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AVQ&A: Worst moviegoing experiences

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This week’s question, courtesy of reader Ryan Greenlaw: What is the worst movie-watching experience you’ve had in another person’s company (be it a date, your parents, classmates, etc.)?

Tasha Robinson
I’m not sure whether you’re getting specifically at situations that were the fault of the other person we were with, Ryan. Certainly the two experiences that leap to my mind—both experienced with my boyfriend—weren’t his fault at all. The first was in 1999, when The Phantom Menace came out. We saw it shortly after it opened, at the now-defunct McClurg Theater in Chicago, then supposedly the high-techiest of the new high-tech digital theaters—basically, the place where the serious sound-and-picture-experience nuts would go. Just as the film started, a small boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, burst into tears somewhere down front. He continued wailing hysterically through the opening crawl. Anticipation for Phantom Menace was high at the time—oh, little did we know—and it was a completely full house, so keyed-up people almost immediately started yelling “Shut that kid up!” and “Get him the fuck out of here, you asshole!” So the boy’s father started shouting back, “We paid to be here too!” and “YOU shut up, goddammit!” After a few minutes of the theater getting louder and nastier, the father suddenly dragged the boy bodily out of his seat and threw him to the ground, then hauled him up the aisle stairs by his shirt, yelling at him. Halfway up, he knocked him to the ground, yelling “See what you’ve done, you’ve completely ruined this!” Someone much braver than me stepped out into the aisle and started trying to reason with the angry father, asking him to calm down and stop hitting the kid. Which of course elicited the catchphrase of bad parents everywhere: “He’s my kid, don’t you fucking tell me what I can do to him!” Meanwhile, the boy lay on the ground between them, still bawling. By this time, everyone else in the theater had shut up. The father and the guy who’d intervened exchanged some quieter words, and then all three of them went out the door together. I didn’t actually see any of the first 10 minutes of the movie, and I didn’t take in or process any of the next hour or so, because I was so upset and so angry at myself for not doing anything. Which I still am.


My other worst experience was at the Brew And View at the Vic, during a Quentin Tarantino double—Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs—in the mid-’90s. Brew And View was normally a pretty mellow place to watch movies, but this was a special event, hosted by an infamous local shock jock, and the place was packed. Because of the special guest, they were doing thorough weapons screenings at the door, so the line was barely moving. It was freezing outside, and there was a liquor store right across the street. We showed up early, and it still took us more than an hour to get inside—by which time most of the people in the line around us were already cold, hostile, giddy, and drunk. That mood prevailed inside; I’ve been to a lot of Brew And View screenings where drunk wags commented loudly on the film, but nothing like this, with a crammed-full house whooping and howling at every curse word or act of violence. When Ving Rhames started taking potshots at Bruce Willis and hit a chubby bystander, a handful of people shrieked “Yeah! Kill the fat chick! Shoot the fat bitch!” When the door opened on Ving getting raped by the hillbilly pawn-shop owners, people howled “Fuck the n*gger! Fuck the n*gger!” It was lurid and ugly and terrifying being in that crowd; it felt like a riot getting ready to happen. (The small group of black people sitting around a table right next to us looked pretty damn creeped-out, too.) But because the place was packed, we would have had to crawl across a lot of people to get out. Instead, we hunched up and waited for the end of the film, then slipped out before Reservoir Dogs. To this day, I haven’t re-watched either film; they both make me feel a little guilty by association.

Keith Phipps
Mine’s almost too painful to recount, so I’ll be brief: A friend and I went to see Darkman at a crumbling Dayton theater formerly known as the Kon-Tiki. (It opened toward the tail end of the 1960s’ South Pacific fixation and kept the theme until Loews bought it out in the 1980s.) Several rows behind me sat a very, very large man, his nearly as large wife, and their on-their-way-to-being-large kids. Not only did they talk through most of the movie, they noisily unwrapped and ate a chicken dinner. I shot them dirty looks and shushed them to no avail. Then, when the credits started to roll, I cheekily waved goodbye. This was a mistake. The very, very large man exited with his family, then returned and stuck his fist in my face. He didn’t punch me, he just kind of put his fist on to the bridge of my nose and pressed. Hard. His hand smelled like his dinner. A year later, I started working at the same theater as an usher, but I never saw that guy again. I think I would have hidden if I did.


