This question comes from A.V. Club staffers Alex McCown and Gwen Ihnat:
What movie are you glad you saw in the theater?
The easy answer to this question is some enormous spectacle, the kind of expensive Hollywood movie that really plays best when seen on the biggest screen possible. (I haven’t seen Gravity in a home setting yet, though I have to imagine it doesn’t possess the same jaw-dropping appeal in your living room.) But one of the most pleasurable movie-theater experiences I’ve ever had was with a movie that may have cost less than George Clooney’s annual haircut budget: the first Paranormal Activity. There’s a real participatory component to that seminal found-footage horror film, which began trickling into theaters in the autumn of 2009. By returning to the same static camera setup over and over again, director Oren Peli essentially teaches the audience how to watch his movie: The layout of the room doesn’t change, so you find yourself scanning its various nooks and crannies, waiting for something to go inevitably askew. And not only is that easier and more effective on a big screen, something amazing happens when you do it with a big crowd: You can feel fear and excitement ripple through the theater, as the strangers around you notice the spectral intrusions at a different pace and begin cluing each other in with gasps and murmurs. Furthermore, there’s no substitute for the giddy thrill of a shared shock—that moment when the whole theater audibly, even physically responds in unison to a big scare. Paranormal Activity provokes that sensation better than most films; it’s why I keep going back for each new sequel, no matter how bad the previous one was, just hoping for another aftershock of the original’s communal fun.
I’ll second a vote for the thrills of communal horror: I don’t know if Gore Verbinski’s The Ring is actually one of the best scary movies ever made, or if it’s just my memory of sitting in a crowded theater on opening night, shuddering along with a room full of people at every sudden shock or gruesome image, that’s convinced me it’s Verbinski’s one great film. Call it some sort of throwback to our old herd animal instincts, but there was something about being surrounded by a room full of scared people that amplified my own fear response, kicking off a beautifully nasty feedback loop during the movie’s grim climax. The indelible image of vengeful ghost Samara finally shoving her way through a TV screen, then stalking toward one of the movie’s heroes, all static jerks and sudden, fast-forward lurches, pulled gasp after gasp from our mouths, and left me with a life-long nervousness around TVs displaying nothing but static. And hey, what could be a better testament to the power of a collective movie-going experience than a brand new neurosis, huh?
My best movie-going experiences—Times Square opening night of the first Avengers, a rowdy house of nerds for a Freddy Vs. Jason screening, the slack-jawed awe of a full theater experiencing one of the first showings of Upstream Color—are films I would’ve seen in a theater no matter what. So instead I’ll go with an unexpected film, something I attended on a lark and ended up being so glad I went: The Times Square opening weekend screening of Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Times Square audiences are a crapshoot: Get the wrong one, and they’ll talk on their cell phones all through the movie. But I think it’s a testament to the effectiveness of Aja’s film that the raucous 11 p.m. crowd was spellbound within 10 minutes of the opening credits. As Mr. Dowd says above, there’s a communal spirit to seeing horror in a theater, but in this case, it became something like a singular consciousness. We all fell silent during the hair-raising assault of the white-bread American family; we roared in approval at the first clear moment of resistance; and we hooted and applauded at Aja’s campy symbolism and over-the-top violence of the final showdowns with his creepy cannibal mutants. I still think it’s one of the better horror remakes (and easily Aja’s best film), chock-full of provocative political commentary and amphetamine-laced filmmaking. It was gleeful and nerve-rattling in equal measure, a rare and precious combination. And it’s why I’ll likely continue to see all of Aja’s films in the theater, even when—as was the case with Mirrors—I rather wish I hadn’t.
