The Coolidge Corner Theatre’s “Halloween Horror Marathon” has operated by the same general methodology since Mark Anastasio, the current director of special programming at the historic theater, booked it for the first time in 2007: Starting on the last moments of the Saturday night before Halloween, it runs from 11:59pm until around noon the next day, presenting six or seven films on 35mm—two of which get announced beforehand (“the headliners”), the rest of which are kept secret—as well as numerous other attractions on the side, including horror movie video clips, a costume contest, and other seasonally appropriate happenings. One major shift in method, however, took shape in 2015, when the marathon fell on Halloween night itself. That event, which began with a double feature of Trick ’r Treat (2007) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), was the first to follow a distinct theme—every film played that night actually took place, for the most part, on the date of October 31. Anastasio has followed that with other tightly curated marathons in the years since; the 2017 event was populated by zombie films, and last year’s iteration programmed entirely with science fiction-adjacent horror movies. During a conversation earlier this week, he told me that this year’s program will do so once again—and will present a very divergent range of films in the process, despite possible appearances to the contrary. “I keep saying ‘haunted house’ movies, but ‘haunted house’ doesn’t do it!” Anastasio explained. “Because I wanted to make sure we weren’t going to be so claustrophobic the whole night. So we do have some ghost stories that are stepping out into the world. … We’re going to say: The theme of the marathon this year is ghost stories.”
The repertory programming at the Coolidge, in line with many of the independently-operated movie theaters in the Boston area, prizes the ability to show movies on their original exhibition format; and it was an effort to do just that, with regards to one specific title, that in many ways led to this year’s program being dedicated to ghost stories in the first place. The film in question is The Amityville Horror (1979), which had become something of a white whale for Anastasio, who notes that it had been “unavailable for as long as [he’s] been programming” at the location (while the film has screened on 16mm at the Coolidge semi-recently, that itself was something of a compromise). So when a 35mm print of Amityville did eventually present itself—albeit color-faded, but still intact—the programmer chose not only to book it, but also to build the whole marathon around the subgenre it represented. And for the headline on the marquee, it’s been paired with another canonical haunted-house movie of the late-era “New Hollywood,” Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982). That later film will actually be the first movie to hit the screen on the night of the ’thon, appropriate given its sensationally loud manner, its surplus of set pieces, and its ultra-dynamic filmmaking—all of which, it must be said, are hardly the first qualities one would assign to Amityville.
“Now that I’m working with specific horror subgenres in mind, the fine-tuning is a lot finer,” Anastasio says, when I ask him about those kinds of contrasts. “If you’re running a theme, you need the films to be varied enough so that it doesn’t get boring—and so that you’re showing them all the things that a particular subgenre can do.” He notes, for instance, that one film was cut out of this year’s marathon at a fairly late stage specifically because, after rewatching the chosen films over a few days, he’d realized that two among them were just a bit too similar to share the screen on the same night.
And programming for this year’s marathon was only made more challenging by the fact that the Coolidge has burned through a number of extremely choice ghost-movies, both canon entries and deep cuts alike, during marathons of the semi-recent past: To name just a few, it’s already played The Changeling (1980), Ghost Story (1981), the tragically underrated Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995), and even William Castle’s 13 Ghosts (1960), which showed complete with its original “Illusion-O” gimmick intact1. But with the sole exception of Poltergeist, which played in the marathon more than a decade ago, Anastasio notes there won’t be any repeats hitting the screen on Sunday morning (so for better or worse you won’t be seeing any of the films just mentioned above).
Of course the bigger challenge was not avoiding repeats but whittling down the many choices that remained even still, a process that continues pretty much until the day of the marathon. As has been true in past years, there will be more prints in the building on the night than will actually show on the screen—just in case a last-minute substitution is required, or chosen. That such last-second changes can be handily swung is to the immense credit of head projectionist Nick Lazzaro, who typically works straight through for all 12 hours of the event, on what is sincerely his “favorite night of the year to work”; Lazzaro, on that note, is often if not always responsible for the clips and trailers selected to play in between the films, and is cited by Anastasio as being the one person besides himself who has “significant input” on the night’s programming.
Despite the wide range of choices available, maintaining a certain verve and vibe from film to film requires very careful planning for such a long event, and when dedicating so much time on a subgenre that can often be inherently cheap, or creaky, that momentum—I wondered, aloud—might not come so easily. How to navigate past it? “I avoided that by booking remakes of those old creaky haunted house horror movies you’re talking about,” Anastasio says. “Remakes that were made during the early aughts—at least one of them.”
