The Little Pop-up Cinema of Horrors

Union Chapel in Islington, built at the end of the 18th century, functions not only as a church with the expected Sunday services but also acts as a venue for a number of events.

This Halloween just passed saw the chapel hosting a night of pagan theme with a screening of The Wicker Man (1973). The screening began with an episode of Tales of the Unexpected complete with Roald Dahl’s introduction from his fireside armchair. Even he claimed it was one of his favourite stories with a surprising ending – it was The Flypaper. As a local schoolgirl is discovered murdered in a marsh, young Sylvia is followed home on the bus one day. It is a truly chilling story that teaches you that really no one can be trusted. As an opener for the film, the single episode set the scene for the tense, frustrating, suspenseful horror that The Wicker Man provides.

The Wicker Man (1973)

During the screening, two musicians, adorned in Celtic garb with flowers haloing their heads, performed the traditional folksongs that feature in the film that was projected onto a huge screen above the pulpit. Iconic scenes from the film such as the plane’s arrival, Willow’s naked dancing, the girls jumping through fire, the procession, and the final burning scene were interrupted and dubbed over by the talented musicians. It was during these songs that the lighting became particularly effective. A red glow shone all around the chapel and lit up the cathedral vaulted ceiling highlighting every dark nook complete with a person-packed church pew.

Union Chapel, Islington

Although The Wicker Man highlights the conflict between Celtic Paganism’s beliefs in the power of the earth and Catholicism, a non-conformist Christian church somehow seemed like the perfect setting for this event. The chapel’s in-house bar was manned by staff wearing animal masks who encouraged the audience to participate in a drum-led procession around the pews, preparing for the burning of the wicker man at the end of the film. The set-up of this screening embodied the juxtaposition of the surreally joyous procession and the horror of human sacrifice, inherent to the 1970’s cult classic.

Union Chapel, Islington

When you’ve attended an event such as the one at Union Chapel, you become aware of the vast range of different film screenings out there. There is currently a trend for unusual film screenings with this time of year giving way to a variety of festive outdoor film screenings complete with yuletide themed cocktails and a fluffy blanket to keep away the cold. However, it is the horror screenings in unusual settings that have much have a bigger impact on the audience. Who doesn’t want to watch a zombie apocalypse movie in an abandoned warehouse? Or a spooky ghost story in a haunted castle?

Horror fans will understand that there is a lot to be said for the setting in which a particular film is being watched. Being comfortable on your sofa in your living room provides a sense of safety that some people need when watching horror; however, when you change your surroundings and tailor it somewhat to the film it is completely different. It turns from a movie night into an immersive experience. There is a sense of synergy in a large scale film screening in that the sense of horror or fear experienced by each individual produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. This means that, like a typical cinema screening, a sense of mass hysteria can escalate throughout the audience, except when you’re sat in a cemetery or morgue the crowd are in for a truly unique event.

Nomad Cinema, Brompton Cemetery

One of the first screenings found through research of the trend was one that caused quite a lot of controversy. A screening of The Exorcist (1973) took place at a former Catholic Church in Belfast as part of the Belfast Film Festival. A local priest called it a “cheap stunt” and accused the film festival organisers of insensitivity. The former Holy Rosary Church was deconsecrated and has not been used as a place of worship for almost 40 years.

Holy Rosary Church, Belfast

The abandoned church was chosen by organisers for its chilling and eerie atmosphere. “Belfast Film Festival is well known for its site-specific special events,” said a spokesperson, referring to its 2015 screening of Jaws on Portrush beach as one example. Although the site no longer belongs to the Catholic Church, criticism claimed that the satanic themes of The Exorcist may cause offence to parishioners who attended the church when it was in use for weddings, baptisms or christenings. The screening was an extremely popular event with horror film fans, and although a possibly offensive choice of film for some, it would be difficult to imagine a better setting in which to screen a film that deals with the demonic possession and attempted exorcism of a 12-year-old girl than in an a derelict church.

The Exorcist (1973)

Brompton Cemetery has been a regular venue for film screenings of all different genres. This cemetery is one of the oldest garden cemeteries in Britain containing 35,000 monuments and some substantial tombs and mausoleums. There are graves intended for common folk whose coffins were piled one on top of the other and other spacious mausoleums for the richer families. First opening in 1840, it has seen a lot of history, and nestled within all of this history you can watch a whole range of classics.