Donna Bowman
I may be pre-empting Noel’s answer, but then again, surely he has horrible festival experiences to relate. And it’s an open question whether what I’m about to describe is the most horrible film experience ever, or the most awesome. Back when we were living in Virginia and I was going to graduate school, we went to see a sneak preview of As Good As It Gets. About halfway through, a reel had been spliced in backward and upside down, leading to a couple of bizarre, hilarious minutes of out-of-context scenes with backmasked dialogue and legs walking in reverse on the ceiling. The powers that be stopped the screening, and we sat for about 10 minutes talking about the impossibility of this being fixed, since it would involve cutting the reel out of the spool on the platter and rewinding it with the correct tail on the inside before splicing it back in. Sure enough, when the movie started again, the entire reel had been skipped. So suddenly we were 20 minutes later in the film. And during those 20 minutes, something important to the plot had apparently happened. (Much later, we found out that Nicholson arranged for Hunt’s son to get treatment for his asthma.) Characters kept talking about this amazing event, but maddeningly, no one would say what it was. The audience started to chuckle every time a veiled reference to the mysterious deed was dropped into the dialogue. The ridiculous culmination of this projectionist-mandated elision occurred when Helen Hunt said something like “What you did—I can’t even talk about it.” Everyone in the theater broke into gales of laughter. No carefully plotted parody of a missing reel could have been more perfect. To this day, I still haven’t seen As Good As It Gets all the way through, no small feat given how universally that film was beloved of my middlebrow coworkers in 1997. I’m in no hurry to replace the perfectly mangled movie of my memory with a film that makes some kind of pedestrian “sense.”

Genevieve Koski
Up until a couple of months ago, my neighborhood was home to one of the cheapest theaters in Chicago, the Village North, affectionately referred to by locals as “The Ghettoplex.” The Ghettoplex recently closed (sob), but before it did, it hosted some of my very best moviegoing experiences, aided mostly by the staff’s lax attitude toward sneaking in booze, and the very colorful clientele, which ranged from stoned college kids to homeless drunks snoring in the front row. Needless to say, the Ghettoplex wasn’t the place to go for highly anticipated movies, but for a $5 ticket—often scrawled out on a Post-It Note—it really couldn’t be beat for entertainment value. But a couple of years ago, the Ghettoplex’s unique charms combined for the worst moviegoing experience of my life. After finishing up a shift at the bar I worked at, a couple of my coworkers and I—lubricated by a shift drink or seven—decided to head over to the Ghettoplex for a midnight screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. (In our defense, it was a few days before Halloween, and we were drunkity drunk drunk.) Once we got there, we were informed that the heat wasn’t working, but we could still see the movie if we wanted to. This was late October in Chicago, and I was wearing my gigantic winter parka that evening, and we figured the booze would keep us warm. Our plan seemed to be working out great until about 45 minutes in, when my rapidly sobering-up body started to register the fact that it was about 40 degrees in the theater, and my increasingly clear head remembered “Oh yeah, I hate horror movies.” However, my companions were still feeling no pain, and they ignored my pleas to leave. And since the neighborhood is a little, um, rough, I didn’t feel safe stumbling home by myself. So I stayed. I think at one point I curled up in my seat under my jacket and cried for a little bit before going to sleep. But hey, it only cost me five bucks.

Josh Modell
I’ve got two, neither of which were completely horrible, but they make vaguely interesting stories. And that’s what AVQ&A is all about, right? Vaguely interesting stories? At an afternoon screening of Ghost World, a man behind me and my girlfriend made loud proclamations of lust every time Thora Birch was onscreen. (Not Scarlett? Seriously?) It was actually more scary than just boring and creepy after a while. The first time, we might’ve thought he was just some jock dude, but after a while, it was clear that he was a little mentally ill and obsessed. But a far worse experience was way back in 1990, when I went with my dad and my future wife (yes, we’re high-school sweethearts) to see Total Recall. Little did I know at that point that my delicate flower of a lady friend was both a) totally averse to anything even remotely sci-fi, and b) very queasy when it comes to onscreen violence. As a 16-year-old, I loved the movie, not realizing until afterward that my young, smart lil’ girlfriend—her favorite movies at 15 were My Life As A Dog and Maurice—was ready to vomit or pass out for most of what she found to be a terrible, terrible movie. I still think Total Recall is pretty good, but I’m ready to admit at this point that My Life As A Dog is probably a little better. (And Kurt Vonnegut considered it the greatest film ever made, so don’t take my word for it!)


