Collins’ Crypt: Scare Yourself In A Theater, Not At Home

Brian argues for the ideal viewing experience of a theater, even if the film is VOD. 

With so many smaller movies available on VOD before their theatrical run, or on DVD the week following a (contractual?) one or two screen release, I often get review discs for movies that I can see on the big screen. Right now on my desk, I have a DVD of Vamps, which is currently playing at a theater a few miles away, and when I saw The Barrens a few weeks ago at the Mann's Chinese, I went home and listened to the director's commentary on the brand new Blu-ray I had already been sent.

Now, one might wonder why I'd pay to go see a movie at a not-very good theater when I had a perfectly good Blu-ray at home, but to me it never even crossed my mind to skip Darren Bousman's Jersey Devil flick in theaters if it was available (Vamps, on the other hand... we'll see). I love seeing movies theatrically, and even though it's a fool's errand, I want to do my part to support the theatrical experience in this day and age where it seems every distributor doesn't want you to ever leave your house. VOD, streaming, whatever the fuck Ultraviolet is... I have little love for these things. I admit Netflix Instant is a valuable resource, but honestly if I take away the times I use it to find my daily dose of horror, my usage would decrease by roughly 75%, and even then it would mainly be for TV shows I had missed (Breaking Bad, Twin Peaks). I'd rather just go out to the movies and see something new.

On this note, I had a unique theater-going experience last Tuesday, the night before Halloween. Having gotten out of work and seeking something to do, a friend informed me that the Cinefamily would be showing The Tingler, complete with the "Percepto" buzzers in some of the chairs. I had somehow missed this announcement, and already planned to go to the midnight movie anyway, so The Tingler started looking really good. Plus, in between that and the midnight movie (Don't Go In The House), they were showing Ghostwatch, a BBC special that had caused an Orson Welles War Of The Worlds style panic when it aired on the network back in 1992. So despite having the most uncomfortable seats in all of Los Angeles, I was all set for a very interesting and varied triple feature.

Now, House was whatever, but the other two made for a (relatively) fascinating look at how much the theatrical experience enhances a horror movie, and also how it can hurt it. In The Tingler's case, I had a blast - my friend's seat had the buzzer (I got there early and took the time to ensure this), but I could feel it a bit too (more like a nice massage chair than the intended jolt), and there's a fun bit late in the film where the monstrous Tingler invades a movie theater, prompting a planted "audience member" to shriek and pass out in the crowd, rescued by a "nurse" (another plant) who would whisk the victim out to the lobby so the movie could resume. It was hokey, sure, but it was FUN, and even for a few moments, it was great to relive a time where guys like William Castle actively worked to get butts in seats, as opposed to now where a filmmaker seems happy to have his movie debut on Facebook. Ultimately, it was the most fun I've had all month in a theater, which is saying a lot since I was in one just about every day thanks to all the festivals, the surge of horror-based revival programming here and at the New Beverly, and new wide releases.

That claim is even more impressive when you consider that The Tingler kind of sucks as a movie. It's slow, the plot is ludicrous even by Castle's standards, the writing is lazy (to get his primary characters together, he simply has one of them wander in on the other while he's performing an autopsy - from that point on the two are best friends), and the FX for the titular creature couldn't even have been acceptable back in 1959 when it was released. But none of that mattered - I and everyone else there was having a ball. I would never sit and watch this thing at home, but I'd probably go back next year (it's an annual tradition; this is the first time I've had the night off to go) to enjoy the EXPERIENCE all over again.

And then came Ghostwatch. As I said, this set off a panic of sorts during its initial broadcast; despite a writing credit at the top, many viewers thought it was 100% real (they received a reported 30,000 calls to their switchboard), and thus began freaking out when their usual newscasters (who were playing themselves) started being menaced by poltergeists "live" during their broadcast. Sadly, one viewer who was already having mental issues became convinced he was being haunted as well, having heard similar knocking sounds that the ghosts use in the "documentary", and took his own life a few days after it was broadcast, telling his parents in a suicide note that he'd be with them always by joining the ghosts.

So with all that happening, this must be some super-scary shit, right? Well, no. In fact, it's a crushing bore for the most part; only in its final 20 minutes does it actually start to get scary, and even then it's hardly the sort of thing I'd expect anyone to panic over. But then again, I was watching in a movie theater, after an intro where one of the theater's employees read off a backstory not unlike the previous paragraph. Ghostwatch apparently hasn't aired on BBC since its first broadcast, but why would it? The ONLY way this thing works is in its original context - that is, airing as a supposed live news broadcast featuring documentary footage of a haunted family. Even if it aired again on TV it would probably fail to have even a quarter of the impact that it had before, unless by some miracle those newscasters are still there and haven't aged (and also only if the film was watched by people who missed the hoopla the first time around). It's not like Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, where you occasionally run into some poor sod who thought it was real and giggle at their misfortune - the makers of the special put all of their energy in how to trick us into thinking it was real, and seemingly forgetting to make sure it still works as a film on those who knew it wasn't.

(Don't Go In The House would work equally well in theaters or at home, for the record.)

But Ghostwatch is a very rare exception. Obviously there are some movies that would work BETTER at home (any home invasion film like Inside should take on an extra bit of tension), but that was the first time I can recall where I thought "this does not work in a movie theater." Ideally, a movie would benefit from both settings; the (good) Paranormal Activity movies are a blast in theaters, with everyone getting tensed up (for me, the collective worried groan at the first "Night #1" text prompt in Paranormal 2 was more entertaining than just about anything in the movie). And for me personally, since I don't scare easily, I get a lot of entertainment out of seeing the people I'm with get freaked out - I took great joy from watching for specific reactions during my second viewing of Sinister, knowing when things like the "Lawn Work" scare were coming. Obviously, that doesn't really work at home unless you somehow have several people over who are paying attention instead of talking, but then again, a movie like Paranormal Activity does result in my being a little uneasy when it's time to turn off the lights. In other words, I can see the value in both experiences there.

For the most part, however, I always want to see everything for the first time in a theater. The size, the professional (in theory) setup, the lack of potential distractions (provided the crowd isn't populated with assholes)... it's just ideal to me for horror flicks, and I never regret opting for the theatrical option when I could have just watched it for less on my Xbox. Some of it stems from my fondness for things that should not be, like the fact that I've seen all four of the direct to video Wrong Turn sequels in theatrical settings, and also the occasional "bragging rights" - come on, admit you're jealous I've seen Trick 'r Treat TWICE on 35mm. But ultimately, especially as a reviewer, I think that if you're going to pass judgment on something, the least you can do is see it in an ideal setting. And to me, nothing is more ideal than a proper movie theater.