Retro Film Series | Friday, Jan. 14–Friday, June 17 | Tickets $10/screening, $100 for Retro Season Pass that includes “MovieDiva” series but not “MysteryRealm” or “FantasticRealm” series 

Nearly two years of a pandemic have given me a new appreciation for the lovely, communal experience of going out to the movies. I had barely caught up on potential Oscar contenders in theaters the week after Christmas before reports of Omicron filled the news. Suddenly, even a mask wasn’t enough to let me feel safe in a theater and I canceled my tickets for the next night.

So it’s with some trepidation that I face the announcement of the Carolina Theatre’s new Retro Film Series lineup, which runs January through June of this year, and which organizers have proclaimed, with arguable but endearing hyperbole, “The Greatest Film Series in the World.”

Along with the “Retro”-branded Friday double features, there are also curated series based around specific themes such as mystery and fantasy for viewers that want to pack a powerful amount of cinema into a single weekend, the only qualifier that the films must be more than 20 years old.

For nearly half my life, this series, which launched in the fall of 1998, has been a friend, with many of my best memories of the movies being the shouts and cheers in Fletcher Hall or the two smaller cinemas upstairs. From a gimmick-filled William Castle screening and the awed gasps at the celluloid film print of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo that was acquired from Herzog himself to the sheer bafflement at the screening of the last known 35-mm print of Michael Mann’s The Keep, Retro is one of the reasons I love the movies.

I double-check with the Carolina Theatre’s senior film director Jim Carl about possible COVID shutdowns. In an email, he reminds me that the theater is owned by the city and that it plans to follow any guidelines regarding gatherings of 100 people or less and any guidelines offered by Governor Cooper. Carl also notes that if they have to cancel any screenings, they’ll simply rebook the films from the studios for a later date, as they’ve already done; some of the films this year, such as War of the Worlds and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, were scheduled as far back as March 2020, when the original lockdown took place.

As with so many scheduled events, even looking forward to the Retro series feels risky, since there’s no way to know if it’ll be delayed once again. But anticipating it might be worth tempting fate.

Where else could you find Rudolph Valentino and James Mason in the same series as the notorious pirate flop Cutthroat Island like you can with the weekly “MovieDiva” screenings? Or where else but the Retro Series could you find mainstream hits like Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings trilogy playing next to the 1984 Tawney Kitaen vehicle The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak?

Each subseries of films combines well-known classics with a few that should be well known, or are at least fascinating misfires. “MysteryRealm” in June has five Alfred Hitchcocks, including Vertigo and Psycho, but it also boasts the cult classic The Last of Sheila, a devilish mystery co-written by musical theater god Stephen Sondheim and his friend Anthony Perkins (from the aforementioned Psycho), which Knives Out director Rian Johnson cited as a primary influence; there’s also the British noir Cast a Dark Shadow with Dirk Bogarde as a murderous gigolo and the darkly comic French Agatha Christie riff Spotlight on a Murderer from Eyes Without a Face director Georges Franju.

And of course, there are the usual Friday night double features, kicking off this week with the very 1980s Stephen King adaptation Silver Bullet (pitting Corey Haim and Gary Busey against a werewolf) and the restored-from-the-negative Viking slasher flick Berserker. Highlights in upcoming weeks include the deranged (in different ways) Death Bed: The Bed That Eats and House (Hasu) on February 4; the Coen brothers’ Nic Cage classic Raising Arizona paired with Bill Murray’s underrated clown criminal comedy Quick Change (March 25); and multiple Joan Crawford films programmed alongside Bette Davis films, ranging from their peak years (The Letter/Mildred Pierce on April 29) to their “hagsploitation” post–Baby Jane years (Dead Ringer/Strait-Jacket on January 28).

There are, of course, literally thousands upon thousands of old movies available on streaming services, if you know where to look, from the curated classics of the Criterion Channel to the TCM section of HBO Max and the many buried gems on Tubi if you don’t mind ad breaks. But there’s a particular joy to seeing an older movie in a theater at the size it was intended to be shown at—and where, freed from the disruptions of text messages and household chores, the world on-screen becomes, for just a few hours, the full world you inhabit. Laughing or gasping at the screen is so much better when you’re not the only one doing it.

At Retro, there’s always the chance to relive a great memory, to make new ones, to discover something astonishing that you never knew existed, all in the company of fellow moviegoers. Certainly, it’s enough to make the Carolina Theatre’s “Greatest Film Series in the World” claim seem like at worst an earned boast. Perhaps it’s worth investing in a hazmat suit to go to the movies again, whether it’s for an Oscar-winning classic or just The Land of the Yik-Yak.

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