Steven Hyden
I don’t really remember this, but I’ve been told that I totally freaked out during Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom when that guy reached into that other guy’s chest and ripped his heart out. I was 6 at the time. Apparently I jumped out of my seat and ran to the back of the theater in sheer fucking terror. I don’t remember doing this, but my dad insists I did. (Coincidentally, I had a strong urge to do the same thing during Witless Protection, but I had to stay because I was reviewing it for The A.V. Club.) Anyway, I suspect my dad might be exaggerating the story to make it funnier—a practice I fully endorse—though Temple Of Doom did inspire the creation of the PG-13 rating, so maybe I wasn’t the only little kid who rioted during that scene.


Kyle Ryan
I'm with Hyden here. One of my all-time worst movie experiences involved Temple Of Doom, but in a different situation than his. My elementary school's after-school program occasionally wheeled in the TV/VCR cart to let us watch a movie, which led to two traumatic events I distinctly remember 25 years later. I used to get migraines as a kid, and my body was wracked by searing headaches and nausea when I had to endure the gross-out marathon known as Temple Of Doom. I was just counting down the minutes until my mom showed up—I promptly puked when she did. This after-school program also subjected me to The Watcher In The Woods, a Disney paranormal thriller (co-starring a scary-looking Bette Davis) that gave me nightmares for at least a month,. It still ranks as the film that has done the most damage to my psyche. I finally found closure a few years ago when I saw it again, but I still can't stomach Temple Of Doom. Thanks a lot, St. Rose of Lima Elementary!

Steve Heisler
I don’t know what it is, but I seem to have emerged from my filmgoing experiences relatively unscathed—unless you count Matrix 3. (Well-zinged!) I mean, one time I went to see Memento, and the film cut out halfway through, so we all got refunds. That’s about as bad as it’s gotten. But a friend of mine had a great story, which happened to him at The Sixth Sense. [Spoilerz aplenti ahead.] It was getting near the end of this, the only M. Night Shyamalan movie people can agree is great, and Bruce Willis was onscreen; it was the scene where he drops the ring, where thoughts being to swirl in his head. My buddy, and every other viewer, were starting to put the pieces together, when the guy sitting right behind him blurted out, “Oh, I get it! He’s a ghost!” At first, things were silent—no one was sure what had just happened, and whether he was just being sarcastic. But people quickly realized that, in fact, the movie was spoiled—and at the absolute worst possible time. I mean, it’s one thing to ruin a perfectly good film before you even go, but the exact moment before the amazing reveal? There’s a special place in hell reserved for those fools.


Nathan Rabin
I actually have two worst film experiences. The first came when I saw the justifiably forgotten Pras/Ja Rule vehicle Turn It Up (Yes, Virginia, there was a time when the participation of Pras and Ja Rule was enough to get a terrible script both green-lit and shown theatrically) at one of Madison’s several monumentally shitty theaters. I think I can speak with some authority when I say it’s one of the worst films of the past 20 years, a glum, joyless hodgepodge of hood- and music-movie clichés further undone by Pras’ mumbly, mush-mouthed anti-charisma. Christ, if you think he’s a terrible rapper, you really should see him act. Or rather don’t. The line I always remember from the film is Pras scream-mumbling at an engineer, “Da beat! It’s not hot! The beat needs to be more hot!” The heat wasn’t working in the theater (it wasn’t hot enough! It needed to be more hot, like Pras’ beats!) so it was freezing. I was part of an audience of about four people, three of whom left after 15 minutes. Then 40 minutes into the film, the print started playing backward and upside down. I think I actually preferred watching it that way. It turned a terrible movie into a surreal, almost Dadaistic experience. My other worst film experience was probably watching a Friday screening of Epic Movie right after talking to four or five editors interested in publishing my forthcoming memoir. One of the best, most ego-inflating days of my life took a sour left turn as I watched in horror as an overflowing theater filled with easily amused teenagers brayed hysterically at every moronic poop joke, pratfall, and idiotic pop-culture reference. It was awful enough to make me hate young people and movies in general. I’d never seen a Friedberg/Seltzer abomination before, so I wasn’t fully prepared for its hate-inducing shittyosity. I knew it was going to be bad, but Good Lord, I didn’t know it was going to be that bad.

