The Horror That Wouldn't Die!
Miss those sleazy gorefests they used to show on Chestnut Street? Head for an Exhumed Films screening in New Jersey.
by Hans Kellner
The Harwan Theatre sneaks up on you. Perched at the corner of Kings Highway and the Black Horse Pike, the Harwan stands as a shabby throwback to a simpler age, when Burt Reynolds was a star and single-screen movie theaters could still turn a profit. These days, the Harwan is down to one show a day, its red-letter marquee lately plugging The Odd C uple II (sic) at 8 p.m. only. Speeding by, you might mistake the whole facade for a nostalgic set - The Last Picture Show in Mount Ephraim, NJ.
But when the sun sets, the Harwan springs to life again. Dozens of teens and 20-somethings, mostly male, mostly pale, many pierced, dyed and tattooed, cluster outside the theater, awaiting entry to the latest production by Exhumed Films Presentations, a local film organization dedicated to big-screen showings of horror and gore movies from the '70s and '80s. Most of the assembled guests look like regular readers of Fangoria magazine, the Bible of modern schlock (a recent cover: "Special All-Color, All-Gruesome Issue!"). Tonight, the crowd is positively giddy with excitement for the main event: Evil Dead II, Sam Raimi's comic rollercoaster that artfully combines buckets of blood with a sensibility straight out of the Three Stooges.
"Did you see Return of the Living Dead, Part III?" asks a long-haired teen as he shuffles his feet. "That was AWESOME. This one is supposed to be great, too." (Few seem to recognize the bottom half of the bill: Deathdream, Bob Clark's chilling, little-seen Vietnam allegory from 1972.) Someone passes around pencils and a mailing list. Somebody else asks the time. Everyone is exactly where they want to be.
You have to go back to the early '80s, to Philadelphia's Goldman Theater (now a bank), for a setting as well-suited to down-and-dirty horror as the Harwan. In those days, low-budget sleaze jockeyed for screen space in movie theaters up and down a six-block stretch of Chestnut Street. Major releases like Lethal Weapon rubbed shoulders with titles like Torso and Autopsy. But with the rise of video stores and multiplexes, theaters fell like dominoes. The Goldman, the Duke and Duchess, and Eric's Place are all gone, their mention prompting quizzical looks from anyone under 25. Sam's Place I and II closed more recently, replaced by a CVS. The Midtown was a longtime holdout, but is now under renovation to become a venue for the American Music Theater Festival. All in all, eight screens were lost. (Only the SamEric is still showing films on Chestnut, and it's for sale.) And though screens are multiplying on Delaware Avenue, they don't show low-rent, Chestnut-style horror movies.
"We thought we'd do it once and see what happened, and people just came out fo the woodwork we never knew existed," says Joseph Gervasi.
Nowadays most of those movies go directly to the video shelf. The horror genre has been increasingly mainstreamed and circumscribed by such big-budget, major studio releases as Silence of the Lambs and Scream. The communal pleasures of watching Grade C horror have been relegated to the private living room, where the scream (or the chuckle) behind you comes not from a fellow moviegoer but from the telephone or the kids.
That's where Exhumed Films Presentations comes in, an organization founded in 1997 to recapture the excitement of theatrical horror movies. Inspired by a "Fant.Asia" genre festival in Montreal, the 20-something partners - Dan Fraga, Joseph Gervasi, Harry Guerro and Jesse Nelson - pooled their resources to rent out the Harwan last Halloween for a double feature of Gates of Hell and Zombie.
"We thought we'd do it once and see what happened, and people just came out of the woodwork we never knew existed," says Gervasi, who, ironically, also runs a mail-order video service (see sidebar). Since then, the group has returned regularly to the Harwan for a steadily increasing fan base eager for big-screen thrills. Gervasi and Co. once took their show on the road to the GCC Northeast, where 100 people were turned away from a 3D showing of Friday the 13th, Part III. But it's the Harwan, which also hosts a live version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Saturday nights, that Exhumed Films Presentations calls home.
The general ambiance of the Harwan is late-'70s seedy. The lobby is adorned with yellowed certificates anointing the theater "the Best of South Jersey." A grumpy usher, working overtime, looks like he hasn't seen a horror movie since The Mummy. A dingy stairwell leads to a smoking lounge, some battered video games, and bathrooms that could charitably be described as no-frills. Tonight, the lobby is also papered with homemade flyers announcing upcoming shows, as well as T-shirts, Xeroxed fanzines and videotapes for sale. (Want the uncut, letterboxed version of Mario Bava's Rabid Dogs? No problem.)
The capacity crowd grows restless as the 10:30 showtime comes and goes. Hoots and hollers greet Gervasi and Fraga as they take the stage to hand out goofy door prizes and make announcements. They're ready for a rowdy crowd. Gervasi booked hardcore punk bands at the Harwan in the late '80s and early '90s, where, Gervasi says, "people would be slam-dancing in the little narrow aisles." Despite appearances, however, the on-stage patter is not a prelude to Mystery Science Theater. Fraga, a teacher by day, takes the microphone and admonishes the crowd: "We want you to have a good time, but please keep your comments to a minimum. You're not funny." Mostly, the crowd obeys.
Says Gervasi: "There's always a few people who will come in drunk. I don't think it's funny, I think it's juvenile." He once had to break up a gay-baiting fight in the Harwan lobby.
Exhumed Films Presentations joins several local groups that are bucking the video juggernaut and returning horror films to public venues. Jay Schwartz's Secret Cinema regularly schedules horror obscurities along with forgotten biker movies and old TV commercials. The Trocadero recently screened a double feature of Night of the Living Dead and Motel Hell (though most of the venue's screenings are on video). Until recently, another group called "Spooky Films" had also rented out the Harwan for classy fare like Hammer vampire movies and Todd Browning's Freaks, but they gave up due to poor attendance (attributable, perhaps, to the relatively esoteric programming).
The partners seem to be in business for the long haul. For hardcore fans of funhouse horror, raised on tape and ready for a change, the union of Exhumed Films Presentations and the Harwan Theatre is a match made in hell.
Exhumed Films Presentations will screen a double feature of Dario Argento's Suspiria and Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes on Friday, July 10. Upcoming shows include Cannibal Ferox and Burial Ground (Friday, August 7) and Re-Animator and From Beyond (October, TBA). Showtime is 10 p.m.; admission is $7. Information about Exhumed Films Presentations can be accessed through its Web site: www.voicenet.com/~jnelson1.