October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best movie theater horror is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Lately, I’ve felt really jealous of characters in movies and their whole “I can be in crowded places safely” attitudes. Who would have thought I’d actually miss sandwiching myself into a packed train, commiserating with my fellow New Yorkers in the slog of the morning commute? If 2020 has proven anything, it’s how much we’ve really taken for granted, especially in the everyday things we thought would be around forever. We couldn’t fathom that cinemas worldwide would be temporarily shut down, but because they were, it gave us a moment to realize how much being part of an audience really meant to us. Those small moments of human interaction are why we go to the movies.
During a pandemic though, it’s just not safe to be indoors in a crowded room where you never know if one joker will refuse to wear a mask. I clearly love movies, but I’m not getting sick and dying for them, and neither should you! It patently isn’t worth it. Yet some folks – and movie studios – just don’t seem to understand that just yet. It’s almost like they need some physical monster sitting in the front row for them to finally think, “You know, maybe we shouldn’t reopen.”
I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather take my chances with a bloody-thirsty boogeyman than an airborne virus any day, and my fellow Boo Crewers are wont to agree. The following films — chosen by Anna Swanson, Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Kieran Fisher, Meg Shields, Rob Hunter, Valerie Ettenhofer, and me — may feature demons, blobs, and a ton of bloody deaths, but they’re still way less risky than going out to the movies in 2020.
10. Messiah of Evil (1973)
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye says the theater’s marquee, but little does the woman in the yellow shirt know that it’s a message meant just for her. William Huyck’s Messiah of Evil may not be as fondly remembered as it deserves — it’s a creepy little West Coast chiller! — but it’s hard to ignore the unsettling power of its movie theater-set sequence. Huyck takes his time and allows the scene and suspense to build slowly as the woman watches the film unaware of what’s happening behind her. The theater is filling up with pale, creepy people bleeding from their eyes, and once she notices they begin to stare at her in silence. She panics, looks for an escape that isn’t coming, makes it up to the screen itself, and then screams as the people suddenly rush towards her with evil intent. It’s fantastically chilling stuff. (Rob Hunter)
9. Matinee (1993)
Joe Dante’s Matinee isn’t exactly a horror film, but it is an ode to horror films, specifically William Castle’s fourth-wall-breaking oeuvre that could turn a night at the movies into an immersive experience you’ll never forget. Matinee’s Castle proxy, Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), rides into Key West on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis to promote his new picture Mant!. His arrival immediately sparks a wave of pearl-clutching from local parents who don’t want the pandemonium that comes with his cinematic experiences in their town. Dante uses these parents groups paranoia towards horror movies to draw allusions to the paranoia American’s felt towards the “looming threat” of communism and the myriad of “others” they were so quick to ascribe blame to in the early 1960s.
The film’s intellectualism is eclipsed by the expressive joy Dante has towards these films, but the contrasting sensibilities collide in Matinee’s climax as a rowdy crowd and Woolsey’s gimmicks get out of control and the audience thinks World War III has broken out. It’s a microcosm of the anxieties Americans held throughout the Cold War, told through Joe Dante’s unique satirical voice. (Jacob Trussell)
8. Popcorn (1991)
I love it when a movie has a movie within the movie. It’s like the cinematic equivalent of a Kinder Egg. Yes, you get your candy and that’s great, but as a bonus, you get a toy. Mark Herrier‘s Popcorn is like one giant Kinder Egg with multiple toys. The movie follows a group of film students that host an all-night horror movie marathon in an abandoned theater to raise funds for their film program.
The three films selected for the evening all feature William Castle-like gimmicks — Mosquito is in 3D, The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man uses “Shock-o-Scope” to “electrify” the seats, and The Stench is shown in the John Waters-approved, “odorama.” The fun night of scares turns seriously deadly when a maniac begins to pick the kids off one-by-one. The main plot of the film is a tad shaky at times, but that hardly matters. Popcorn is movie theater horror that’s both a loving ode to the campy, low-budget schlock of the ’50s, and a trip back to a time when the theatrical experience meant something. (Chris Coffel)
7. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The cinema featured in An American Werewolf in London is different from all of the others on this list because Jack (Griffin Dunne) beckons David (David Naughton) into an adult movie theater filled with everyone he has slaughtered since becoming a werewolf. Maybe it’s the sleazier setting or the shadows cast over the slowly decomposing faces of David’s victims, but the scene has a remarkable creepiness that it accomplishes without doing too much. It’s a quiet calm before the storm moment that acts as David’s wake up call to the havoc he’s wrought, and what he must do to make it right: take his own life. He doesn’t, of course, and the quiet is shattered as David turns back into a werewolf and mauls an usher – giving us our only real up-close-and-personal view of the bloody maw of the lycanthrope – but it’s that moment before that really gets under our skin. (Jacob Trussell)
6. Gremlins (1984)
“Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! It’s home from work we go!” There is no denying the power of Walt Disney, Snow White, or the Seven Dwarfs. No matter what your plans were for the evening — rampaging, pillaging, swimming, transforming Gizmo into caca — you have to sit down and appreciate the animated classic when it presents itself. The Gremlins are movie maniacs, and they adore a good slice of cinema just like the rest of us.
Look at those crazy cats having a total ball in that movie theater. They’re devouring popcorn, jumping for joy in their seats, swinging from the rafters. Are you telling me you won’t behave the exact same way once we’re all allowed back into movie theaters post-pandemic? The display of enthusiasm seen in this sequence is tame in comparison to how I’ll behave once I can safely return to my local theater. Better boil two extra vats of synthetic butter, people! I’m comin’ with a Gremlins’ appetite. (Brad Gullickson)