A Different Kind Of Cinematic Excellence

22 Mar

The Theater.  At first, second, and third glance, it is an unlikely place for memorable cinematic experiences.  It was impossible to move in your seat without a high-pitched creak echoing out against the faded walls.  The floors were constantly sticky and you always had to be ready to lift your feet up at moment’s notice to allow spilled drinks to flow by underneath.

After about 20 minutes into the movie, the first empty bottle would fall over; that familiar clinking would sound out at least a few more times before the credits rolled.  There was a Coke-colored splatter just slightly visible on the bottom right hand corner of the screen, presumably the result of someone’s lobbed soda.  Every now and then, a disinterested teenage usher would walk down the aisles and jiggle a flashlight halfheartedly.  It was ostensibly to keep things under control, but they’d only bother you if you happened totake a pull from your wine bottle right in front of them – at that point they’d just make you throw it out before returning to your seat.

In terms of beverages, the best ‘personal’ drink options were either 40ozs (High Life is a local favorite) or the Pan Flute.  The Pan Flute is a 3-pack of 24oz beer cans that conveniently comes wrapped tightly together.  It vaguely resembles the Peruvian pan flute, but a vague resemblance is all it took for the name to catch on with the local college crowd.  The Pan Flute easily slips under a zipped-up hoodie or under the crook of your arm so that no one is the wiser as you slip past the box office.  The 24oz threesome is also much more than enough to keep you feeling alright throughout the whole movie.

You couldn’t just see any new release at The Theater.  There was an art to picking your spots.  There were some movies that would be ruined if seen there, some that would be alright but not really worth it, and then some that begged to be seen there.  At no other theater was there the same mixture of location, clientele, and environment.

The Theater was situated right in between campus and student apartments, and was also in a somewhat run-down neighborhood.  When you went to a movie, you were most likely going to find a varied crowd with a decent proportion of them inclined to partake in some kind of partying.  The Theater’s managers weren’t running too tight a ship, so there wasn’t much oversight going on.  You could count on enjoying yourself with some recreational beverages as long as you kept it in moderation.

This was a place best suited to enjoying some cold beers and a movie, with an audience that would largely be doing the same.  So you wanted to find a movie that would both supplement and be supplemented by this kind of ‘open-minded’ environment.  Some genres that turned out to fit this category well were broad comedies, ‘pot movies,’ mindless action flicks (but none that relied on huge amounts of special effects, because the grand scale of those would be lost on the drink-stained screen and shaky-at-best sound system), and most of all, horror movies.

It is this last type of movie that The Theater seemed tailor-made for.  There is something about watching a ridiculous horror movie on a dingy theater’s scratchy screen that feels akin to a classic moviegoer experience.  The super-intense, thematically profound horror movies are not the kind of horror we’re talking about here.  No, these are the slasher movies, the teen screams, the grindhouse creature features that inspire fits of frightened laughter and knowing groans with every crazy ‘kill scene.’

I came to horror, or specifically these particular brands of horror movies, later than I came to appreciate many other film genres.  For a long time, I was a bit too grossed out or disturbed by the randomly gratuitous violence in these movies.  But as I entered college – and not inconsequentially moved into the Theater’s neighborhood – I began to see the greatness potential in this horror canon.  Not great in terms of artistic merit and thoughtful filmmaking, but great in terms of the way these movies can become visceral events and communal experiences in a way that few other genres can.

Shortly after being introduced to The Theater, a few close friends and I spent one long summer introducing ourselves to the old-school horror movie catalog.  This involved spending many humid nights going through frosty six-packs and living vicariously through the doomed characters on-screen.  Talking (yelling) at these movies, in relative moderation, is an essential part of the viewing experience.  You can laugh at the ridiculousness of the 80s-era teen parties, or the absurd ways in which the killers take down their victims.  The nature of the action on screen moves the viewer to become more than just a passive spectator; few other types of movies can allow you to run the gamut from yelling, laughing, groaning in disgust, or cringing in fear in under two hours.

While it is highly enjoyable to watch these movies from the comfort of your own living room, it can be a much richer experience to venture out with some friends and beers to a venue that accommodates the lively atmosphere resulting from a horror showing.  The Theater provided that exact kind of venue, and I remember one particular viewing experience that stands out in memory as a shining example of the best things both The Theater and horror movies have to offer.  It was a drizzly night in early Spring, and the Friday the 13th remake had just hit theaters.  While this movie was critically panned and may seem wholly unremarkable on the surface, it was an exciting development for some of us in the area.

As part of our aforementioned Horror 101 summer, my friends and I had discovered the many joys of the old Friday The 13th series.  The original Friday The 13th was a bit more serious and straightforward than some of the other cheesy horror movies – there were legitimately unnerving and intense sequences, and the producers seemed intent on crafting a quality film experience.  But the original also laid the groundwork for the recurring motifs that would make the following sequels such great summer night horror material:  the good-looking but hilariously stereotypical teen protagonists, the incredibly dated style sense, the idyllic summer camp/cabin setting, the copious amounts of drugs, drinking and sex, the cartoonishly indestructible villain (Jason), and the creative yet often absurd death scenes.

We covered Friday 1-4 that summer, and watched as they got broader and dumber with each installment.  Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Viewing each one was a chance to drink, laugh, be disgusted, and sometimes, be a bit scared.  From hallmark moments like the inexplicable wheelchair death scene in Part 2 to the blatant gimmickry of the 3D effects in Part 3, the series never disappointed.  As strange as it is to say about movies concerning menacing killers, we developed a sincere fondness for these films over the course of the summer.  And it was due to this twisted fondness for the Friday movies and their brethren that we were excited to see the remake’s showtimes go up on The Theater’s haphazard Coming Attractions display.

Say what you will about the Friday The 13th remake – the crass, cash-in motives behind its creation and its lack of relative originality or quality as a piece of filmmaking cannot really be refuted.  But the real reasons we had to go see the movie at The Theater had nothing to do with the critical criteria placed on most films.  Instead, it had everything to do with us getting the opportunity to watch this trashy update of one of our favorite O.G. trashy horror movies, in an environment where the crowd experience would be almost as fun as the actual movie.  Where we could slip our Lite Pan Flutes under our sweatshirts on a rainy, dull night and head into a movie we could laugh at, groan at, and which got better as the beers got emptier.

There is something inherently comforting, almost like a borrowed nostalgia, about hearing the projector whir and the film crackle in a rundown theater with a teen slasher movie onscreen.  And while this seems like an elusive experience in today’s luxurious super-multiplex world, we managed to find and live it out at The Theater.

Sure, we would have probably preferred the original Friday or maybe some other vintage 80s classic on that screen – but we got what we came for.  There was plenty of gratuitous teen stupidity, drinking, pot smoking, sexing, and creative Jason slasher action to keep us entertained for two hours.  And there were plenty of other groups in that audience with a similar mindset and liquid accompaniment, which provided the kind of big communal watching experience that wasn’t possible in the living room.

There were no pretensions anywhere in the whole experience, from the shabby carpet in the lobby to the cracked seat covers to the cheap beer everyone smuggled in.  By the time the credits rolled and we moved back out into the night, we had a contented and pleasant buzz that was only partly due to the now-empty Pan Flutes.  It was one of the best movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long time.

For all the incredible, well-crafted, and visually-stunning films I’ve seen at high-quality theaters since then, I still find myself missing that shitty old Theater more times than I care to admit.  That kind of experience will be hard to duplicate again.  At least I can still hope to look forward to more long and hazy horror movie nights this summer.

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