“And I booked Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999),” he continues. “That’s because I wanted the Headless Horseman. If I’m doing a program about ghosts, I wanted the Headless Horseman to be represented. I had rewatched Sleepy Hollow, and it’s really scary. … So that was a decision that I made specifically because, even though it’s still Gothic horror, it lets us step out of the house for a little while, and get out in the open on horseback, to watch some heads getting lopped off.”
Also slated to hit the stage during the first half of the marathon is another happening that has long been on Anastasio’s to-do list—although this one will be off-screen.
“I had always wanted a group of paranormal investigators to present at the Halloween marathon, so as soon as I had the ghost story theme, I looked up a few local groups,” he says. “I went with the one that seemed to have the most years in the game in the New England area, and that was the New England Ghost Project with Ron Kolek. Ron works with a team of engineers and psychics to investigate locations throughout New England; they’re also a nonprofit organization. I approached them about doing a presentation or slideshow about their coolest findings, showing images and sounds they’ve captured that they believed to be paranormal. But then we went the next step, and had them at the Coolidge for an overnight investigation, which I got to take part in. And some of the stuff they came up with was hard to deny—as someone who knows the history of the place, and who also knows the recent history of what people who’ve worked there have reported. There was a couple of stories that the psychics could not know, that they were telling to me. … And the idea is that, at the end of the presentation, they’ll have shown irrefutable proof to 440 people that they are currently trapped overnight in a building that is very much haunted2.”
As for what’s to come following the costume contest, Poltergeist, the Ghost Project presentation, The Amityville Horror, and Sleepy Hollow? He’s only willing to offer hints.
“What else does this marathon have?”, Anastasio ponders, while conjuring hints for other titles, before offering some in a manner that can only be described as Stefon-esque. “This marathon has Tony Schalhoub … Roddy McDowall … Viggo Mortensen—oh man, nobody’s going to get that one.”
Having attended this event for nearly a decade running now myself, I feel somewhat qualified to say that the Coolidge’s “Halloween Horror Marathon” truly deserves its unofficial status as one of the major institutions of the Boston-area filmgoing calendar—and to say that it has only grown stronger through its recent changes. What began, when I was first attending, as something of a mad scientist’s brew, full of wild contrasts and outré selections for both films and interstitials, has now grown into something else, a concoction measured exactly rather than deliberately roughshod. Each marathon now serves as something of a one-night repertory program, and in that, the event now properly reflects its status as a local film-culture institution; it adds to itself every year, and accounts for repeat attendance, rather than imitating or repeating the same trick over and over again for rotating crowds. As usual it will be a great pleasure to share the experience with 440 other moviegoers, give or take a few additional friendly spirits.
1. On that note, Anastasio will also be presenting a screening of Castle’s 1959 film The Tingler at the Brattle Theatre on October 29, free admission, as part of the monthly “Elements of Cinema” program. The “Elements” program allows lecturers to select films, give presentations beforehand, and lead discussions afterwards; Anastasio will be speaking about the long tradition of gimmickry in American genre film exhibition, charting history from the days and decades before Castle made his name on such gags right up to the present. I’m told that, if technology and other factors allow, some of Castle’s most well-known film gimmicks may be demonstrated as part of the lecture—and that, once again if fate allows, a few lucky seats in the Brattle that night may be equipped with examples of the “Percepto!” devices used for the movie’s original release in 1959.
2. “The Coolidge was built in the 1920s, and has been a movie theater since 1933; I’ve worked there for 12 years now, and have experienced a few odd things—nothing that felt overtly scary or negative in any way, but things that I could not explain,” Anastasio told me, when I asked him whether he’s experienced anything vaguely paranormal in the building himself. “Most prominently in Moviehouse 1: I’ve always seen, out of the corner of my eye, some sort of something that goes down the ramp, through the curtains, and into the backstage area. I see it often. And the first few times I jumped out of my seat while watching a movie to run back there, firmly believing that I was about to have to kick out someone that shouldn’t be backstage. But every time I went back there, there was no one. And that was one of the things that the psychic picked up on while investigating Moviehouse 1—she started talking to some figure that was bothering her to let me know that it knows that I can see it.”