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Horror in the Workplace: 1990-94

The situation was this: a patron complained to the theater manager that someone was talking during a movie. As an usher it was my job to quiet the person down.

     The time was 1990, during my first year of employment at the MANN Village 6 multiplex. That explains why I was a little flummoxed upon entering the theater, playing the crappy Stephen King adaptation GRAVEYARD SHIFT, and finding a halfway-full auditorium in which seemingly everyone was talking to each other (about which I wasn’t entirely unsympathetic, as there wasn’t much occurring on the screen to hold their attention).

     What to do? Approach each person and tell him or her to shut up? Dismissing that option as unfeasible, I instead stationed myself halfway down the center aisle (this being one of those shoebox theaters popular in the seventies and eighties, consisting of two rows of seats bisected by a single aisle), waited for a quiet point in the movie, and bellowed “SHADDUP!!!” It seemed to work, as the chatter abruptly ceased. I exited the auditorium quite pleased with myself.

     Horror movies, I quickly learned, tended to have more drama surrounding their showings than any other sort. As a horror-obsessed teenager I was thrilled about working in a movie theater, and made it a point to spend as much time as possible in auditoriums showing scary flicks. Thus I got an up-close glimpse of the insanity that often accompanied such fare--i.e. patrons nearly getting cooked when the air conditioner broke down during a Saturday night screening of GHOST, a near-fistfight between a guy and a girl during an opening day showing of TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, a girl (my sister, to be exact) smuggling a yipping dog into BOXING HELENA, etc.

     My employment at the MANN Village 6 also afforded me an intimate look at the dissolution of horror cinema during the 1990s. Part of the excitement of working in a multiplex was seeing what new movies we’d get each Friday, although the reality was that most of those movies were crap: anyone out there remember HEART CONDITION, WELCOME HOME ROXY CARMICHAEL, MADHOUSE, COMPANY BUSINESS, SHORT TIME, LIFE WITH MIKEY or INTERSECTION? Most of the horror movies we got, believe it or not, were even worse. Typical of the sort of scare fare the MANN played during 1990-94 were TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, NEMESIS, THE GOOD SON, BODY OF EVIDENCE, JASON GOES TO HELL: THE “FINAL” FRIDAY, THE DARK HALF and THE TEMP. Not too may classics in that sorry line-up!

     We also got ARACHNOPHOBIA. It’s certainly no classic, but deserves credit for the way it made audiences uncomfortable…really uncomfortable! Scenes of spiders crawling on a girl’s face and swarming the exterior of a house are wonderfully crafted bits of shivery cinema, and had a rather profound effect on the people who paid to see ARACHNOPHOBIA--including a horrified teen girl who ran out of the theater screaming “I can’t watch that anymore!”

     Unfortunately ARACHNOPHOBIA’S makers shot themselves in the foot by trying to appeal to audiences outside the horror-sphere, winding up with a film that ultimately pleased nobody. In fact, ARACHNOPHOBIA’S cop-out ending, in which the annoying yuppie protagonist (Jeff Daniels) and his wife settle into a cozy spider-free residence with a bottle of wine, inspired genuine outrage. Typical of the comments made by dissatisfied customers exiting the film were “Fuck that white fantasy film!” and “That shit was stoooopid!” I couldn’t disagree.

     My co-workers did at least have some fun with the movie. During the aforementioned spider-on-the-face scene a bunch of ushers, in what became known as the “ARACHNOPHOBIA gig,” stationed themselves in the projection booth and showered the audience with popcorn kernels. I unfortunately wasn’t part of this “gig,” but I understand those patrons twitched and squirmed as if their seats were electrified (reportedly, they were even cries of “Get off me!”). Some customers even got into the spirit themselves: a guy I knew from high school brought his pet tarantula to a showing, and ran around the auditorium placing it on peoples’ shoulders and then snatching it away mid-scream.

     More fun attended our showing of GREMLINS 2. It wasn’t a very good movie, but was deeply and profoundly crazy. It’s certainly the only mainstream movie I know of (outside HELLZAPOPPIN’ from 1941) that contains a fake film break halfway through. We were briefed on the nature of this “problem” via Warner Bros. issued memos posted in the projection booth and managers’ office, but that didn’t stop audiences from freaking out.

     I’ll always remember the guy who ran out of a GREMLINS 2 screening blathering at me that the film had just broke. I patiently explained that the “break” was actually part of the movie. His only reply was a disbelieving expression, prompting me to describe what happened next: that the scene switched to a theater showing the movie being invaded by Gremlins, who were stopped by Hulk Hogan, who then turned to the camera and promised us it wouldn’t happen again. The guy stared at me as if I were completely batshit, and said “weird movie.” Once again, I couldn’t disagree.