Brompton Cemetery

So far, its horror screenings have featured the likes of The Birds (1963), Psycho (1960), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Alien (1979). Huddled amongst the colonnades and catacombs, the cemetery provides the perfect eerie setting for any of these movies where the shadows come alive. Outdoors, beneath the stars and clouds and London smog, there could be a flock of birds ready to attack or a mystical faun lurking behind a tombstone. There is a thrill that comes with viewing a horror or sci-fi movie outside of the comfort of your home or a plush cinema seat. It gives a sense of unease to the viewing of these films that brings the murderers, mythical creatures or aliens out of the screen and hints as if they could be sitting just the other side of the nearest gravestone.

Brompton Cemetery

Most outdoor film screenings recommend wearing warm clothing and bringing something to sit on that will keep you warm and dry in unexpected weather, but it is conditions such as these that can be unpredictable and extremely distracting from the film. You’ve never experienced true misery until you’ve stubbornly decided to sit through an outdoor film in the rain and wind of a British autumn. Besides, our Halloween is not renowned for its subtropical climate. So, it’s worth considering that in some circumstances the outdoor cinema experience may not be worth the ordeal of getting rained on and having to wear an emergency poncho akin to wrapping yourself in cling film. The outdoor film screening must be planned and chosen wisely, if not you won’t be able to hear the film – all you will hear are the raindrops ricocheting off your plastic-covered head.

You don’t need to be outdoors battling the elements in order to have a unique cinema experience. While the big cinema companies are forever bringing out new and distracting ways to watch blockbusters, there are other experiences out there that plan every minute of their film screenings to the nth degree and don’t spray water in your face. However, distraction can be welcomed under some circumstances, especially when it is food-related and is tailored to the film you are watching.

Edible Cinema, London

Edible Cinema screenings are held at the Electric Cinema in Shoreditch or Soho and each guest is supplied with a tray of numbered mystery boxes containing a bite-sized tasting menu tailored to specific moments in the film. Previous screenings have featured An American Werewolf in London with the menu including dishes called “the slaughtered lamb”, “hospital breakfast” and “BBQ tramp finger”; and Pan’s Labyrinth which had guests eating “forest floor”, “grape temptation” and “mandrake root milk”, highlighting iconic moments in the narrative. Although, if guests are of a sensitive disposition or don’t enjoy the dark sense of humour that accompanies this kind of menu, then it is likely to leave a bad taste in the mouth.

With the alternative film screening trend in mind, it seems that it may have all started with Paris’ underground film movement that took place in the catacombs that run for 170 miles below the city. Some ten years ago, police discovered, while patrolling the tunnels and caves below the hustle and bustle of the city, a full-sized cinema screen and projecting equipment. After entering the network of tunnels through a drain, the officers came across a tarpaulin marked: “building site, no access”. Behind that, a tunnel held a desk and a closed-circuit TV camera set to automatically record images of anyone passing. The mechanism also triggered a tape of dogs barking.

Catacombs, Paris

The tunnel opened into a vast 400 square metre cave some 18m underground “like an underground amphitheatre”, said a police spokesperson. The film tapes discovered were that of 1950s film noir classics and more current thrillers. They were surprised to find that none of the films were banned or offensive. When a while later police returned with members of the electricity board to find where the power source was coming from, they discovered that the cables had been cut and a note was left saying “Do not try to find us.” The horror film As Above, So Below (2014) was filmed almost entirely inside the catacombs, and you’d think it would be enough to put off any further underground adventurers.

As Above, So Below (2014)

One could argue that these kinds of screenings are a form of rebellion from the norm of popcorn and rustling sweet packets that we are all used to when attending our local picture-house. However, it’s worth considering whether there is an element of style over substance with some of the more extravagant screenings. Above anything, a film screening experience should put the film first and only be situated in locations that will compliment or even enhance the film itself. When such iconic, even classic, horror films are being chosen to be shown in cemeteries, castles, morgues, train tunnels and churches, you want to be spooked by the film, terrified by the wind howling through the trees and petrified by the hand that suddenly grabs hold of your arm from the darkness – for that is horror at its best.



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