In 1999, my parents gave my elementary school a big middle finger and pulled me out of class, along with my brother and sister, for an entire day to see Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace the day it opened. We waited for hours with mostly older men, serious fans who were totally charmed to see such young kids sporting Star Wars T-shirts and pretending to fight with lightsabers. Like The Force Awakens’ opening last December, the excitement was so palpable you could practically see the energy humming in the air, which reached a fever pitch as the Ultrascreen projector flooded the screen with light… then promptly went dark again. As minutes ticked by in darkness and the audience went from fidgeting and muttering to loudly chanting “Start the show! Start the show!”, a frazzled employee hurried in front of the screen to tell us the light bulb had broken. It did not go over well. But it did make it all the sweeter when it finally did start playing and—minus a one-minute blackout during which the film continued to roll—it was the best movie ever. At least, that’s how I would’ve described it at the time. I absolutely loved it, and so did everyone else in that theater: You wouldn’t know it from how reviled it is today, but that crowd went ape shit for the podracing, and when Queen Amidala’s real identity was revealed, people lost their minds. Exactly like we later did with The Force Awakens, we cheered, we broke into applause, we gasped as one. Maybe if everyone saw it in their homes, they would’ve been more immediately critical of the film’s many shortcomings. But together we were high on mutual Star Wars love and the magic of experiencing it in the theater.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually glad that I saw Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull in theaters. I was in college when it came out, and in the weeks leading up to its release, my roommate and I got really into the Indiana Jones series. Like, really into it. We watched the old movies over and over again, we quoted them incessantly, and we ended up seeing the Crystal Skull trailer so many times that we somehow convinced ourselves it would be good. We were so unreasonably excited that we went at midnight on opening night, but once it was over and the credits were rolling, all we could do was sit in silence. We were simply stunned by how bad it was. By the time we made it back to the dorm, the silence had been replaced by both of us screaming about each and every terrible thing in that terrible movie—and it’s a very long list, so that went on for a while. I wish Crystal Skull had been good, of course, but seeing it on opening night was such a uniquely disappointing and heartbreaking experience that it actually seems kind of “fun” in retrospect. Plus, it helps justify my unquenchable nerd rage over the recently announced fifth Indiana Jones movie.
I’m tempted to say the 2001 Snoop Dogg-starring horror film Bones, which was intensely fun to see in a theater packed with people ready to laugh and be sorta scared. (A dog vomits maggots on somebody, which got a big laugh.) But I’m going to go with a movie that, in my opinion, shouldn’t be watched at home: Gravity. Without the spectacle of the huge screen (and really, both IMAX and 3-D), there’s not all that much to it. Alfonso Cuarón won the Oscar for directing the movie, and Emmanuel Lubezki won for cinematography, but the screenwriters were nowhere to be found. The scope of the visuals is so epic and immersive that it seems a waste to even try to check it out on anything less than a massive screen, with sound to match.
Most recently, I have to go with Straight Outta Compton. I saw it in a packed theater, and while I normally prefer a silent and sparsely populated audience, the crowd participation that night was a welcome respite from a trying day. It was clear there was a lot of alcohol involved and I definitely smelled pot at one point, which might explain the noticeable inhibitions. Regardless, it was awesome hearing the majority of the audience enthusiastically sing along to NWA’s hits, making it almost more like a concert than a quick trip to the movies. Who knew the local AMC could be so lively?
McCown already scooped my go-to answer to this question, which I usually give with the caveat that a) it was a “brew and view” event, b) it was like 100 degrees outside the theater, and c) beer has never tasted so good or so cold as it did that night. My backup, then, is an opening-weekend screening of the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez twofer, Grindhouse. My college friends and I had gotten it into our Tarantino-mad minds that the local megaplex was going to be swamped that Friday night, as surely the movie-going public would fight one another off to be among the first to see the directors’ follow-ups to Kill Bill and Sin City. But it turns out there wasn’t much demand for an in-joke of a double feature (with trailers for other movies that don’t exist) that attempted to reproduce the grimy, seamy feel of ’70s Time Square in mid-Michigan. We showed up an hour early and more or less started and finished the line of people waiting to get into Grindhouse. I felt a bit sheepish, until the first of the faux-theater snipes started rolling, and Grindhouse totally sucked me in. Planet Terror is pretty crummy, and Death Proof plays to all of Tarantino’s worst impulses, but I wouldn’t trade the experience of seeing both among a small crowd who so loved seeing a movie in the theater, they’d sit through five minutes of Rob Zombie-directed Nazisploitation in order to see a second movie. (Oh, how we laughed at the words “And Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu.”) And when I moved to Austin a few months later, I could point to the whole experience as inspiring my devotions to the Texas Chili Parlor and the Alamo Drafthouse—and then the people I mentioned this to would say, “What the hell is Grindhouse?”
