an infant, then maybe you shouldn’t be at a 26-hour horror film fest.
2:40 PM – The Black Room (1935) with Boris Karloff starts. I’m not sure if it’s because Karloff is playing twins (one of them evil, of course), but I’m instantly reminded of Jeremy Irons and Dead Ringers. I never realized how much Irons looks like Karloff. It’s creepy, man. And they’ve both got that thespian-borderline-pedophile lisp going on. Weird.
3:55 PM – We decide to bail on The Night Monster with Bela Lugosi. We’re hungry and we already got a healthy dose of Lugosi in Island Of Lost Souls. We head to Uncommon Ground and I have my first drink of the day. It’s something called a Perfect Pear Manhattan and I got it mainly because of Karloff’s love of pears in The Black Room (“Pears are the perfect fruit!!!”) Whatever the case, it is stroooong. So far—so great.
5:05 PM – I’m skeptical that our seats will still be there when we return, but they are. People are real cool about not stealing seats at this thing. People are real cool about almost everything here. Wolfman is on stage making fun of the sleeping bag people, and that makes me like him even more. They are introducing The Manitou (1978) and Doug is so excited that he looks like he’s going to pee his pants. The Manitou is about a woman who has a fetus growing on her neck that sprouts a Native American dwarf with supernatural powers. It also has Tony Curtis as a San Francisco fortune teller who does battle with the mini-medicine man. Curtis reads all of his lines as if he were still playing Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell Of Success. Maybe he IS still playing Sindey Falco in Sweet Smell Of Success! There’s also a healthy dose of nudity and exploding people. Everyone loves it.
6:50 PM – At the end of the credits for The Manitou, I am somewhat shocked to learn that the movie is rated PG. Man, people in the ’70s were laaaaid back.
7 PM – At seven hours in, I’m starting to feel a little weird. They bring out David Schmoeller to introduce his film Crawlspace—a film from 1987 that is notable mainly because it features a typically unhinged performance by Klaus Kinski. Schmoeller is soft spoken and is asked several times by the audience to overcome that and speak louder into his microphone. He seems nice enough and all, but I don’t get the feeling that he particularly enjoys coming to these things. He has plenty of interesting things to say about making independent genre films in the ‘80s (“We were making product”), but he simply can’t pretend to be psyched about answering the millionth question about what it was like to be working with that asshole Klaus Kinski.
9:15 PM – William Lustig is another story. Lustig is here tonight to present the world premiere of the newly restored Maniac Cop 2 (1990), and, man, has he got a few stories for you. I love this guy. He talks about how he agrees with Schmoeller about the assembly line nature of genre film-making in the ‘80s, but Lustig saw this as a ticket to freedom. He tells us that as long as he delivered the film on budget and on time, his investors didn’t give a shit what he did. The film had already been sold based on the title and the artwork—and if it was good, then that was fine, too. “There were no committees,” Lustig says. It’s the same thinking that spawned the Val Lewton classics of the ‘40s. I’m not going so far as to compare Maniac Cop 2 to Cat People or I Walked With A Zombie, but there’s a home-spun quality to Lustig’s work that has all but vanished since “B” pictures morphed into the new big budget A picture. Where’s the heart? Where are the William Lustigs?
11:35 PM – It’s tough, but we decide to tear ourselves away from Child’s Play (1988) to go get a couple of drinks at Ginger Man. I love Child’s Play, but I’ve seen it so many times and by the time the next two movies are over (Slumber Party Massacre and Possession—two movies I wouldn’t DREAM of missing) the bars will be closed. I try to enjoy myself because I know the next 13 hours will be spent in a virtual cinematic lockdown. Some douche who keeps saying he’s an attorney tries to start a bar fight and the cops come—none of which are maniacs. We go get a slice down the street and head back to the Box.
1 AM – I grab the coffin flask out of the car and stuff a couple of beers in my jacket. The sweet sound of cracking beers started a few hours ago, so I know I’m not the only one sneaking in adult beverages but I still feel like a degenerate.
1:15 AM – Did somebody say “degenerate?” The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) is next and holy crap is it great! Directed by Amy Holden Jones and written by feminist activist Rita Mae Brown, this movie is super smart and the most purely entertaining movie at the fest. It also delivers exactly what you would expect from a movie called “Slumber Party Massacre” but the fact that it was made by two women makes all those lingering close-ups of female nudity feel a whole lot less skeevy.
2:40 AM – Cafe Flesh. Google it.