Noel Murray
There’s nothing worse than going to a movie with people who clearly aren’t enjoying themselves, which is exactly what ruined Moonstruck for me the first time I saw it. Moonstruck had just been nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, and had just opened in Nashville, so I talked a couple of high-school buddies into going with me, even though they really wanted to see Action Jackson. I didn’t have a car back then, so if I wanted to feed my pop-culture habit, I had to rely on friends who’d drive me to the record store and/or see awards-bait movies with me. I convinced my buddies that the movie would be funny and profound and definitely worth their while, and for the next two hours they squirmed and sighed and snickered derisively to such a degree that I left the theater convinced that Moonstruck was an overrated hunk of junk. I actively rooted against it at the Oscars that year. Then a year later, during my freshman year of college, a bunch of my new friends were quoting Moonstruck so lovingly that I agreed to accompany them to a screening at the UGA student union. And lo and behold, I did a complete 180 on the film, which seemed much sweeter and funnier when I was watching it with people who were into it.


Scott Tobias
I would consider my entire three-year sojourn in Miami, Florida to be one long bad moviegoing experience. Every week, my friends and I would dutifully trudge out to the Cocowalk Theater or another sprawling megaplex to catch a movie or two, and every week, we’d have our limits tested on how much chatter we could tolerate behind us. There was always some talking, and we learned early on that if we turned around and politely asked people to quiet down, they’d look at us like we’d just urinated in their popcorn. It was as if the battle on moviegoing decorum had already been fought and lost in this city, and the next generation wasn’t even aware that talking during movies had been, at any point in history, considered rude. We tried to devise exit strategies by sitting in empty rows or near the aisle so we could change seats if the people behind us were making too much noise. But when you’re seeing movies on opening weekend, as we often did, exit strategies weren’t always possible, and we had to deal with the chatter one way or another. To that end, what stands out is two experiences when the least tolerant in our group vastly exceeded his authority and embarrassed the hell out of me in the process: One was at a sold-out screening of Bulworth—no, seriously, Bulworth sold out!—when my friend, suspecting the people behind us were going to be trouble, tried preemptively to shut them down. In other words, he was trying to shush them for having an animated conversation before the lights had even dimmed. (Needless to say, they were not pleased, and they wound up talking through the entire movie anyway.) The other was at a middlebrow foreign film called Character, where the subtitles were cropped very close to the bottom of the screen, making it very difficult to see them over people’s heads. Again, there was chatter, mainly from a guy who required virtually a line-for-line recapping of everything that was happening onscreen. After the movie was over, my steamed-up friend whipped around and launched into a profane, spittle-filled rant… at an elderly man. It was then that I learned that in the social code, “respect your elders” trumps “don’t talk during movies.”

Sean O’Neal
I was more or less raised by a single mother, so a lot of my formative years were spent blooming in the pot of dirt known as public daycare. I was a “lifer,” inducted when I was a preschooler and not turned loose into a latchkey existence until I was nearly 11, so most of the teachers there were pretty familiar with me—primarily for my smart-ass attitude and general disinterest in arts and crafts, but also as someone who could be trusted not to bully smaller children or play “doctor” with the ladies. (Except that one time.) This also meant I sometimes got the rare privilege of choosing which video would be used as a mid-afternoon pacifier, when our underpaid guardians wanted to go read old issues of People and bitch about how much they got paid, and its proportionate ratio to the need to put up with this shit. Because I am a dork who thrills at any iota of authority, I took this role very seriously. For a while there, I was an excellent programmer, selecting only the safest of Disney’s G-rated fare like Pete’s Dragon and The Sword And The Stone. Then one week I fucked up and lobbied for Amazing Grace And Chuck—a PG-rated movie. I remember arguing that its message—one boy’s mission to foster peace in the Cold War by refusing to play baseball—was an important one. (I guess because how else would we learn about the importance of nuclear disarmament through sports-related pacifism? Why, for all we knew, one of our classmates would be an NBA star, and one day he’d disarm a Soviet ICBM by just taking a knee during the playoffs! etc.) Anyway, the movie itself isn’t particularly profane, but anyone who’s ever been in a room full of 5- to 10-year-olds knows that the slightest curse word can spark a near-riot. Needless to say, the first “hell” caused the entire assembly to erupt into uncontrollable hysterics, and I remember every pair of teacher eyes turned my way like I had just popped in a tape of German scat porn. I spent the rest of that movie turning crimson at every “damn,” “hell,” and “ass” (and there probably aren’t many, but at the time, it seemed like Charles Bukowski and Quentin Tarantino had collaborated on the script) until our faux-principal Ms. Ellen finally popped the tape out to a swell of anticipatory “Ooooo”s. I was absolutely mortified. Ms. Ellen quietly informed me we would be having a talk with my mother later, I guess because she was concerned I might develop a potty-mouth if I continued watching films like that. Fortunately, my mom didn’t give a damn hell ass shit, so fuck that bitch. Amazing Grace And Chuck for life!