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In March 2020, I, like so many audiences, said goodbye to movie theaters, and mourned the loss of a collective source of escapism and human connection. This past weekend, after fourteen months away, I made my triumphant return not once, but twice. And make no mistake, it truly did feel like a triumph. As someone who frequented the movie theater at least once a week pre-COVID, to walk back into those carpeted auditoriums, to feel the cushion of those familiar seats, and smell the scent of popcorn, even with a mask on, was like returning to my home away from home, even if that home is in something of a state of disrepair. No, things are not back to normal. But as vaccination rates climb, and people are reunited, there is a sense of recovery as movie theaters open their doors once again.
On the surface, both trips to the theater this past weekend, once to see Spiral: From the Book of Saw, and another to see Army of the Dead, little had changed since I bid farewell with a screening of The Hunt in March 2020. The vast parking lot still lay mostly barren, a post-apocalyptic wasteland that only George Miller could make beautiful. A cough from someone in the distance still got my guard up, and hand sanitizer was still a necessity to have on hand. Large placards proclaiming “Welcome Back to the Movies!” beckoned no large crowds of eager theatergoers ready to be some of the first to see a new Saw flick or Zack Snyder zombie movie. We’re a far cry from the days of 2004 when Saw and Dawn of the Dead enticed a new generation of horror fans. Hell, we’re a far cry from the days of 2019 when, if nothing else, you could at least expect people to eagerly show up at the movies, at least for opening weekend of a new horror movie.
Of course much has changed in terms of the relationship between movies and their audience over the past year. We’ve found, alongside numerous studios who have been forced to change their business models, that at-home viewings of new releases are welcomed experiences with their own benefits. Shorter release windows, and a sense of community found in digital spaces with digital movies on demand have certainly created the potential for a wider demographic of audience. Films that may have been lost in the shuffle during an ordinary year became breakout hits, with projects such as The Vast of Night, The Rental, and Extraction became conversation starters with Zoom standing in for water coolers. Although it’s hard to compete with a giant screen, 2020 also furthered the sense that some films really do make for a great experience in the comfort of home, given the intimacy of films like Host, or the option for subtitles, which certainly benefited Tenet.
As many reasons as 2020 gave us to miss theaters, there were equal reasons to embrace home viewing. So while I’ll admit that seeing Spiral on the big-screen was a welcomed reunion, I couldn’t help but somewhat lament the fact that in an audience of five other people, there was a certain energy missing. Plus, part of the fun of horror movies, at least for me, are the reactions that come from the audience, especially in the more extreme moments, of which Spiral has plenty. As great as it was to see Darren Lynn Bousman‘s film on Marcus Theaters’ Ultrascreen, there was some part of me that admittedly would have enjoyed the film just as much in the comfort of my home.
But of course, going to the movie theater isn’t just the movie itself. It’s the whole package: the booming audio, the perfectly set lighting, and of course, the trailers. Let me tell you, friends, watching the trailers for F9, Black Widow and The Suicide Squad on a phone or laptop doesn’t hold a candle to seeing them on a theater screen. And perhaps for that reason, the hype of getting to see big-budget blockbusters in movie theaters again, seeing something small scale like Spiral felt like an appetizer for the summer to come.
The dawn of the summer blockbuster came sooner for me than I expected. Army of the Dead, which secured a limited release at select theater chains, was the full-experience reminder of everything I love most about going to the movies. It’s big spectacle, action beats, humor, and heart that deserves to be seen on the big screen. Ironically, it’s heading to Netflix this week and most audiences will enjoy it at home. There were just as many people in my screening of Army of the Dead as Spiral, and yet on this second trip, it didn’t bother me as much. Perhaps it was because it no longer seemed like a surprise, or perhaps because that’s what theater-going will be for a little while longer: you and a couple of strangers in the big empty darkness of a cavernous auditorium, hoping to be stirred by the images of shadows dancing in the light. There is a primitive element of rediscovery in returning to the movie theater that makes the experience feel strange and new again. We may be a long ways off from movie theaters being back to what they were before the pandemic, if ever, and this summer will certainly be telling of the future, but for now, it feels good to at least recoup some small part of our movie-going past. It feels good to be able to once again have the opportunity to see you at the movies.
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Karlovy Vary International Film Festival