A Theater Chain Brings a Unique Horror Touch to the Holidays

Alamo Drafthouse is a chain of boutique theaters known for its strict no-talking, no-texting rules, as well as having full restaurant and bar service during the feature presentation, with more than three dozen locations and counting across the United States. For the past several years, they have spotlighted the work of the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) through an annual Halloween-season showcase festival called “Dismember the Alamo.” AGFA’s stated purpose is to “preserve the legacy of genre movies through collection, conservation, and distribution.” Theirs is the only organization I can think of that has the likes of Licorice Pizza auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn, and RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan serving in an official capacity as advisors.

“I firmly believe that AGFA, and by extension its partnership with Alamo Drafthouse, is indispensable to the landscape of repertory cinema. The fact that we’re able to show a wealth of genre films to an eager public, often meticulously restored, is nothing short of a miracle,” Bryan Loy, creative director for the Alamo Drafthouse location in Ashburn, Virginia, told me in an interview.

The selections for “Dismember the Alamo” are made from deep within AGFA’s archive of horror, picking things that might not be at the top of everyone’s list, but are nevertheless niche and notable. The twist of the event is that it’s usually four movies back-to-back-to-back-to-back, and that the selections are a surprise, you won’t know what you’re watching until the opening titles come on.

I have participated in “Dismember the Alamo” since 2018. The festivals have given me everything from beloved spooky favorites like Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995) to movies I’d prefer to avoid ever seeing again, like a Hong Kong production called Centipede Horror (1982). But I like being exposed to AGFA’s sensibilities, such as that first one I attended in 2018 at Alamo’s location in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I got to see two films by Herschell Gordon Lewis, so infamous in horror circles he’s been nicknamed “The Wizard of Gore.” It’s also responsible for turning me onto hidden gems, like the interesting pre-punk aesthetic of a British motorcycle-themed horror tale called Psychomania (1973) and the 80s cocaine-fueled excess of a title that says everything you need to know about it, Death Spa (1988).

Last year, due to the pandemic, ‘Dismember’ had a much more limited presence, opting for a series of weekly titles instead of its traditional marathon format. The only one of these I was able to catch was an unusual Italian production called Aenigma (1987). This year, two screenings of two movies each helped maintain a somewhat status quo for our post-COVID-19 reality.

The first of these events was on Halloween itself, and featured two appropriately spooky tales. The first was Boardinghouse (1982), the first horror movie to be shot on VHS for eventual theatrical distribution. And like so many bad movies, it was written, directed, and stars one man: John Wintergate, who plays the film’s playboy lead, and as such, gets to ogle and fondle all of the women who come to stay at a Los Angeles boarding house he inherited. Oh, did I also mention he’s psychic, for some reason? Boardinghouse shouldn’t be watched by anyone except your most experienced horror hound. It’s not very well made, but definitely fits with that era of trying to replicate the success that micro-budgeted horror movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th had around this time.

Like many ‘Dismember’ features, it’s also pretty gory. Factors like the fact that it was shot on VHS give it some credence as a historical oddity, and while I’m always grateful for the opportunity to check out something not necessarily in my comfort zone, Boardinghouse is not likely to be revisited by me anytime soon. Even Bryan Loy admitted that it “is perhaps one of the most inept films I’ve seen in my life,” but that there was “nothing finer” than “watching it on our large-format screen and hearing incredulous laughter from my fellow audience all around me.”

Thankfully, the next selection that Halloween day was a little more routine, and overall much more entertaining. The movie is Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), which I had heard about for years but had never watched before. ‘Dismember’ was a more than perfect occasion to take it in for the first time. It stars Evil Dead trilogy star Bruce Campbell as an Elvis impersonator who thinks he really is The King himself, and Ozzie Davis, best known for Do the Right Thing, as a Black man who thinks he’s JFK. Together, they’ll team up to stop a mummy that’s been haunting and killing their fellow retirees at a nursing home. Bubba Ho-Tep is a rousing good time, a fun, post-modern homage to classic genre features. Campbell is delightful, bringing a similar energy here that made him stick out in the Evil Dead movies. Our presentation even ended with a retrospective interview about the film hosted by Kumail Nanjiani and featuring Campbell and writer-director Don Coscarelli, best known outside of this for Phantasm.

