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Tuesday, October 27, 1998

Horror at the Harwan

By David Hunsinger, for the Courier-Post

WORD'S OUT: Horror movie fans line up in the rain outside Mount Ephraim's Harwan Theater on a recent Friday night. More than 250 moviegoers first got wet then got scared during this double feature.



Courier-Post Staff

Thundering rain falls onto the Black Horse Pike, making the asphalt glisten in a cinematic way. The wet streets and chilly fall air set the mood - mysterious and murky.

It's a perfect night for a gory movie.

More than 250 rain-soaked film fans endure the elements for the chance to see a film on the big screen that most already have seen on video, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.

But they can't wait to be scared - again.

Welcome to Exhumed Films night at the Harwan Theater in Mount Ephraim, a monthly event when two rarely shown horror movies roll onto the silver screen. Fans arrive from as far away as New York and Ohio to check out titles such as Cannibal Ferox or Burial Ground.

"The movie nights are cheesy and fun," says 18-year-old Wade Bell as he waits with Brendel Clifford, also 18 and from Centerton, and Jen Hooper, 16, of Pittsgrove.

"Most of the movies are low budget, definitely not Coppola," says Bell. "It's the best movie experience I've ever had."

Credit four local twentysomethings who a year ago rented the Harwan to screen a one-night horror movie festival by cult director Lucio Fulci. When hundreds showed up to see Zombie and Gates of Hell, the friends knew they were onto something. They began lining up more shows at the Harwan.

Audubon friends Dan Fraga, 25, and Harry Guerro, 22, and Jesse Nelson, 27, of Oaklyn and Joseph A. Gervasi, 27, of Philadelphia are graduates of Audubon High School and self-proclaimed horror movie buffs.

They are the kind of guys who know bizarre film nuggets, such as the names of the director of Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon) and all the titles of Dario Argento's slashers. There's rarely a horror movie convention they miss.

"We're nerds. We just kind of know those things," says Fraga.

The friends were raised on Dr. Shock's Creature Double Feature, a popular Saturday afternoon scary movie show on Channel 17 in the 1970s and '80s.

"People love to be scared," says Fraga, a freshman English teacher at Haddon Heights High School. His wife, Anna, works the box office for the shows.

"We give something you can't get anywhere else. We offer fans a chance to see movies in a bigger setting," says Fraga, a former cast member of the live production of Rocky Horror Picture Show that plays Saturday nights at midnight at the Harwan.

Part of the fun of screening these films, he says, was tracking down "showable" copies.

"You'd be surprised at what distributors have buried away," says Nelson, a married computer guy. Through dozens of phone calls and inquiries, the friends found many never-released super-gory horror movies from Italy.

They've dealt with international firms such as Sage Stallone's production company Grindhouse Releasing and Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder.

Exhumed Films garnered national attention when it was featured in Fangoria, a popular scary movie magazine. The guys have not pocketed any profits from the shows. They reinvest the returns into the next Exhumed Films show.

Each of the men has a role in the company: Fraga is treasurer; Gervasi deals with the press; Guerro checks the film quality and projects the films; and Nelson maintains the group's Web site and makes bookings.

Gervasi's day job is selling hard-to-find, out-of-print movies from his house in the East Falls section of Philadelphia. On show night, Gervasi props up a card table at the Harwan and sells obscure movies and T-shirts.

The four friends didn't have a name for their group a year ago when they began posting items on the Internet and distributing handbills. Now Exhumed Films has a significant horror library and regular followers, some of whom have attended every screening.

For their Friday, March 13 show last year, people were turned away because over 400 turned up to see Friday the 13th 3D.

Some of the movies are so low-budget, the effects look fake compared to Scream or other modern slasher movies.

"The audience makes up for lack of technology," says Nelson.

The lively audiences overlook the Harwan's shortcomings. Guerro says the Harwan has one of the largest movie screens in South Jersey. However, it is far from the plush cappuccino bar setting of the Ritz Twelve in Voorhees.

The straight-back seats at the Harwan have springs poking through. There are water spots on the ceiling. A leaking foyer roof offers no relief from the rain. And sometimes the film prints are far from mint condition.

The guys are planning to extend their offerings to movies other than horror, such as action and science fiction.

On Nov. 13, Exhumed Films will present The Beyond in its original, uncut version, which was never released theatrically, Nelson says.

At a recent show, Brendel Clifford is waiting with friends at the front of the line, trying to keep dry under the Harwan's marquee.

"The guys who run it seem pretty cool and they give out cool prizes," says Clifford. "Sometimes the audience says funny things. It's like watching Mystery Science Theater 2000, but in person."

Later, when the crowd of umbrella-brandishing movie fans steps inside, Nick Lombardo, 20, checks out the selection of B-horror movies Gervasi is selling.

Lombardo, who works in a video store in West Chester, Pa., has not missed any of Exhumed Films' shows. Lombardo already saw all of the screenings, such as Suspiria and The Hills Have Eyes, on video.

"I've always wanted to see Halloween and Friday the 13th in the theater. It's like a dream come true."

A senior in high school, Sean Kelly of New Egypt is psyched to see the double features in the theater and thinks the old Wes Craven movies "blow Scream away."

The 18-year-old musician is dressed in Gothic clothes - ruffled white shirt, draping floor-length jacket and vampiresque incisors - for the show.

Also dressed, but in her everyday punk clothes, 20-year-old Beth Blaszczyk of Lancaster, Pa., drove two hours with five friends to see the show. Originally from Collingswood, Blaszczyk sports a "Stand Strong, Stand Proud" coat-of-arms tattoo on her forearm and fake bloody gunshot wounds on her temple and chest. She is excited about catching the bloody, gory movies that are rarely shown.

Before the lights go down for the night, Fraga and Gervasi take the stage to raffle off goodies such as videos and sound tracks. It's like Bingo for movie junkies.

Talking like a teacher, Fraga warns people before the lights go down that insipid dialogue will not be tolerated.

A teen-age boy screams an off-color remark and Fraga quickly retorts, "Yelling profanities is very funny."

The boy shrinks in his seat.

A few minutes later, the theater dims and the trailers roll: It's an original strobe-light trailer for The Exorcist from 1973 - and the house cheers loudly. After previews for movies such as The Funhouse, Darkman and Army of Darkness, the main event begins.

In the beginning of Evil Dead 2, the protagonist's girlfriend becomes possessed so, of course, he must kill her. A few scenes later, when the protagonist cuts off his possessed left hand with a chain saw, the crowd cheers and erupts.

The guys from Exhumed Films stand in the back of the theater smiling. They couldn't be more proud.