Retrofantasma: The Dead Zone & Misery
The Carolina Theatre, Durham
The path to Jim Carl’s office is a sharp descent into the bowels of Durham’s Carolina Theatre. A poster for the film Death Ship hangs behind his desk, where you’d expect to see a window, and his vast personal movie collection masks an old boiler-room wall. There are hundreds of videos, bookended by rolls of 35mm film trailers.
Carl, an indelible movie fan, is senior director of film programming at The Carolina. He’s been working to track down and secure screening rights for dozens of titles in the Retro Film Series, which has been bringing decades-old movies back to the big screen for twenty-one years. At a glance, it might seem like stubborn resistance to changing times. But in fact, the series thrives, tapping into both our reverence for the past and the proliferation of digital content.
“It’s amazing how well-versed people are,” Carl says, fanning through a fistful of suggestion slips. “True Stories—that’s a good one.” Then he shakes his head. “Speed—never been converted. You’d think they would rush to put that out. But they’ll rush to create a new DCP of The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, and I’m thinking, ‘Who makes these decisions?’”
Carl is referring to a Digital Cinema Package, a movie on an encrypted hard drive rather than a delicate photochemical print. A revolution in theatrical distribution began in 2014, when Paramount Pictures stopped offering film prints in the U.S. Soon, other major studios followed suit, forcing theaters to buy digital projectors or face obsolescence. In 2016, The Carolina begrudgingly made the switch, though it still has one 35mm projector that sees occasional action.
“I preached the church of thirty-five millimeter,” Carl says, lamenting the Retro series’s scrappier times. “Those were the days when everything was on thirty-five, and you were scouring private archives, and people were going out to their garages to try to find a print. But going digital has opened up a whole hell of a lot more titles.”
What started as RetroFantasma in 1998, with a single screening of a worn print of Friday the 13th Part 2, has grown into a web of offshoots under the Retro moniker.
“When we were starting, we were really just trying to find films that we loved and wanted to get back on the big screen,” Carl says. The series focused on horror and science fiction. Screenings were sporadic, advertised by stuffing college dorms with Xeroxed flyers. Regulars were lured through a first-generation Listserv.
Now, a glossy catalog is available in the lobby, unfurling six months’ worth of weekly double features in all manner of genres. Carl’s gumshoe tenacity in tracking down movies that his audience wants to see, paired with the broader availability of digital titles, has pushed Retro ticket sales to four times what they were five years ago, Carl says.
This Friday evening brings a double feature of The Dead Zone and Misery, two adaptations of Stephen King novels. Part of the value of watching old movies is registering how cultural norms have changed, and both films have scenes that were notoriously violent thirty years ago but seem almost quaint now.
“We watched a man’s anus get washed for thirty-five seconds on the big screen in Fletcher Hall, last September, with Holy Mountain, and no one batted an eye,” Carl says.
Old genre films tend to develop a patina of hilarity when exposed to the current day, but they also take us back to what we or others loved about them in times that, having passed, inevitably seem simpler than ours.
“I can go through an entire laundry list of films that I personally love that I know are just worthless,” Carl says with a grin. “It has nothing to do with the quality of the film itself. It’s about the experience you had, whatever it was that was happening to you, the first time you saw it. It’s nostalgia.”