     Then there was WILD AT HEART, at the time (summer 1990) the wildest and all-around grossest movie on the scene. Back then Quentin Tarantino and torture-porn movies were in the future, and mainstream audiences were seriously unprepared for the extreme nature of WILD AT HEART.

     The film, during the few weeks we showed it, inspired more walk-outs than any other during my employment at the MANN, with the opening head-bashing, a close-of a hand grabbing a woman’s crotch, a guy’s head blown off by a shotgun and the sight of Nicolas Cage crooning “Love Me Tender” being the most frequent instigators. Not only did patrons walk, but they did so with a great deal of indignity--“What was the point?,” “That movie is sooooooooo sick!” and “Jeez!” were among the epithets hurled my way by various appalled customers, evidently laboring under the delusion that those who show movies also make them.

     Here we’ll jump forward a year, to when I was directly involved in perhaps the dumbest publicity campaign in movie theater history. October of ‘91 marked the release of THE ADDAMS’ FAMILY, and Paramount challenged movie theaters across the country to come up with innovative ways to promote the flick. The management of the MANN Village 6 elected to make me up as Lurch and a female co-worker as Morticia Addams (with the rest of the family MIA), and station us in front of an ADDAMS’ FAMILY standee on the film’s opening night.

     The gambit never sounded too promising to me, but I agreed to it because it meant I’d get a night off from doing actual work. As it turned out, cleaning theaters or laboring behind the concession stand would have been preferable to the interminable eight hours my co-worker and I spent standing around in bad make-up (for the record, we were given little to actually do, and were prohibited from interacting with customers). I recently unearthed some camcorder footage from that night, and so was finally able to discern whether we looked as stupid as we felt. We did!

     One important tidbit I learned working at the MANN was the importance of sound in film exhibition. This was based on the volume of customer complaints we received, which for picture problems were pretty scant but for sound issues were positively legion. The slightest audio problem invariably triggered a ton of complaints, as I witnessed firsthand at the end of a late night screening of the reincarnation thriller DEAD AGAIN, which was marred by wavering sound that cut out entirely in the final scene. This resulted in a swarm of outraged customers storming the lobby, screaming about missing the “most important line” in the movie. We had to give out mass refunds, of course, and listen to a lot of excess bitching. (The “important” line those people missed, incidentally, was “I’m sorry.”)

     In many instances problems in the projection booth have colored my feelings for the movies being shown. I’m referring here, of course, to my last two years on the job, when I worked as a projectionist. This, keep in mind, was prior to the advent of digital projection; I worked with celluloid, which had a tendency to break, get scratched up and generally misbehave as it made its way through the projectors.

     I had many problems with those projectors, such as what occurred during an interlock screening of BASIC INSTINCT. Interlock refers to the practice of showing a single movie in two auditoriums, accomplished by threading up one projector, running the film through a series of rollers set into the wall, and then through the projector next to it--in other words, feeding out from one projector and feeding in to another. Setting up an interlock was an extremely laborious and time-consuming process, and God help the projectionist if he screwed up.

     Unfortunately, during the BASIC INSTINCT screening in question I made a mistake in threading up the feed-out projector, which caused the projection to waver and jitter obnoxiously. I called the manager on duty to inform him what had happened, and suggested that rather than stop the interlock (which would necessitate shutting down and rethreading both projectors) we simply move the patrons in the feed-out auditorium into the other. The manager, thankfully, was sympathetic to my dilemma, and agreed that compounding auditoriums was the best course of action. He nonetheless devised a most fitting punishment: I got to be the one who told the people in the feed-out auditorium that they had to move. As you might guess, they weren’t too happy!

     The above may explain why I’ve never much liked BASIC INSTINCT. I know I’ll always harbor a profound hatred for the following’s year’s very BASIC INSTINCT-esque Sharon Stone starrer SLIVER. It’s a rotten movie, certainly, but my hatred stems from that fact that it showed in an auditorium that during SLIVER’S run always seemed to have sound problems.

     I’ve already gone over the importance of sound, a fact that was driven home in a profound way during one especially fraught SLIVER screening. What happened was the sound of one channel began cutting out, and so I switched over to another channel. The problem was each channel I switched to had sound problems of its own, leading to a lot of frustration on my part--and numerous complaints from patrons seeing a family film in a neighboring auditorium about all the “unbelievable swearing” emanating from the projection booth. How (or if) I solved the problem I don’t recall.

     I concluded my employment at the MANN Village 6 in early 1994. My four years working there remain a horror show in every sense of the word, a wild, outrageous and often damn scary jaunt (embarrassment prevents me from going into the infamous SILENCE OF THE LAMBS gig, which dwarfs the ARACHNOPHOBIA one described above in outrage and sheer insanity). It seems curiously appropriate that the multiplex where I experienced all those adventures is now a shuttered (and probably haunted) husk of its former self. The memories, however, will always remain.

--11/7/14

     

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