Spending time with Trash Night at the Brattle
On the third Tuesday of each month—give or take—the Brattle Theatre plays host to a movie experience that’s more participatory than its usual offerings. Appropriately titled “Trash Night,” the event is a deep dive into VHS-era schlock that has managed to find a devoted audience. And while plenty of other theaters have picked up the Mystery Science Theater 3000 model by playing B movies with added “ribbing,” Trash Night has carved out a space of its own thanks to the positive atmosphere facilitated by its hosts, the genuinely obscure nature of most of the movie choices, and the unexpected hilarity of the absurd video artifacts that are screened alongside them. Co-founder Stephen Swift, who programs Trash Night with his long-time friend Matt Garber, summed up the guiding philosophy of the series during a recent prefilm introduction: “We show movies that are garbage, but the garbage movies that we show are incredible.”
Trash Night had its first screening at the MicroCinema in the Somerville Theatre, though it didn’t have its name at the time. In fact, its start was just a birthday party for Swift, with the main attraction being a screening of Hard Ticket to Hawaii , a B movie classic from the exceptionally disreputable auteur Andy Sidaris (his credits on IMDb include the role of “Dick Bigdickian,” which he employed for three separate films in the Bare Wench Project series). A surprise home movie, produced by Garber, was played with Hard Ticket, and so were other bizarre videos from their ever-growing VHS collection. And the response to Sidaris’ brand of hilariously sexualized ’80s action cheese—rife with big boobs, big guns, and an exploding snake—was “more, please!” A semiregular series developed from there: Garber and Swift packed the MicroCinema with as many friends and acquaintances as would fit, showing films like Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe  and Quigley . They had spent their college years showing each other increasingly weird movies—with Swift crediting his love of so-called “trash culture” to a random purchase of Ator, the Fighting Eagle  made in high school—and the Somerville programs seemed like a natural extension of their personal hobby.
Five years after that birthday party, Trash Night has grown into a monthly haven for lovers of C-grade obscurities. In making their screening choices, Garber and Swift prioritize films where “the ego of the director does not match the execution of the director”—films that commanded neither the budget nor the talent needed to properly execute their own ideas. They do generally stick to the 1980s, the ultimate cesspool of video sleaze, but without relying on the nostalgia trend. And the movies screened vary greatly, including overblown Italian sci-fi rip-offs, nonsensical fantasy epics, high-concept rock musicals, and severely misguided family fare. Far from Hollywood’s A-list, their typical stars are Dolph Lundgren, Gary Busey, John Saxon, Caroline Munro, and a roster of forgotten character actors. But they also actively choose films that don’t feature sexual assault or explicit sex scenes, in an effort to better ensure their audience’s comfort level. This is no easy feat, as typical exploitation features often wade into cruel and violent waters—but the programmers manage to present films where ridiculousness and a sense of fun are more in focus. And to keep the audience on their toes (and sometimes questioning their grip on reality), each screening is periodically interrupted by a short video from Swift and Garber’s collection of oddities: hammy commercials for Tilex starring Vincent Price, or psychic how-to videos, or Peyton Manning’s nutrition tips, or bizarre snippets of Jay Jay the Jet Plane.
According to the programmers, the quintessential Trash Night film is probably Ninja III: The Domination , a strange fantasy/action/romance mash-up produced by Cannon Films and starring Lucinda Dickey, who plays a telephone line repairwoman-slash-aerobics instructor who becomes possessed by a vengeful warrior bent on killing every cop in town. With deadly action sequences, a magic sword, unexpected dance breaks, a haunted arcade game, myriad nonsensical plot developments, a violent exorcism performed by James Hong, and plenty of spandex, this movie might sound like the usual ’80s cheese—but it’s infinitely weirder. And the returning, ever-growing crowd at the Brattle confirms that there’s a thirst for such offbeat, unpredictable selections. For the theater’s Creative Director Ned Hinkle, Trash Night is a way to expand its commitment to promoting different niches of film culture. “There are so many different ways to engage with movies,” he said about the program. “Obviously, we usually experience films here in the traditional way—we generally discourage hollering out comments during films—but Trash Night allows the audience to really interact with a film and each other during the screenings. We’re always looking for ways to make movie-going fun, and these guys have developed a great formula for doing exactly that.”
What sets Trash Night further apart from similar “B movie + commentary” screenings is its welcoming, egalitarian nature. At other screenings where audience members are encouraged to share their thoughts or jokes—or even when the commentary is scripted by comedians—there is often a rowdy, disrespectful atmosphere created. Fan Tess DeCosta notes that the crowd at Trash Night, in contrast, is always fun and friendly, fondly remembering a night where the first person in line bought tickets for the ten people behind him, simply out of shared enthusiasm. And while “ribbing” and jokes at the films’ expense are encouraged, the organizers actively discourage any kind of sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or racist remarks, ensuring that all viewers feel comfortable and included in the event. As regular attendee Delilah Kaufman said, “I really appreciate their efforts in making Trash Night a safe space. My girlfriend’s trans, but she also has the sense of humor of a 12-year-old, and the preshow disclaimers really help to enforce that we can all enjoy a terrible, not necessarily politically correct movie but throw jokes at it while respecting everyone in the audience.”
With their home at the Brattle Theatre now entrenched, Garber and Swift have been able to reach a wider audience. But their low-key approach to marketing and the intrinsically niche premise has enabled them to maintain a(n accidentally) hip, underground profile anyway. Their crowd is broad across gender, subcultural, and personality divides, though primarily comprised of 20- and 30-somethings. Many come in large groups of friends, some come on dates, some come alone, and new people show up every month, as evinced by the show of hands for newcomers that Swift requests during his introductions. When the lights go down after that introduction—as the highlights video kicks in, showing off moments from Trash Night’s past, all set to a cheesy drum beat—feet start tapping and hands start clapping. And once the movie begins, there is an immediate convivial atmosphere: snide comments from neighboring viewers, shouted-out references to other movies or current events, and a general sense of shared bewilderment in regards to the ridiculous and often explosive events unfolding onscreen. Friendships—some long-time, some only for the length of the movie—are forged. And when the entire room comes together for a joke, or perhaps for a perfectly timed Planet of the Apes reference, there’s real elation to it. There is the sense that here, everyone can share and even revel in esoteric weirdness—whether it’s coming from the movie, or coming from the crowd.
TRASH NIGHT HOSTS MONTHLY SCREENINGS AT THE BRATTLE THEATRE (40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE). THEIR NEXT SCREENING TAKES PLACE ON TUE 6.20. 7:30PM. $7.