Yes, horror movies are fun to see in the theater. And Magic Mike was a memorable movie-going experience for a similarly primal reason: The theater was packed with groups of people, mostly women, determined to have the celebrity Chippendales experience the trailers had promised them and they felt they deserved, damnit. Mini bottles of champagne were openly popped in the theater, any male celebrity to appear in the previews was roundly hooted at, and the reveal of Channing Tatum’s bare butt early on in the film was met with a roar of applause I’ve never heard since, not even at premiere screenings where the director and stars were present. Then the movie settled into a more, well, Soderbergh-ian groove, and the tipsy hordes morphed into hushed silence as Mike’s adventures in stripping took a more dramatic turn. By the time the movie was over, groups of disheveled partiers were shuffling out, grumbling about the lack of stripping in the male stripper movie. (I loved the movie, by the way.) I later saw Magic Mike XXL in a similarly crowded, similarly rowdy theater; this time, I was on assignment, so I couldn’t participate in the debauchery. But, I assume due to the nearly half-hour stripping scene that serves as the climax of the film, the audience was much happier exiting that one.
Let me preface this by saying I hate Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. Like, I really, really hate it. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film that’s as literal with the source material yet completely misses the mark from a heart-and-soul perspective as Watchmen. It surprises me not at all that he’s turned out to have a hard-on for Ayn Rand. Which is exactly why I’m so glad I caught a midnight showing on opening night in 2009. It was a letdown, but it was such an epic fucking letdown, made all the more perversely glorious by seeing it on the big screen in a room packed to the gills with old fans, new fans, the mildly curious, and even those parents who swiftly ushered their kids out halfway through. As each scene unfolded, my heart sank. I’d been waiting since 1987 to see Watchmen translated to the big screen, and the atmosphere in the theater was palpably conflicted. Nerd rage turned to abject betrayal turned to Stockholm Syndrome: I started to actually enjoy my loathing of the film halfway through, as if it were one of The Comedian’s soggy cigars I was savoring. And afterward, my friends and I—we’d all gotten into Watchmen together as teenage comics fiends in the ’80s, and it had reconfigured our brains—went to Village Inn and hashed it out over hash browns until the sun came up. We hadn’t done that kind of thing in ages. It was an event, an experience, and a symbolic burial of a sacred cow of our adolescence that maybe we’d clung to a little too tightly. For that alone I’m grateful that Snyder trained his closet-Objectivism lens on Alan Moore’s anarchist/postmodern takedown of, among other things, Objectivism.
There are few movies that feel as visceral as George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. I literally sat on the edge of my seat, moving up to lean on the chairs in front of me as the movie progressed. I didn’t even notice until a friend pointed it out me. For the full run of the movie, I felt like I was in the tank truck with Furiosa, or strapped to the front with Max, or playing a fiery guitar à la Doof Warrior in those epic chase scenes. When Furiosa stops her tank for those rare moments, it’s like exhaling for the first time in hours. There’s a reason this movie nearly swept the technical awards at this year’s Oscars, and those effects would not have had the same effect in my living room. But not only did I love seeing it on the big screen, I loved the communal aspect of it, getting to watch it with a bunch of my girlfriends. We left theater together yelling “Fuck the patriarchy!” We bonded over this shared experience and we were happy to do so, and that’s how all movies should feel.
I’ve decided midnight releases aren’t for me since I prefer to see movies when I’m not completely sleep-deprived, but I had a really great final experience to end on. I was initially a bit judgmental toward the two slightly bro-ish dudes who sat next to me at Avengers: Age Of Ultron, but they won me over as they spent the trailers discussing which movies their kids would like best. I forgot all about them until late into the movie, when Paul Bettany’s newly created Vision explains that he’s greater than the sum of his Jarvis and Ultron components. Bettany slowly delivers the dramatic line, “I’m not Ultron, I’m not Jarvis…” and the guy next to me instinctively responds under his breath, “I’m Jultron.” Maybe it wouldn’t have been so funny if it weren’t nearing 2 a.m., but the ad-lib absolutely destroyed my friend and I, and our barely stifled laughter only made this guy and his friend laugh harder. In an instant we went from two separate groups watching a high-stakes superhero drama to one group acknowledging the absurdity of the movie, the midnight release experience, and—most importantly—ourselves.
