“Dream it in your living room, live it in the theater.” So read the VHS tagline of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, but that slogan could conceivably adorn any horror movie. The experience of seeing a movie on a big screen, and in the company of an appreciative audience, is an essential component of horror cinema–a genre that invites audience participation (in the form of screams, gasps and shouting at the screen) in a way no other type of movie does. It’s not for nothing that so many modern horror films are advertised with clips of audiences freaking out in movie theaters.
Unfortunately the past few decades have seen a steady lessening of the moviegoing experience. In the wake of the VHS boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the DVD revolution of the ‘00s and the current proliferation of online media, the big screen is becoming increasingly marginalized. For those of us who grew up seeing horror movies in theaters this is an incalculable loss.
For proof see the following, my personal listing of horror moviegoing highlights. I know I’ll never forget any of these experiences, which is a good thing, as I doubt I’ll be having too many more.
1. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
My seminal horror moviegoing experience. I vividly recall the theater in which I first viewed A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET back in the eighties–the late Del Amo United Artists multiplex (featured, FYI, in JACKIE BROWN)–and can even pinpoint the date: my twelfth birthday.
I went through some elaborate machinations to see this R rated film, getting my grandmother to buy my ticket and then somehow convincing her to go shopping while I watched the movie. The subterfuge continued once I got into the theater, where a concerned woman asked me if I was there by myself and did I know what kind of movie this was? I responded that yes I did know what kind of movie I was seeing and that my parents were off getting popcorn.
As for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET itself, it scared the fuck out of me–and I loved every minute! The fact that the film now seems pretty stodgy only enhances my memory of that one-time-only, never-to-be-repeated experience.
Here I’m reminded of the late Chas. Balun, who cautioned against harboring a “smug, condescending attitude that you’re some rough, tough hipster who’s seen it all” when watching horror films–and that “if you persist with your cocky delusions, you might just run into the something that will kick that sniggering grin right down your throat.” I’ve had that happen to me exactly twice in recent memory, with my initial viewing of MARTRYS being the second–and most impacting–such instance (see entry #4 for the first).
The circumstances were somewhat less than auspicious: a meeting room at the 2009 Fangoria convention, held in the L.A. Convention Center, with the film projected on a wall. Going in I’ll confess to harboring the very sort of “smug, condescending attitude” described above, and did indeed get my ass kicked big time by this ferocious movie, whose disturbing spell took days to wear off.
3. IN A GLASS CAGE
I was one of the few who saw this Spanish cinemutation during its very brief U.S. theatrical release. That occurred in March of 1989 (six years after the film’s inception) at L.A.’s AMC Century City 16, where the guy selling tickets warned me–or more accurately my dad, as it was an adults-only screening–about the “disturbing nature” of the film. Once in the theater I talked my folks into seeing NEW YORK STORIES, and so experienced the fearsome GLASS CAGE on my own.
For my thoughts on the movie see here. Of the theatrical experience the highlight, as I recall, was seeing who in the audience walked out and when. A band of spiky haired punks were (unexpectedly enough) the first to go, leaving in mass after the opening child murder. From there more and more patrons filed out until–you guessed it–I wound up in a private screening.
4. UNITED 93
Viewing this uncomfortably intense fact-based nightmare at a suburban multiplex was a profoundly impacting experience. The audience was galvanized in a way no conventional film could ever achieve, with the rowdy teenagers in the front row rendered silent and suit-wearing adults shouting racial epithets at the screen.
If you’ve only seen UNITED 93 on DVD then I’m afraid you just haven’t seen it!
5. SATURDAY THE 14th
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but this was the first horror movie I ever saw in a theater. The fact that it was primarily a comedy (it was the SCARY MOVIE of its time), and a PG rated one, explains why I was allowed to go.
The flick wasn’t much, but that initial 1981 viewing, which took place (as did A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) at the Del Amo United Artists multiplex, served as an irresistible gateway drug, with at least two things I’ve never forgotten: an early close-up of blood squirting on a woman’s white purse and the spectacle of people in the theater screaming along with the characters on the screen.
Here I’m referring to the 1989 BATMAN, for which demand was so great that Warner Bros. did something unheard-of back then: it held nighttime screenings on the Thursday before the movie’s Friday opening. I was among those who turned out for one of those early screenings.
I was initially determined to attend one of the big theaters in the Century City/downtown LA area, but let a friend talk me into experiencing the movie at our rinky-dink neighborhood multiplex. I vividly remember waiting in line seemingly for hours, witnessing a near-fight break out in the theater when somebody tried to steal somebody else’s seat, and partaking in the chant of “Start-start the mooovie!” when it was late getting started. I also recall the excitement of finally seeing a movie I’d been eagerly awaiting for years (ever since reading Frank Miller’s DARK KNIGHT RETURNS back in ‘86), as well as the soul-crushing disappointment upon realizing that the flick just wasn’t very good.
7. THE FLY
My first big screen David Cronenberg experience, viewed (yet again) at the aforementioned UA Del Amo multiplex. At the time THE FLY was far and away the grossest movie I’d ever seen, and also one of the most fun, with several images that have indelibly seared themselves into my mind (the inside-out ape, Jeff Goldblum picking off his fingernails, the maggot birth).
The film, incidentally, still holds up, although I have a hard time enjoying it on DVD. Without the accompaniment of an audience screaming or bellowing “eeeeiiiiiiiwwww!,” both of which were constants during that initial viewing, it just seems incomplete somehow.
8. ROBOT MONSTER
I’m referring here to a screening at the 1990 Comic Con, in which I and the other patrons took turns yelling snarky wise-cracks at the screen. It remains the most enjoyable cult movie theatrical experience I’ve ever had, proving that an enthusiastic audience is a crucial component when it comes to cosmically shitty movies like ROBOT MONSTER.
Some other memorable theatrical horror movie experiences, which don’t rank with those detailed above but deserve an honorable mention, include: DEADLY FRIEND (my first experience seeing a movie in an otherwise empty theater), SUSPIRIA (seen at a mid-90s revival screening at which I nearly had my eardrums blown out by the noisy soundtrack), CREEPSHOW (the second or third R rated movie I ever saw, and pretty memorable to my 9-year-old self), JURASSIC PARK (which back in ‘93, believe it or not, was the most badass movie around) and the 1997 NIGHTWATCH (during which, in a repeat of the IN A GLASS CAGE viewing described above, I found my fellow patrons gradually deserting the theater until there was just me).