Horror at the cinema

It was with genuine excitement and anticipation that I attended a 9pm screening of Hereditary in Cardiff Cineworld this week. The film was almost universally praised by critics when it premiered at Sundance 2018 in January, and six months later it’s been massively hyped in nearly every media outlet, with frequent comparisons to horror classics, The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, and reviews proclaiming it “a disorientating cocktail”, “nightmarish”, “a brilliant fear machine”, and “emotional agony…so raw” you will “see things you can never un-see and feel pain you can never un-feel”; acclaim that’s all the more impressive given it’s writer-director Ari Aster’s debut.

Clearly, I wasn’t the only cinema-goer intrigued by the promise of “pure evil”, and as I tapped away at the self-service screen to purchase tickets, I saw with dismay that the auditorium was nearly full. Even as I selected two seats near the front, they were snatched up before I could reach the checkout. This was concerning. I don’t hold a high opinion of the general public. I wouldn’t invite strangers into my lounge to watch a film, I wouldn’t gather with them around an iPad at a bus stop, and I’m no more keen to sit with them anywhere else. But I was here now, I would give viewers the benefit of the doubt, try a bit of trust in humanity.

Nonetheless, a few minutes later as I settled into my seat for the pre-film trailers, I was still anxious. I hoped the spirit of the genre would be honoured by its audience, that they would sit silently with phones off and allow the promised “crawling dread” to get under my skin. After all, the success and enjoyment of any good horror movie hinges on its “profoundly disturbing” atmosphere, on the audience’s suspension of disbelief, on a willingness to be absorbed, drawn in, and emotionally battered. If that’s spoiled, the film is spoiled.

This isn’t a review, but in truth, Hereditary was fairly horrifying (albeit not quite a “terrifying masterpiece”). Watching at the cinema though, I was reminded that the real horror is not dished out on screen. It’s in the crackle and crunch of wrappers during a moment of silent suspense, the inapt raucous laughter following a stomach-turning image, the distracting white blaze of phones in peripheral vision, the buzz of notifications, the endless masticating and whispering, the contagion of coughing and sniffing. It’s weak bladders, and late entries, and changing seats. It’s people with sledge hammers on their shoes and the dexterity of lego hands. On that note, do people become more clumsy at the cinema? Are they struggling to hold things in the dark? Why are they holding anything? And if they must, why can’t they put it down gently? Around an hour into the showing, somebody kicked a bottle over. Twenty minutes later there was a clatter as if someone had dropped a tray full of tools. The immediate disruption on both occasions was followed by cursing and giggling, as well as being seen as an opportunity to open new packets of munchies and unzip sweaty items of clothing with about as much subtlety and discretion as kids stomping bubblewrap or Gordon Ramsay berating his trainee chefs. But we’re not watching this in an effing kitchen! For some reason, people have paid money to sit in a specialised darkened room to do all this.

By the end, I’d concluded that the perfect cinema would ban phones outright. To identify social media addicts hoping to smuggle in contraband, spectators would be frisked while passing through a series of metal detectors with more vigorous inspections than Heathrow Airport. Entry would be prohibited after a missed start and tickets voided. Food and drink would not be sold on premises or permitted for consumption anywhere on site except by intravenous drip. Offenders would be expelled. Repeat offenders would be shot. People needing toilet breaks would have a choice to hold it in, leave and forfeit reentry, or use a urinary catheter or Shewee. A screening is 2-3 hours people, you can’t all be incontinent or diabetic!

Hereditary may be a “modern horror classic”. It may be the “most terrifying horror film in years”. I won’t know until I watch it again, in the perfect solitude of my living room, with the lights out and edibles banned. Sadly, this time it’ll be devoid of surprises and twists and its capacity to scare will be diluted. The cinematic experience it offers has been irrevocably neutered for me. Seconds into the film I knew it was ruined. I wanted to stand up and shout ‘Fine! I’ll wait for it to come out on DVD and watch it by myself!’ but much to my girlfriend’s relief, I didn’t.

I won’t watch horror at the cinema again, though, I’ll get my “pure emotional terrorism” at home. The sooner films go straight to Netflix and Amazon Prime, the better.

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