The one downside to the movie-theater experience is that you take a chance on fellow moviegoers making noise and distracting from the film. But every once in a while, that can have wonderful results. When the special editions of the Star Wars trilogy back in theaters were released a month apart, I saw each several times. But when Return Of The Jedi was released, I was dismayed to see that no theater in New York was doing a back-to-back screening of the whole trilogy. So a friend and I made that happen, plotting out a day-long, citywide odyssey of movie theaters and restaurants that culminated in meeting more friends for dinner and seeing the series conclude on the historic big screen at the Ziegfeld. But the real treat was seeing Star Wars: Episode IV—We Just Call It Star Wars at 10:30 in the morning in a mostly empty theater, directly behind a chatty 4-year-old. While a small child talking through a movie is usually an irritating distraction, I’ve seen Star Wars approximately a billion times at that point, so seeing it through a small child’s eyes, watching it for the first time with her Dad, was a terrific experience. She was very enamored of R2D2, and shouted out his name every time he came on screen. But her best reaction was the trash compactor scene: a tentacle snakes through the water, wraps around Luke’s leg, and pulls him under. There’s shouting, shooting, chaos, noise, and then it goes silent as they realize Luke’s gone, sucked underwater by a monster. The theater fills with tense silence, which is only broken by a little voice from the row in front of us: “I like swimming! This is a good movie!”
Not to piggyback on Mike’s story, but seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the theater with my 10-year-old niece was one of the most rewarding movie experiences I’ve had in years. Penelope’s a little older than I was when the first Star Wars came out, and undoubtedly a lot more worldly about movies than I was back then, but she was just as excited by the new film’s throwback sense of adventure and heightened, black-and-white conflict between good and evil. Having seen the film already, she was excited to act as my guide, even as she, ever mindful of spoilers, remained cagey about the details of what was coming. It’s no exaggeration to say that seeing Star Wars in the theater when I was 8 changed my life—honestly, it blew it apart. Now, as the lights went down and that first blare of John Williams’ theme and the opening crawl receded into the stars, she looked over and smiled, eyes sparkling with the thrill of a cinematic journey just beginning. I suppose my eyes did the same, although more because I was seeing the experience through hers. And, knowing what I knew about the movie already (because the internet is filled with people not as considerate about spoilers as Penelope is) I was thrilled to see her thrill to a strong, capable female heroine in Daisy Ridley’s Rey. When the movie was over and she asked me what I thought, I thought about her, and about the theater full of little girls like her walking out jabbering excitedly and practicing their lightsaber moves, and—turned off the critic part of my mind. Already overanalyzing J.J. Abrams’ worshipfully slick, if undeniably entertaining movie, I set all that aside and simply told her, honestly, “I thought it was great.”
I used to be a snob when it came to watching movies in a theater. Anything less than perfect silence from the audience drove me crazy. But four years ago, at my first horror-movie marathon, I had an epiphany that lasted 91 minutes and completely inverted my perspective on the shared experience of theater-going. At midnight, after wincing my way through 12 hours of jeering and cheering, I was starting to think about leaving early. But I decided to stick around for one last film, because it had hands-down the best title I had ever read: The Howling 2: Your Sister Is A Werewolf. This may be hard to believe, but that title is the only thing about this movie that makes any kind of sense. Filmed mostly in Czechoslovakia as part of what must have been a spectacular experiment in how many drugs a single film crew could do, the movie veers wildly between scenes of Christopher Lee reciting faux-scripture, a punk-rock nightclub performance of the theme song, and shots of Sybil Danning writhing around in a “werewolf costume” that consists of maybe four patches of see-through blond hair. Every once in a while, the film cuts back to our heroes either meeting someone we’ve never seen before, fighting someone we’ve never met before, or having sex. For the first time ever, I found myself shouting out “What?!” and “No!” along with everyone else, trying to make sense of the movie with them. As the film went on. I started to realize that it’s called a “shared experience” for a reason: because you literally have the chance to share your reaction to an unfolding story with 300 people in real time. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the audience can help you understand what you’re watching in a totally new way—especially with a film like Howling 2, where sense and nonsense become indistinguishable. That’s why the midnight movie and the cult film will never die: Weird stuff is just more fun when you’re sharing it with a crowd.
