Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting revival screenings of two very different movies, presumably giving them the only thing they have in common. One was Meet Joe Black, the oft-GIF'd film where Death decides he wants to see what life is like and figures he'd have an easier time talking to people if he took the form of the handsomest man in the world (Brad Pitt), a plan that pays off, er, swimmingly (see the movie, get the joke!). It's a fairly long and talky film, and - perhaps goes without saying - not exactly "on brand" for me, but I absolutely adore it and if I wasn't hosting along with pal (and BMD contributor!) Todd Gilchrist, I just would have been in the audience anyway. And it was wonderful, because when I saw it in theaters in 1998* I was not old or wise enough to appreciate it as much as I do now. Plus it was in a largely empty theater, so this revival was the first time I got to see it with an appreciative crowd, confirming that the film's intentional humor does indeed land and that its sadder moments can make others cry along with me.
The other movie that I hosted was a 40th anniversary showing of Motel Hell, which as a Fangoria cover model is definitely more in line with my usual MO. For those unfamiliar with the film, it's not entirely unlike Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where a backwoods type kills passersby and uses them as meat he sells to locals, with star Rory Calhoun inhabiting both Jim Seidow's folksy "normal" demeanor AND Leatherface's penchant for adorning masks and wielding a chainsaw. Interestingly, it was released in 1980, exactly six years after Tobe Hooper's original Massacre and six years before his sequel, which tonally has more in common with Motel Hell than his first film. Motel Hell has precious little on-screen violence and only one real gore scene (of the killer's demise, in fact), but it's loaded with morbid humor and an off-kilter vibe, the same things that would leave so many TCM fans puzzled or even angry with Hooper's 1986 followup. Hell they even both end in chainsaw duels, so if anyone ever says Motel Hell was a "ripoff" of TCM, then you might say TCM2 in turn was ripping off Motel Hell (or, at least, getting some misguided revenge).
However that's a different topic for a different day. For now, I just want to mention that seeing Motel Hell with a crowd - and on the big screen for the first time - opened my eyes to how funny it actually was. I wouldn't say I was a die-hard fan of the film when I first saw it a decade or so ago, watching by myself at home via DVD, but thanks to the screening I "get it" now more than I probably would have if I hadn't attended this revival. Calhoun's resigned expressions about the perils of cannibalistic farming are a hoot, as are the antics of a scene stealing Nancy Parsons as his sister, making it clear that while it leans more toward the comedy side of its horror-comedy existence, it's more successful in that department than I was able to discern when seeing the film alone (and not expecting it to be so horror-lite). And so I can officially add it to the long line of films that I have reappraised over the years thanks to the infectious presence of an appreciative crowd, something I wish every movie could benefit from, and every horror fan could easily experience for themselves.
It's that second part that stings, because I know that I am privileged to live somewhere with a healthy repertory scene. Here in Los Angeles we not only have several theaters that are more or less dedicated to revival programming (the New Beverly, the Aero, the Egyptian...), but first-run theaters like the Arclight and the TCL Chinese are home to frequent special screenings like these as well - you can go to the movies every night here without ever "having" to see a new film. However, in smaller cities and rural areas, this simply isn't possible - fans have to either drive hundreds of miles to the closest major city (and some do, bless them) or settle for the handful of more common seasonal options. Halloween, for example, gets a re-release every October, and based on what I've seen when the site lists all the participating theaters, it doesn't seem too difficult to find a reasonably close location if you want to see it on the big screen. But for every rare example like that, there are dozens (hundreds?) of notable genre films that someone in a town with one theater will never get to experience without traveling.
And that's a real bummer, because - again - it's the best way to give a film a second chance, and can make you a fan out of something you were previously mixed or even completely down on. In fact, the same day of Meet Joe Black, I was sitting at the New Beverly for a matinee showing of Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning, the entry that's surged the most in my ranking over time thanks to - you guessed it - big screen viewings. When I started really getting into the series later in high school (I saw 4-6 and 8 at a young age, but the rest not until my teens), ol' Roy Burns didn't fare as well as most of the entries with the real McCoy, but I came back around in my 20s after seeing it at one of our revival theaters and have been singing its praises since. No, it's not exactly a horror masterpiece, but the screenplay's unparalleled mean streak, oddball characters, and higher than average body count make it one of the most appealing ones to see with a like-minded crowd. I still prefer 2, 4, and 6, but New Beginning is comfortably slotted fourth on my ranking; the original might be a better film, but if I had my choice between the two of them there would be no hesitation - I'd choose Roy over Pamela any day of the week (and twice on Friday) for the sheer nuttiness of it.
In fact, if I can pat myself on the back a bit, my friend who was sitting with me for the showing is a reformed hater himself; I convinced him to check it out at a previous revival presentation and he admitted after that he finally understood the appeal. But if you're simply anti-Roy no matter what, I have good news: New Beginning isn't the series' only entry that benefits from the big-screen experience. I find the 3rd film rather dull and dated at home, but it regains many of its charms when it's presented in its proper 3D, with a couple hundred people cheering for Shelly taking on the bikers or applauding all of the goofy 3D shots. And while it'll never be my favorite, or even top ten, I will be first to admit I had a pretty great time seeing Freddy vs. Jason for a 15th anniversary showing in 2018 - I still had some of the same problems with it, but damned if I didn't have a good time egging on the murderers as they faced off for the finale, which didn't seem to take as long to get to as it does at home, when you're alone with your thoughts and the world's shittiest Jason Mewes impersonator.
(New Blood, I should stress, does not ever work for me no matter how hard I try to enjoy it. I've even hosted screenings of it TWICE trying to get on its good side, but it just never clicks. Can't win 'em all.)
And this mini-phenomenon isn't limited to movies I didn't like that much - I've also walked out of screenings liking movies even more than I already did. I had seen Black Christmas several times before I had the chance to see it theatrically, and had long been a fan of it for its creepy atmosphere and well-done, frightening murder scenes, not to mention the unnerving ambiguous ending that prompted repeat viewings in the first place. But while the big screen presentation didn't yield any more clues to solving the killer's identity, it did reveal how funny the movie was, something that had largely gone over my head during all of my solo viewings. While Mrs. Mac's boozy antics always made me chuckle, there are several other things - John Saxon's endlessly amused partner, Jess' head-slapping "Seriously, do you realize this is the only door or window in the whole house that's locked?" exclamation, and pretty much everything Nash says among them - that crack me and everyone else up every time. What was once just a solid horror film in my eyes has become a can't miss big-screen tradition, to the extent that I don't even want to watch it at home alone.
Again, this unfortunately isn't something all horror fans can benefit from, and it goes without saying that even if they do have local repertory theaters, there's no guarantee that the crowds will be respectful enough to allow this magic to happen (can any of the Presidential candidates promise a Drafthouse in every city? Might help settle who will be the nominee). But if you do have these opportunities, I urge you to take them, in particular for the films you feel you may have been mixed on instead of loving them like many of your peers. And not just around Halloween, either - I've noticed that the junkiest stuff can fill a theater in October when much better films can sometimes struggle to sell half their seats in February or March. Maybe a full 180 on a film is impossible, but the odds are strong that you will walk out with a higher opinion than you walked in with, which is worth the time and cost.
*No, not to see the Phantom Menace trailer, which debuted with the film and in turn accounted for a noticeable percentage of the film's grosses in those pre-Youtube days. In fact I didn't even see the trailers, since I was late to the theater. Still, what a weird choice to hitch the spot to - not the same studio, not the same target audience... I wonder how many MJB fans were sold on seeing this so-called "Star Wars" movie thanks to the attached trailer.