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Durham's Retrophantasma
© Laura Eldred
July 06, 2005

Durham, North Carolina has a lot to offer horror fans. In addition to the yearly gothic and horror film festival “Nevermore,” the Carolina Theatre in Durham offers a monthly festival called “Retrophantasma” which showcases campy and classic horror, fantasy, and exploitation from the 1970s and 1980s. These shows always draw an interesting audience; generally about one hundred people show up, and English graduate students sit amongst well-pierced Goths. It’s an occasion to break out your dusty knee-high leather lace-up boots, or to show off your Bubba Ho-Tep T-shirt, confident that you will be appreciated as someone possessing just the right sort of cultured world-view.

Recently, Retro offered two films by David Cronenberg, Rabid and The Brood; they have previously featured some wonderfully gory films by Leo Fulci, the campy stylings of Sam Raimi, and the biting social satire of George Romero, among many others. Retro also recently offered an all-night extravaganza of camp, with The Monster Squad, Big Trouble in Little China, Xanadu, Conan the Barbarian, Transformers: The Movie and Coffy.

The main pleasure I get from Retrophantasma -- and I’ve been a regular customer for over a year -- is in watching these films with an audience in a theatre. The Carolina Theatre is a gorgeously restored 1926 performance hall. Though it lacks a decent sound system (which makes loud film scenes actually painful to watch), it makes up for this somewhat with comfortable seats and colorful fleur-de-lis arranged around the stage. Audience members can purchase beer and wine from the concession, which often makes the second film of the double feature a rowdier experience.

Retro’s fans are connoisseurs of camp, and they are always ready to respond loudly and drunkenly to a film’s failings or excesses, whether catcalls during a hospital scene in which all the nurses mysteriously lack bras in Rabid, or groans of disgust as the camera lingers on Tony Curtis sauntering down a hall in nearly see-through white pants that are much too tight (and thus leave nothing to the imagination) in The Manitou. These films are hilarious, and watching them with a large audience primed to appreciate ridiculous retro horror highlights their humor and heightens the experience for everyone involved. Tony Curtis’s genitalia wouldn’t be nearly as funny watching the video in the privacy of your own home.

And the guys behind Retro certainly know how to pick the flicks. These films always repay the careful viewer with hilarious overplotted dialogue or surreal sexual imagery. In Rabid, the good doctor helps the viewing audience along when he prosaically informs his operating room staff that “I know everyone here is familiar with the basic technique of skin grafting. But as this is a little bit different, I’ll explain as we go along” -- all screenwriters should hope for such nimble exposition! Such clumsiness aside, the film features moments of intentional humor. Set in a franchise plastic surgery resort for the rich and decaying. One man sports a T-shirt advertising that “Jogging Kills,” while another informs his friend in a deadpan voice, “Last time I got my ears done I could really feel it when the weather changed.”

The film’s main plot point is that an attractive young girl has become somehow infected with a parasite that causes a very penis-like projectile to emerge from her armpit periodically, piercing her prey and causing them to shortly become rabid, goo-eyed zombie creatures. This motif of rape by fake-pointy-armpit-penis, as if not amusing enough, is further capitalized on by sophomoric quips and allusions: the wall of the clinic sports the note “Dick was here.” This film, aside from its campy entertainment value and its references to Romero through the zombie sequences and the subsequent imposition of martial law on Montreal, also provides an interesting commentary on women’s rights in the 1970s as the sexually available, attractive young woman morphs into a castrating, murderous hermaphrodite with a hideous and misplaced sexual organ.

The transition into the “monstrous baby” subgenre in The Brood thus seems fairly natural. In this film, we discover that deformed midget children have been viciously attacking people in the town. These deformed midget children all wear puffy pastel snowsuits, of the sort that mothers might bundle young children into before they can play outside in the cold. Fully buckled into their snowsuits, with their hoods up and tightly fastened, their deformed faces rarely show (which certainly saved the studio some makeup money). Thus, the violence these creatures perpetrate seems more like the very necessary revenge of childhood fashion (Rise up, sailor suits! Rise up, yellow frilly Easter dresses!) than any kind of social or political commentary.

These children are revealed to be manifestations of their mother’s rage; she grew them in a series of exterior wombs that look like bloody lungs. When the child is ready to be born, she bites open the sac and begins to slowly clean her baby with long, tender licks. This film thus showcases anxieties about the monstrosity of the feminine and of motherhood, suggesting that a world in which women have complete control over their bodies is a world in which men are unneeded and irrelevant, and a world that will quickly become disgusting and monstrous. It will apparently also be a world of plentiful pastel snow suits --certainly, a future to be avoided.

Retro affords pleasures that can be hard to find for a fan of older, campy horror and exploitation -- mainly the pleasures of watching these films on a big screen and with an audience, especially such a knowledgeable, loyal, and raucous one. If you long to have discussions over intermission that interweave proclamations on the relative merits of the Dawn of the Dead remake and original with analyses of the “monster baby” subgenre as seen in It’s Alive, all spiced with Simpsons quips, then you would fit right in. Retro often offers opportunities to spend your money, whether on rare DVDs or on exciting new horror T-shirts. A new company, Nostromo, launched their exciting casual-wear line at the last installment of the festival, featuring an “S-Mart” T-shirt for fans of the Evil Dead Trilogy as well as an “Eight Bit” Zombie T-shirt for the Nintendo generation (both of which I now own!).

But more than this new opportunity to display your sense of haute-couture, Retro allows these fans to mingle with their own kind -- and I’ve discovered that we’re a surprisingly large group. Within the confines of the Carolina Theatre one Friday each month, we’re no longer exactly the dorky gore-fiends we sometimes get labeled as (or, well, ok, that I get labeled as). It’s as if Retro has taken me to its cushy, slimy busom, dressed me in a black S-mart T-shirt, and chanted “one of us” repeatedly over my prostrate form. I haven’t grown feathers yet, but I’ll keep you updated.

RevSF contributor Laura Eldred is featured prominently in Bruce Campbell’s new book Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way. The chapter is entitled “You Can Stroke More Than the Chin, Baby” and the pictures, we’re told, are quite tasteful.

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