2:45 AM – Next up is the most divisive movie of the fest: Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981). It is given a half-hearted introduction by Wolfman and after it is over, Doug—who is enthusiastic about EVERY movie—won’t say a word about it. It was originally supposed to play at 11:30 PM, but public outcry caused it to be moved back to this later time slot. Even the film’s defenders seem to have a problem with its inclusion in a 26 hour horror film fest, arguing that it cheapens the film to be on display next to “trash.” Bullshit. It is the most electrifying experience of the fest. Some people in the audience LOVE it (including me) and some people seem to be HATING it. Either way, EVERYone is having a reaction to it. Ostensibly about a painful divorce, it doesn’t take long to spin wildly out of control. Combining elements of Lovecraft, Bergman, Cronenberg, and William Burroughs, it’s one of the best and nerviest films I’ve ever seen. I don’t pretend that there will ever come a day when I’ll be able to comprehend everything that this movie is doing, but it blows me away every time I see it. Besides, Zulawski pitched this film to Paramount as “a film about a woman who fucks an octopus”. If he can have a sense of humor about it, so can we.
3:45 AM – But that doesn’t mean Possession doesn’t deserve a little respect from the philistines. The couple across the aisle from me have been eating footlong Subway sandwiches and cereal all day. When the male philistine, after his third sandwich of the day, begins to pull a noisy bag of chips out of his back-pack during a particularly intense moment during Possession, I can stand it no longer. I “sssssh” him. He looks at me angrily and mutters something vaguely menacing under his breath—but decides to back down and put the offending bag of snacks away until the Freddy Krueger movie starts.
5 AM – Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) begins, but only after we are treated to the rockin’ Dokken video from the film’s soundtrack (screened on the VHS format, no less). About 50 percent of the people still remaining in the theater (not a ton, after the onslaught of Possession) are asleep during a movie about kids who get killed while they dream. A perfect irony. I’m all hopped up on Zulawski, though—so I spend the run time of Dream Warriors trying to figure out who’s getting murdered in their sleep.
6:45 AM – We were promised a “surprise film” and that film turns out to be the semi-classic Burial Ground (1981). Apparently, tracking down the rights to Italian zombie movies from the ‘80s isn’t very easy, so we’re not really supposed to be watching this. Not officially. But if we were, I’d be very freaked out by the 36-year-old who’s playing a little boy with an unhealthy attachment to his mother. I look at my girlfriend and she confirms that, no, I’m not hallucinating this shit. But none of this is happening anyway, so what’s the difference?
8:30 AM – Doug is looking like he’s starting to lose it. I wonder if I look like that, too. I probably do but I stopped looking at myself in the mirror about six hours ago. He’s onstage to introduce a brand new print of TerrorVision (1986) that is literally about to be run through a projector for the first time. Maybe it’s the crazy talking, but I’m of the mind that once is enough for this piece of junk. (Looks great, though!)
9:30 AM – I feel like Malcom McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.
10:15 AM – Just when I’m starting to feel all ’80s’d out we get C.H.U.D. and my faith is restored. The cast is incredible (John Heard, Daniel Stern, John Goodman, Jay Thomas, and every other actor on the planet circa 1984), it wears its social conscience on its sleeve (taking on the plight of New York City’s subway-tunnel people 16 years before the award winning documentary Dark Days), and boasts the best title ever. Most everyone who knows will tell you that C.H.U.D. is an acronym for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers (except for Captain Bosch. He’d say, “My ass!”), and I spend the entire 96 minutes of this movie saying those four words over and over again to myself. I am unable to stop pulling at this linguistic thread and I am very worried.
11 AM – Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. See? I told you.
12 PM (again) – It is time for horror trivia. I know most of the answers, but I can’t bring myself to raise my hand. What if I get called on? I can’t be sure that I even know how to speak more than four words anymore. My girlfriend is disgusted with me. She really wants a free t-shirt. One more movie, dude. Hold it together.
12:15 PM – And it all winds down with a beautiful print of Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971). This is the movie that provided the inspiration for some of Friday the 13th’s most famous murder scenes (machete to the face, the fornicating double impalement), but with a mystery plot that’s about a hundred times more complicated. Which seems like a cruel joke after 24 hours of onscreen mayhem and general brain melting. Ha! Ha! Music Box! HA! HA!
2 PM – We emerge into the sunlight. Free. But weird. I mean, I’m exhilarated, and tired, and glad to have gone through this—but if I see any of these people on the street, I’m gonna ignore them like I’m Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club. What happens at the Music Box of Horrors should fucking stay there, buddy. My girlfriend and I go down the street to Coobah for brunch and a French whore’s bath, like I do every year. After that, we’ll go home and try to move on with our life. Until next year, that is—after all, they say the brain can’t really remember pain.Read less