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An Ode To Sci-Fi Marathons (And A Do It Yourself Guide)

Major Tom helps with the Alien Mating Call contest. (Photos by Monica Castillo)

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SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Boston is the unofficial home of marathons. We host that big marathon in April that shuts down a good portion of the Hub so hundreds of runners can have the roads to themselves. But in the middle of snow season, not too many runners are keen on competing for 26.2 miles. Instead, it’s a perfect time for nerds and geeks to take over a theater for 24 hours and watch shlock, classic, and big budget blockbuster science fiction movies. These are some of the highlights of the marathon (or ‘Thon for short) that took place at the Somerville Theatere from noon on Sunday to noon on Monday last week:

Noon
Garen Daly, the ‘Thon’s organizer, greets the crowd before handing the mic over to a guy dressed in red, white, and gray camo nicknamed Major Tom. On the way in, we were handed a Fireball candy to eat at Major Tom’s command. Once the Fireball is popped, he leads the audience in a countdown to the opening film, a Daffy Duck cartoon, “Duck Dodgers of the 24 1/2st Century.” Audience members quote along and throw light-up ray guns in the air. It ain’t a Sci-Fi marathon in name alone.

2:45pm
A low-budget Danish monster movie named “Reptilicus” stirs the crowd into hearty bouts of laughter and applause. Watching with an audience trained in the style of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” heckling is worth the price of admission, it’s nothing you can get at home. A few competitive jokers jeered at the cheap toy monster to see who could get the biggest laugh from the audience.

8:20pm
The ‘Thon crowd goes wild for a subtitled movie about kids killing kids in a dystopian future. No, it’s not “The Hunger Games,” it’s Fukasaku’s cult predecessor, “Battle Royale.” While buckets of blood are spilled on-screen, a few viewers sneak out for dinner until the coast is clear for the time-traveling romcom, “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Unfortunately, this version of “Battle Royale” was the director’s cut which tacked on about 4 epilogues on an otherwise impressively sharp movie. 

The littlest participant and winner of the Tin Foil Hat contest.

The littlest participant and winner of the Tin Foil Hat contest.

Midnight
It’s officially pajama time. Piles of sleeping bags are now spread out in front of the theater stage and brightly colored Snuggies make an appearance in the lobby. The memorable Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough At Last” with a misanthropic Burgess Meredith, plays as a midnight surprise, but a smart mouth in the center of the theater spoils the ending. The audience turns on him immediately with loud boos and hisses. I dozed off a bit during “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” but recovered in time to catch the famous cat attack sequence of a mini-Grant Williams doing battle with a household tabby. I finally pass out completely during “Phase IV.” It was a movie about killer ants. No disrespect.

8:25am
I came back from a quick run to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts for the awfully cheesy “Escape from LA.” Despite co-starring Pam Grier, Steve Buscemi, and Bruce Campbell, this is not John Carpenter’s finest film. For the majority of the movie, our hero, Snake Plissken, is coughing and sweating out a fever. There are reasons why you don’t wait 15 years to make a sequel, and one of those should be that Kurt Russell looks ridiculous doing sweaty basketball layups and surfing along the Pacific Coast Highway with a wizened surfer dude. Clunky special effects and awful early ’90s hip hop and rock music made it hard to believe this came out a year before the final film, “The Fifth Element.”

10 a.m.
The projectionist had his work cut out for him with the last movie, 26 hours after his shift began. Less than 20 minutes into “The Fifth Element,” the print jammed and burned out on the screen. The theater went dark once the projector went off and a longtime ‘Thon attendee named Wally led the puzzled crowd in a hearty chant of “Wheat Chex! Rice Chex!” which are old sponsors of a famous 1950’s TV show named “Space Cadet.” About five minutes later we’re back into the movie, but the print jammed again at the end of the film. My friend sitting next to me whispered, “I thought this stuff only happened in the movies! I’ve never seen film do that before in real life.” Ah, the thrill of going to the movies with a lovable group of geeks. The way we watch movies is changing, but I’m grateful for the movie-going events like the Boston Sci-Fi ‘Thon, which has only slightly changed over its 38 years.

A Guide to a Do-It-Yourself Sci-Fi Marathon

Perhaps you’d like to skip the Oscars this weekend and catch up with some Science Fiction fun. Using Netflix Instant Watch and an outline of the ‘Thon schedule, here’s a handy guide to making your own Sci-Fi ‘Thon until Awards season has passed.

Start with a recent release: Traditionally, the ‘ Thon kicks off with something from the last year. If you’re the more adventurous type, you can check out the wacky Nazis-in-space flick, “Iron Sky.” Oh yes, zeppelins to the moon, my friends. There’s also a strange ‘80s movie by the name of “Surf Nazis Must Die,” but I can’t attest to its quality. If you really want to go classic, watch the recently restored silent film “Metropolis.” You probably won’t stay awake for a silent movie later on in the evening, so best watch it first if you haven’t seen this gorgeous German movie. And if you’re watching with any sci-fi newbies, be sure to throw on the classic 1968 “Planet of the Apes” for a quick intro.

Go to camp: Now dig into the depths of B-movie madness. You can take the serious route with something like a Tarantino favorite, “Death Race 2000,” or a silly one with the “Mystery Science Theater 3000 Movie.” Sadly, there used to be many episodes on Instant Watch, but the MST3K Movie is the last one left. If you’re looking for monster movie madness, the recent Norwegian release of “Troll Hunter” and the classic “Tremors” should fill your appetite. If you really want to hit the dregs of B-moviedom, Netflix stocks atrocities like “2-Headed Shark Attack,” “Robotropolis,” and “Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus.”

Mix it up with foreign movie favorite: If you can still get to the Oscar-nominated shorts at one of the local theaters, you can catch a ‘Thon favorite, “Death of a Shadow” during the live action program. A French Canadian import, the short is a beautiful steam-punk-esque tragedy set during the First World War. If you want to stay home, then you can check out other gems you might have missed, like “Let the Right One In” and “Timecrimes.” Another ‘Thon player, “Battle Royale,” can be watched once the young ones have gone to bed. “Hunger Games,” this is not.

Cult out: You have quite the selection in this category. How about a ‘70s documentary about possible alien invasions? Look no further than “Chariot of the Gods.” Looking for something a little sexier? Netflix has Jane Fonda in skimpy space outfits (It’s cold in outer space, Jane) in the infamous “Barbarella.” And with a remake on the way, now’s a good chance to re-watch (or watch for the first time) the good old Sam Raimi “Evil Dead.” If you somehow missed out on being one of the arty kids in high school, “Donnie Darko” is readily available.

Finish big: If you’ve gotten this far, you might want explosions or an old personal favorite. Perhaps end in a nightmarish way with the disturbing 1985 “Re-Animator.” If you don’t mind a musical, I’m quite partial to “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long.” And a sci-fi night could always use more KHAN! “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” could be your epic ending to an evening free of bad Seth McFarlane jokes.

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