About 10 minutes before the show starts, the horror film crowd begins to gather in the lobby of Durham's Carolina Theatre. Not quite the audience you might expect: no goths, just folks in their 20s and 30s, some college students, some younger. Tonight's offering is a double bill: Sissy Spacek in Carrie and Alfred Soles' Alice, Sweet Alice.
It's the latest episode of Retrofantasma, a horror film series which collector Matt Pennachi started four years ago while living in Greensboro. At his first show (Friday the 13th Part II), he met Michael Snipes, who now promotes the series. Not long after came Adam Hulin, then a filmmaking student at N.C. School of the Arts. He and Pennachi have been collecting rare prints and other movie material ever since.
Now Pennachi works at the Carolina. And as George Romero might put it, all three are the brains behind no less than three regular regional movie gatherings.
Demand for the bi-monthly Retrofantasma series soon spawned the Carolina's Nevermore Film Festival, which shows horror, gothic and fantasy movies over a January weekend. They've also launched the Cinema Overdrive series at Durham's Starlite Drive-In, which lets them branch out into 3-D, sci-fi and "other kinds of trash," Hulin says, like Flash Gordon and Death Race 2000.
Halloween night, Cinema Overdrive's got a triple-feature: Halloween, The Evil Dead, and The Last House on the Left. It's a special night, one likely to draw the regular fans which come from Greensboro, Virginia and beyond.
But should you go, be warned: It's not the usual kind of film crowd. Fans stand up and cheer--not for the actors, but for particularly gory special effects. They clap at the vintage movie trailers, themselves a big draw, and they win door prizes like Elvira tee-shirts and old movie posters.
Think Rocky Horror Picture Show--but with more films and less lingerie.
"During Flash Gordon, one guy on the end of the row sang along to every Queen song," Pennachi recalls. "And nobody shushed him, because it was funny. Everybody wishes they had the chutzpah to sing along to Freddie Mercury."
And now that the fans have their own listserv (started by Jim Carl, the Carolina Theatre's programming director), they've been that more in touch. Lately, online aficionados have coordinated rides to a book signing by Evil Dead film star Bruce Campbell. "I love the fact that the fans get a forum to communicate and share ideas with each other," Pennachi says. "If by chance we played even a small part in that positive community of cult film fans, I am very proud of that."
The hunt for original prints from the '70s and '80s frequently takes Pennachi and Hulin through rusty canisters and piles of old film reels in collectors' warehouses or garages. That's how they found a print of Alice, Sweet Alice.
"A lot of people think we're running a DVD in the booth," Pennachi says. "There's quite a lot that goes into finding an old print, cleaning it, making sure it's runable. Half the time the sprockets are all ripped off the sides. That takes hours to repair."
Hulin adds, "Needless to say, most of the movies we play are the original release prints. They did not play at the nicest theaters, and they played forever." Their print of Halloween was played at a drive-in from its release in 1978 through the mid '80s.
The guys say they're willing to show anything requested by the audience, provided they can get hold of a copy--and the right to show it. Halloween gets lots of requests, as do several directors--anything by Russ Meyer, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci or Romero. While some cult classics were never copyrighted to begin with by the fly-by-night production companies that spawned them, others are nearly impossible to get rights to. The oft-requested Dawn of the Dead is in copyright hell. Russ Meyer's classic Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is also sadly out of bounds.
Many of the horror films were made during and after the Vietnam War. The gory violence and scary atmosphere reflects the unsettling times in which they were made, as do themes like vengeance, loss of innocence, or the unwitting opening of a Pandora's box of evil by clueless or hubristic people. Most of the audience are young adults who grew up watching these movies--or trying to watch them--at home.
"As a child I was not allowed to watch anything," Snipes recalls. "I had to sneak around. Once I became of age I couldn't get enough."
Pennachi was less sheltered. "When I was a kid, I used to watch movies incessantly," he remembers. "When I was younger, I liked Evil Dead and Evil Dead II so much that on a lark I wrote Sam Raimi a letter and he wrote me back. I thought that was the coolest, so he became my personal hero and I wanted to study filmmaking."
The emergence of DVD has actually led to a renewed interest in cult classic horror and sci-fi movies, and a thirst to see them on the big screen. "DVD is wonderful," Pennachi notes, "but it's no replacement for a 35mm projected presentation."
"Most people would never get a chance to see any of these films theatrically otherwise," Hulin notes. "That's why we showed Smokey and the Bandit at the drive-in. Folks in their 20s didn't get a chance to see it when it first came out, but they grew up loving it from seeing it on television."
But the films are not for everyone--particularly the scary ones. They are truly transgressive and usually unrated; horror movies of a different caliber than those made today. They make The Ring look like prime-time TV.
For instance, The Last House on the Left, one of Wes Craven's first films, begins with the brutal rape and murder of two teenage girls by a gang of psychotic men. If you are deeply bothered by representations of sexual violence, you should think twice about watching it.
Then there's the venue to consider. The Starlite Drive-In is itself a bit scary--next to the concession stand is a cabinet full of guns for sale, guarded by a big, protective German shepherd named "Blackie."
Pennachi says the goal of the series isn't to appeal to everyone, but to show classic movies that wouldn't otherwise get screened. "Whether you like a film or hate a film doesn't mean that it's still not part of film history," he says. "We're the curators. We hang up the painting and walk away. And most of the paintings are what people have requested to have hung."
One of the most recent requests for The Last House on the Left came from a 19-year-old woman who was wearing a T-shirt for the movie. The guys are mindful of their female audience. For Ladies Night at Retrofantasma, the audience seems about 50-50.
In the lobby at the end of this double bill, a circle forms around a table full of cult movie newsletters and flyers for the upcoming shows. People chat about the surprise ending of Alice, the Bruce Campbell appearance, and, of course, Halloween night.
They're a community in the grip of a collective nightmare--and clearly loving every minute of it.