The Monsters Under Your Bed and Skin: A Saturday of 70mm Horrors

When it comes to Los Angeles’ sprawling and closely knit cinephile community, anyone who considers themselves “anyone” has a good idea on how to spend any night of the week where the city’s numerous repertory theaters are concerned. From the vintage movie palaces operated by the American Cinematheque to the historic New Beverly Cinema, currently owned (and featuring monthly programming curated) by Quentin Tarantino, L.A. really is the “city of stars” for movie lovers in any and every way that can be thought of. A short while back, the Egyptian Theatre, one of the two theaters in the Cinematheque, announced what can only be described as a practical gold mine of a series for their June calendar: a handful of classic 1982 releases, ready to ring in their 35th anniversaries, are being screened in recently excavated 70mm prints.

* for those curious about the history, much like the 3-D craze around the same time, 70mm “blow-up” prints became something of a “go-to” in the 1970s until the mid-1990s for major blockbusters and any number of prestigious event films that remain popular today. The trend is making something of a resurgence now thanks to filmmakers like Tarantino (The Hateful Eight), Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) and Christopher Nolan (the upcoming Dunkirk); not only them, but recent DC blockbusters like Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman had 70mm prints commissioned alongside their digital 3-D and IMAX counterparts and anticipated fall/winter releases like Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 and Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman are rumored to follow suit.

The announced lineup is an excellent “who’s who” of cults and classics – Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, George Miller’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s The Dark Crystal and Steven Lisberger’s TRON (the one film of the bunch originally filmed in Super-Panavision 70), but the evening that piqued this movie lover’s attention was Saturday the 17th, when two seminal horror classics were screened “in glorious 70mm”: John Carpenter’s The Thing (to a sold out crowd eating up every millimeter and millisecond) and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist ((where the audience wasn’t quite as full – which is disappointing for reasons that will be elaborated on later – but was as lively).

Both stories of ordinary people isolated from the comforts of normality as a larger than life menace threatens them, Poltergeist tells of the Freeling family (Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, the late Dominique Dunne and Oliver Robins) and their encounters with the supernatural as the incredibly malevolent spirits invading their home make their intentions regarding young daughter Carol Anne (the late Heather O’Rourke) (also the same Carol Anne whose name would become a liver-destroying drinking game after the release of 1988’s ill-received second sequel) known when she’s sucked into “the TV people’s” spiritual realm and they must find a way to save her. The Thing trades in the paranormal for the extraterrestrial as the crew of an Antarctic outpost (including Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley and Keith David) accidentally come into contact with a parasitic alien that’s been awakened after a 100,000 year sleep under the ice. And this thing has decided, as the iconic marketing declared, “Man is the Warmest Place to Hide.” The researchers slowly but inevitably succumb to madness and paranoia as it becomes undeniable someone in the group “ain’t what he appears to be.”

As a film, Poltergeist is best likened to an old-fashioned haunted house at a carnival that became one of the many iconic rides at Universal Studios Hollywood (or Florida). It’s fast, thrilling, in your face with Jerry Goldsmith’s lullaby and fright house score, some meticulously crafted scares and game changing visual effects and, as expected with the Spielberg brand (even when he’s the producer) it’s fun for the entire family. The Thing is, to make a bad pun, an altogether different beast. It begins with a vast wasteland of ice and hopelessness and ends the same, with man’s domain over the elements burning to the ground and the “last men standing” sharing what may be their last drink together. As well as being a brilliant character study and exercise in tension, The Thing is also a masterclass for special effects wizard Rob Bottin’s incredible makeup and practical effects work that hold up just as well today as they did thirty-five years ago (and much more effective than the visual effects of Matthijs van Heijningen’s 2011 prequel).

The feelings both films exude was something ultimately reflected in their original releases. Poltergeist, considered the first of two films in the Newsweek and Time Magazine-dubbed “Summer of Spielberg,” (which also led to some debate whether the film was ultimately directed by Hooper or Spielberg, who wasn’t allowed to direct Poltergeist due to his contract with Universal over E.T.) was something of a small cultural leviathan. While failing to reach the #1 spot opening weekend thanks to competition from the crew of the Starship Enterprise and that intrepid boxer Rocky Balboa, Poltergeist was a hit at the box office, staying in the top 10 for over two months, and with the critics, the line “They’re here” instantly entered the pantheon of famous movie lines and paved the way for a franchise of sequels, TV spinoffs, remakes and curses surrounding the adolescent actresses. The Thing, released three weeks after Poltergeist and two after E.T., was savagely received by critics – a number of who couldn’t resist making a number of E.T. comparisons in their reviews – and “left out in the cold” at the box office; not just because of E.T. and Poltergeist, but The Thing also shared its June 25th release dare with another reverent sci-fi classic ahead of its time: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (which, at the time of this writing, unfortunately didn’t have a 70mm print screened).

In the time since, The Thing has gotten a reevaluation and has been recognized and not only one of the best remakes and science-fiction films of all time, but even found a place in the annals as one of the most important films of the 1980s. It even served as a crucial influence to Quentin Tarantino’s earlier mentioned and equally nasty and nihilistic post-Civil War western The Hateful Eight. Not just because the two films share a star (Kurt Russell), a composer (Ennio Morricone) and even a smattering of music cues, but a general premise of people succumbing to paranoia in icy desolation. Whoever would have thought a horror movie about an alien assimilating lifeforms would serve as the basis for one of the most scathing critiques about America’s failures?

And then there’s “the price of admission”: the 70mm presentations. As earlier noted, the movies in this series (except for Poltergeist, which, according to those introducing the screening, was an old print circulated around old theaters in Texas until recently) are being screened in original 70mm prints that were recently rediscovered overseas. These prints have definitely reflected their longevity and use through a slight fading of color (though not horribly distracting, as the snows were still plenty white and the warm and worn suburban colors were still clear enough) and original Dolby 6-track stereo that made every audience member feel like there were marooned in Antarctica alongside the men of Outpost 31 or struggling not to get sucked into the Freeling children’s closet alongside Carol Anne. But even with the fading colors, the amount of detail that’s evident in every shot, from the forming icicles on Kurt Russell’s beard to the age marks of the spirits’ physical manifestations is a sight to behold that not even the clearest Blu-Ray can properly capture and reflect. These moments are why we go to the movies and experience these stories on the largest format possible.

As this series (and history) have proven, 1982 was a pretty monumental year for blockbuster moviemaking. Whether you laughed, cried, clutched your popcorn bucket in fear or in hope, these were the films that paved the way for what was possible in the films and still is. And these screened films have done a remarkable job of bringing 1982 back to a modern audience who could use that reminder while being a formal introduction to the next generation.

(As a head’s up for Los Angeles readers of Age of the Nerd: the print for Poltergeist could only be played on Saturday night before it had to be shipped back to Texas (which is why The Road Warrior took over its Thursday night spot on the calendar), but there will be an encore screening of The Thing on Wednesday night. I strongly suggest making this rare screening a priority for this week.)

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