This week’s question is asked by A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky:
What’s a film or TV show that you wish you could’ve seen when it was first shown in theaters or broadcast on television?
I’ve always been fascinated by mass hysteria and pop culture hoaxes, so I’d go for one of the biggest ones that’s happened in my lifetime: Ghostwatch. I was 8, and American, when Stephen Volk’s almost instantly infamous haunted house story aired for the first and only time on BBC1, so I really only know it by reputation. But what a reputation! Tragically, the TV film—which ends on the reveal that U.K. watchers have just accidentally invited a malevolent force into their homes via a nationwide seance—has been linked with at least one suicide, so I’d never call for it to be broadcast again (at least, not without a bunch of warnings and disclaimers that would spoil the effect). But I wish I could have been there on October 31, 1992, as the creeping unease at Pipes’ lurking presence gave way to appreciation for the daring nature of what Volk and his team—including a bunch of certifiable British news celebrities—were pulling off.
Few directors create better in-theater viewing experiences than Quentin Tarantino. There’s something about the tension of a dark room, as well as the shared experience of viewing something with a bunch of strangers, that he seems to have a fourth-dimensional ability to exploit. I’ve seen everything he released since Kill Bill as close to its premiere as possible, but I would’ve loved to have seen Pulp Fiction when it still held the thrill of the unexpected. Piecing together the timeline, witnessing its most sublime moments before they became ripe for parody, or just laughing at lines before they were already catchphrases: None of this was an option for me upon its immediate release. By the time I finally found an unscrupulous Blockbuster Video employee to rent it to me, a year or so later, I already had the soundtrack memorized and all the film’s plot points nailed down. I was just verifying my affection for it at that point.
I was 7 when Titanic was released, and while I know some of my classmates saw it in theaters at the time, I didn’t. My parents were pretty comfortable letting me watch most anything within reason, so to be honest, it was probably because I was a skittish kid who once had to be rushed out of a showing of Little Women for audibly sobbing when Beth dies. Can you imagine how I would have reacted during the second half of Titanic? I ended up watching it at home once it came out on VHS, but I do wish I got to see it with an opening weekend audience at a time when I could have truly appreciated that. It feels like the biggest cultural phenomenon of my lifetime that I was cognizant of, yet couldn’t full appreciate.
I was addicted to horror anthologies when I was a kid—Tales From The Crypt, Tales From The Darkside, even the little-loved Monsters and Freddy’s Nightmares, though my favorite was the 1980s reboot of The Twilight Zone. And while I maintain that the ’80s incarnation had stories that stand up to the series’ finest (“A Little Peace And Quiet” and “Examination Day” among them), even back then I knew that I had really missed out by not seeing The Twilight Zone in its original run. I would have loved to have been a kid whose impressionable mind was warped and expanded each week, never quite knowing what to expect as Rod Serling introduced another tale whose twists haven’t been rendered completely predictable, after decades of being absorbed into the cultural fabric. I’m not sure I would have loved growing up in the early 1960s, particularly, and I probably would have died in Vietnam, but hey, at least I would’ve seen some really innovative television first.
My few times through Twin Peaks’ original run, I often caught myself thinking “Jesus, I can’t even imagine what it must’ve been like to watch this in 1990.” I’m not strictly talking about the absolute torture of hanging on through the prolonged Laura Palmer mystery as it unfolded—although, it would’ve been at least a little fun to watch Cooper’s investigation spiral into metaphysical nonsense. Maybe I’m letting the last 27 years of television evolution color my perception of its contemporaries, but what intrigues me most is the concept of a show this strange and often abrasive airing at a time when the medium wasn’t nearly as artistically mature as it is now. I’d love to have been privy to the conversation about its unanswerable questions, surreal scenes, and bizarre shifts in tone as the show became a certifiable phenomenon and wormed its way into the pop-culture canon.
We don’t get much “event” television anymore; only the series finale of M*A*S*H in 1983 can compete with sports on the list of most-watched broadcasts in the U.S. Also airing in 1983: a relentlessly bleak TV movie called The Day After. With the U.S. and Russia scrambling to top each other’s nuclear stockpiles at the time, nuclear annihilation was on everyone’s minds, so Nicholas Meyer’s film helpfully showed, in graphic detail, what that would be like. Fucking grim, it turns out. One hundred million people tuned in to watch the broadcast on ABC, and the film prompted a national debate that reached all the way to the White House: President Reagan wrote in his journal that The Day After left him “greatly depressed” and devoted to avoiding war at all costs. I remember when the movie aired, but my parents thankfully didn’t let their 7-year-old son watch. It’d be cool to go back and see it when nuclear war was on everyone’s minds, and a TV movie had the power to save the world.
It’s not often you get to actually witness a new art form as it blossoms to life, which is why I’d absolutely love to see an original showing of Georges Méliès’ 1902 film, A Trip To The Moon. I cite that as his most popular title, but truly I’d be happy to see any of the hundreds of films he created during the height of his career. He released a film titled The Merry Frolics Of Satan, after all. The Lumiere brothers, largely responsible for creating film, saw no future in the medium, believing it would live briefly as a scientific curiosity and be forgotten. A personality like Méliès, whose previous experience as a set designer and magician, provided the necessary vision to see film’s future. He directed morality plays, fables, and weird sci-fi excursions. They were the kind of nascent spectacle pictures that still compel me to go to the theater to this day, often despite my best interests. Wandering through the streets of Paris afterwards all goofed up on wormwood before contracting listeria from eating contaminated unpasteurized cheese would just be an ancillary bonus.
Unlike Sean, I was absolutely terrified of anything even vaguely horror-related when I was a child. An early and unfortunate glimpse on VHS of the Lizard Man from the Dennis Quaid vehicle Dreamscape led to years of nightmares and a marked aversion to even the hoariest of jump scares. Even when I was coaxed out to a screening of The Blair Witch Project in college, I insisted on a noontime viewing, the better to run safely back into the light of day. However, my love for Buffy The Vampire Slayer led to my catching The Grudge in theaters, and I ended up having to go back four more times in order to conquer the paranoia it triggered in me (the night after I first saw it, I had to get up at 5 a.m. and drive around for an hour until the coffee shops in my neighborhood opened up, so fearful was I of lifting up my bedsheets and seeing a moaning Asian woman crawling toward me). Since then, my interest in horror has become an obsession, and at this point, I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to be able to get in line way back in 1973 for a screening of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. I still find the film tremendously potent, but having read about the around-the-block lines, sold-out showings, and cultural mania that developed for the supernatural shocker, I would have loved to be able to experience it firsthand. News footage clips of audiences reacting to it for the first time only reaffirm this wish: I’m not sure such an event is possible any more.