This is like a trick question, guys. A movie theater is the best way to see almost anything, short of a movie you want to turn off and subsequently fling across the room, in which case some kind of physical home video is optimal. So I’ll just use this as an opportunity to brag: I’m glad I saw Wet Hot American Summer in the theater, during its original theatrical release. As a compulsive moviegoer, I’ve had a lot of theatrical experiences that, statistically speaking, were shared by very few others. Most of the time, this should not be a point of pride. (I saw From Justin To Kelly in a movie theater! I went out and paid to see Jonah Hex!) But I can say that when Wet Hot American Summer was busy making almost no money during the summer of 2001, I marched over to the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square, and used 97 precious minutes of my weekend visit to New York to watch a movie that the theater didn’t even appear to have on its list of what was playing that day. This also means I saw Wet Hot not knowing much about it except it was a spoof starring a lot of people from The State; it had not been overhyped by friends and zero jokes from it had been spoiled (I don’t think I’d even seen a trailer at that point). It’s a great way to see a great comedy, and I assume that’s at least part of the reason that the recent Netflix prequel series felt like an enjoyable addendum rather than a revelation. It also probably didn’t hurt my eventual decision to move to New York after college, so as far as life decisions go, taking a chance on David Wain’s summer-camp comedy was a pretty solid one.
Mine’s a very recent example, and distinctly uneventful, but seeing it in theaters was such a part of the experience that it was the first thing I said about it after I left. Songs My Brothers Taught Me, the debut feature from Chloé Zhao, is an achingly quiet movie with no narrative hurry. It’s a slow-motion slice of life that lingers on the landscapes of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and on the faces of its characters as they slowly unfold—to us more often than to each other, which makes the spine of the film’s tension our own increasing desperation for someone to drop their guard. But that’s such a delicate suspense to sustain, I might not have been so carried away if I hadn’t been sitting in a nearly empty theater, everything pitch-black except that sky. A well-composed shot will always be well composed, and a good performance will register on a screen of any size; this movie will hold up just fine once it’s available for streaming, and I look forward to seeing it again in my living room. But Songs My Brothers Taught Me reminded me why I still shell out for a ticket any time I want a movie to work magic.
In my role as a connoisseur and commentator on the world of flops, I once had the beyond-surreal experience of traveling deep into the south side of Chicago with my wife to be one of two people in the audience for an afternoon showing of Oogieloves In The Big Balloon Adventure. For those of you inexplicably unfamiliar with this revolutionary cinematic experiment in torturing adults and irritating children, the audience was “encouraged” to interact with the characters on screen by yelling and hollering and basically talking back to the screen from start to finish in bold and nonsensical defiance of the accepted rules of theater etiquette. The film was made to be seen by a theater full of screaming children hypnotized by the gaudy, nightmare-inducing nonsense onscreen, so seeing it in a deadly silent, almost empty theater made the whole experience even more troubling. Even though I also once saw Crispin Glover perform live narration for a Guy Maddin film, my most memorable movie experience remains the Oogieloves In The Big Balloon Adventure.
I’m going with an unlikely choice—Ghostbusters 2—not because of the film itself but because of the cartoon that preceded it. For whatever reason, the AMC Theater in Military Circle Mall (in Norfolk, Virginia) opted to show “Hair Lift,” starring Bugs Bunny, in advance of the film, and as someone who was raised on Merrie Melodies, I certainly had no complaints. If you know the cartoon, then you know that it takes place predominantly on an airplane, which eventually ends up hurtling toward the ground toward certain destruction. At the last second, Bugs grabs a level, pulls it back, and the plane stops in mid-air, at which point Bugs wipes his brow and delivers the requisite punchline: “Lucky for me this thing had air brakes.” At that moment, an incredulous voice rose above everyone else in the theater and said, “That shit can’t happen.” It was funnier than anything in the Ghostbusters sequel.