While I was attending the Halloween festivities, Loy announced a continuation series, “A December to Dismember,” that would be occurring in 4 weeks’ time, this time focused on Christmas-themed horror. It was difficult to have such an elongated intermission between sessions, but I was hoping that it could be the biggest crossover between the two holidays since The Nightmare Before Christmas. Now having seen it, I can report it was more than worth the wait!

“I was completely left to my own devices when it came to ‘A December to Dismember,’” Loy said. “I wanted to show something totally unexpected, so I delved into AGFA’s vaults to find ‘alternative’ holiday horror movies that were a little off the beaten path. Part of the joy for me is the potential of introducing a viewer to an underrated gem or new discovery.”

The first movie featured for this Christmas-themed selection was The Brain (1988), a Canadian production that is also a creature feature that includes, you guessed it, a giant brain as its primary antagonist. And the titular brain himself? He just looks like a happy fellow, sporting a constant grinning, toothy smile reminiscent of Venom. Jim Majelewski (Tom Bresnahan) is the coolest kid in high school, constantly pulling pranks yet able to get away with bad behavior because of his great intelligence; he is Ferris Bueller and Bart Simpson combined. But when he’s forced to go to a rehab clinic run by the host of a syndicated self-help show called Independent Thinkers that’s sweeping the nation, Jim stumbles onto the truth and must find a way to expose it to the masses and prevent the titular brain from taking over the entire world. The Brain is low-budget, schlocky fun, not high on production value, but still with more than plenty to rope you in. Its opening scene in particular is a real doozy, though the momentum starts to go away by the end of the movie, with its constant cutting to our hero being chased by an overweight henchman up and down a flight of stairs.

The real gem of the series might be The Day of the Beast (1995), or El día de la bestia in its native Spanish. The Day of the Beast is from director Álex de la Iglesia, who was just shy of 30 when he made it. He also wrote its screenplay alongside Jorge Guerricaechevarría. I love this movie a lot just because it happens to be set in one of my favorite cities in the world: Madrid. But more than its connections to the Spanish capital, I love that it tells a twisted and gothic tale that keeps one at the edge of their seat. It’s about a priest (Álex Angulo) who wants to contact the Devil because he believes he’s discovered a code in the Bible that tells him that the Antichrist will be born in Madrid that Christmas Eve.

He recruits an occult TV host named Professor Cavan (Armando De Razza), as well as record store employee and heavy metal enthusiast José María (Santiago Segura) to aid him in his quest. I love how dark and demented this film’s sensibilities are, it begins with a montage of our heroic priest committing horrible deeds, like stealing from the homeless and knocking over a mime, around the city. There’s also everything from a subplot about trying to get the blood of a maiden to a gang that’s been setting Madrid’s homeless people on fire, the latter of which seems indicative of the chaotic and sadistic nature of evil itself. Steeped in religious imagery, yet somehow mocking, and above all the tropes and theology it critiques, The Day of the Beast delivers, and served as an unusual Christmas-horror pick I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise. Bryan Loy even commented that he “had many folks come up after the show and [say] that they plan on adding The Day of the Beast to their annual Christmas movie rotation.”

“Out of all the events I curate and host throughout the year, ‘Dismember the Alamo’ is always what I look forward to the most. I really wanted to provide an experience similar to that of years prior while being conscientious of health and safety concerns due to COVID-19, as well as the bandwidth of the theater’s staff,” Loy said. “Since this year’s event was abbreviated to two films rather than the usual four, I figured a nice consolation would be to offer a second event in December, this time saluting the perennial subgenre of horror films set during the holidays.”

He concluded with “Though it has proved devastating for businesses – and especially movie theaters – the pandemic has reshaped our perspectives and encouraged us to think a bit more outside the box for solutions or alternatives, especially as it affects artistic or creative endeavors. I’m grateful we were able to hold ‘Dismember’ in some form this year, and its resulting turnout and response was intensely gratifying. It makes me all the more excited for next year.”