The fierce visage of Zardoz, the floating stone head from the unintentionally hilarious 1974 Sean Connery sci-fi flick of the same name, looms in the corner of a colorful mural on a marquee outside the new Alamo Drafthouse in Raleigh. After its soft opening on April 10, the combination movie theater, restaurant and bar, and cinema-geek hub officially fires up the projectors on April 26. Its purview includes films both new (like the blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War) and old (last Sunday, there was a screening of the nearly forgotten 1990 Billy Dee Williams parody Secret Agent 00 Soul).
The mural, painted by Raleigh's Scott Nurkin, neatly captures the place's aesthetic: retro, self-aware, and especially fun if you get the references. In the lobby, there's a bar and restaurant where you can either eat at a table or order for in-theater service, with forty-eight local brews on tap and food items tailored to the area. Several are Andy Griffith-themed, such as the Mayberry RFD, a milkshake made of blueberry-pie ice cream and Cheerwine.
With its inventive, often audience-participatory events, Alamo Drafthouse became a cult symbol for movie buffs beginning in Austin in the late nineties. Spreading locations across the country, it became popular for film festivals and director premieres and even expanded into a mini-empire of websites, publications, and film companies. Drafthouse Films helps distribute rediscovered cult cinema; the distributor Neon helped release recent films such as Ingrid Goes West and I, Tonya.
At a ribbon-cutting for the soft opening—where the ribbon, of course, was a piece of celluloid film—Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane proclaimed, "I never want to hear it again that Raleigh is not cool!" She was flanked by Drafthouse founder Tim League, who was dressed as Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, and one of his employees, an orange-faced Oompa-Loompa. But what will Alamo Drafthouse add to an already bustling retro film-screening scene in the Triangle?
Raleigh's is one of dozens of Alamo Drafthouses around the country, but it's making a distinct effort to position itself as part of the community. It has hired notable local film buffs such as Skip Elsheimer, whose massive archive of vintage 16mm films fuels the A/V Geeks, as its "Cultural Adviser." Elsheimer, who became friendly with League a few years ago, showed him what would become Alamo Drafthouse's location on New Bern Avenue, in an H-shaped building that once housed a Kroger.
In one of the theater's eleven cinemas—where even texting is forbidden on threat of expulsion and old trailers and shorts serve as preshow entertainment—Elsheimer projects slides of the kinds of Drafthouse events he hopes to emulate: showing old safety films on a school bus, or an outdoor screening of Jaws with the audience on innertubes in a pool and divers occasionally providing shark-like pokes from below.
More important, he wants to make sure there's a space for local independent filmmakers at the Drafthouse. The theater has announced partnerships with numerous local organizations, including Full Frame, the Southern Documentary Fund, and Visual Art Exchange.
Regardless of how it mingles with the Raleigh community, the Drafthouse certainly achieves a degree of razzle-dazzle as a hub of cinematic geekery. The interior features massive painted posters for classic exploitation films ("IS STALIN ALIVE?" blares one for the Zsa Zsa Gabor vehicle The Girl in the Kremlin), a gift shop with movie-soundtrack LPs and high-end film-related art pieces by Mondo, and an honest-to-god video-rental store.
Video Vortex, announced on a mural by Raleigh's David Eichenberger, made the Raleigh Alamo Drafthouse national news. It represents the chain's first foray into VHS rentals (DVD and other formats are also available). The implosion of the VHS market resulted in the death not only of corporate giants such as Blockbuster Video but also of local independent video bastions such as Carrboro's VisArt Video. Video Vortex plays on nostalgia for those clunky black plastic rectangles with tracking issues and the sometimes-lurid box art, often better than the films themselves.
Video Vortex's collection is a fascinating combination of obscurities, oddballs, and bootlegs (particularly intriguing is a three-tape, five-hour "work print" of This Is Spinal Tap) that you can rent for free—along with VHS players, which are less free. The store is lined with tall bookcase-type shelves that, on the sides facing the entrance, feature massive re-creations of VHS box art, typifying the combination of nostalgia and innovation at the core of Alamo Drafthouse's appeal.
Unfortunately, reviving the video store isn't the only reason Alamo Drafthouse has made national news recently. Last fall, the company was swept up in the #MeToo movement for furtively rehiring Devin Faraci, a writer for one of its websites, after he was fired over sexual-assault allegations. Multiple women then came forward to accuse the company of doing nothing when they reported assault and harassment incidents, some involving Ain't It Cool News founder and major Drafthouse patron Harry J. Knowles.
In response, the company severed ties with Faraci and Knowles and engaged in discussions with Drafthouse theaters about creating safe environments for moviegoers and personnel. But the company's image took a hit, casting a pall over its expansion into Raleigh.
"Alamo Drafthouse has and will continue to take steps toward improving the company culture as a whole," spokeswoman Katharine Van Leer told the INDY. "They have implemented a zero-tolerance policy to make their theater a safe and inclusive space for the Raleigh community."
Van Leer also says that Kristy Breneman, the creative manager of the Raleigh location, will "ensure Raleigh has a voice in company decisions moving forward."
Alamo Drafthouse joins a thriving repertory film scene in the Triangle, from the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Cary Theater to the Rialto and Mission Valley's older series, such as Cinema Overdrive, and the ever-expanding Retro features at the Carolina Theatre.
"I think it's a great opportunity for Raleigh to experience some of the retro classics we've been showing in Durham for the last twenty years," says Jim Carl, the Carolina's director of film programming. "There's enough film fans in the Triangle to support multiple repertory series, and I take a lot of credit for that," he adds, only half-joking.
Carl feels there is a generational yearning to watch films people remember seeing on the big screen. "There seems to be more of a passion for Generations X and Y to experience that," he says. "The Drafthouse is going to do very well for people in Raleigh who can't make it over to Durham as much as they'd like, or people in areas like Smithfield and Louisburg."
Time will tell. In the meantime, I've got my eye on that Spinal Tap set. Does anyone know how to hook up a VCR?