With the advent of photo-realistic, 3-D technology, much progress has been made in turning the moviegoing experience into an exercise in solitude. The lights dim and the cool, dark theater shuts the door to the outside world, leaving the audience at the mercy of someone else’s created universe. That’s made film-going much less a community experience and more a catalyst to self-reflection—which, while certainly not a terrible thing to aim for, is a far cry from the days of the drive-in.
But the communal movie-watching days of old are upon us again this summer, as UCSB Arts & Lectures is teaming with the County of Santa Barbara to present the series Monsters! Classic Horror Films from Universal Pictures. In addition to the Wednesday screenings of such classic films as Dracula and Frankenstein inside Campbell Hall, there’ll be Friday showings outside at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Gardens, where Santa Barbarans will be able to watch monster movies together in the dark.
The idea came from Erik Axelson, the deputy director of Santa Barbara County Parks, who started a film series in New York City’s Washington Square Park at his previous job—it was called Co-Starring the City of New York and featured many of the city’s cinematic turns—and then brought the idea to Santa Barbara in 2007. For the past two summers, Axelson and the County Park Foundation have screened three outdoor movies, all of which had either been filmed in or inspired by Santa Barbara County.
“We’ve shown Steal Big Steal Little, which was directed by local filmmaker Andy Davis, and featured Andy Garcia,” Axelson said, explaining that Davis introduced the film. “That’s another great reason to show local movies—we can get local talent to come and be a part of the film showing. Also, a fair amount of the viewers in attendance were actually extras in the movie.” The same went for the 2008 outdoor showing of the surf film Big Wednesday, which drew a crowd of 850 people. “We actually got the co-screenwriter of the film to come, and he showed a 10-minute short of his taken during production of the movie,” said Axelson. “There were people in the audience who were extras in 1978.”
The collaboration with Arts & Lectures coalesced due to a combined effort from Axelson, the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, and the Santa Barbara Film Commission. “My wife works at UCSB,” Axelson said, “and I knew that they were interested in doing more events in downtown Santa Barbara, so we kicked the idea around.” Soon enough, A&L Associate Director Roman Baratiak and County Arts Commission Executive Director Ginny Brush jumped on board.
Baratiak explained that the collaboration was a fresh turn for his organization. “We had wanted to do something like this for a while,” he said, and it also made sense for the Film Commission to be involved, as 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of movie making in Santa Barbara. “The atmosphere of doing a Friday-night showing in the dark hopefully creates a kind of scary atmosphere,” Baratiak said, picturing the courthouse at night providing an apt backdrop to Bela Lugosi’s sneering Dracula and Boris Karloff’s wounded Frankenstein’s monster. “The films, they’re scary, but also kind of campy. They’re fun to see on the big screen.”
While the Universal films come from decades ago, they were integral in cultivating today’s popular fascination with the vampires, werewolves, and other mythical creatures that are currently haunting many a teenybopper franchise. “These are the films and the people that started it all,” said Baratiak. “A lot of younger people just haven’t seen those films, and they were a big deal for Universal when they were coming out. There have been several recent remakes, and films like the Twilight series go back to these original films.”
Brush believes that showing the films outside—and for free—is a great way to make the arts accessible to the Santa Barbara community. “When you think of the popularity of 3-D animation and science fiction, to go back to [these films] gives it a retro focus,” Brush said. “It’s more like a drive-in movie … a more communal experience.” Brush also explained that the setting allows for perhaps even more unique movie-watching. “I was there last year, and you can be having dinner on the patio at Elements and see the movie,” said Brush. “It’s a great opportunity for people to have this kind of shared cultural experience at a challenging economic time.”
And of all the settings for these chiaroscuro monster flicks, the courthouse just might be the best ever. “One of the wings of the courthouse is the old jail, which was once actively used,” explained Axelson. “It adds a gothic accent to the courthouse, bringing up issues of freedom and imprisonment, the stories of the innocent and the guilty.” The outdoor setting also provides an element of the unexpected, said Axelson, recalling, “When we screened Steal Big Steal Little, a full moon rose over the courthouse.”
That may distract from the films, but on a hot summer night in Santa Barbara, with local moviegoers dotting the grass at the Sunken Gardens, maybe that’s the point: It’s less about sustaining the illusion of the dark and stormy night, and more about furthering the reality of a community spirit.
UCSB Arts & Lectures teams with Santa Barbara County Parks, the County Arts Commission, and the Film Commission to present Monsters! Classic Horror Films from Universal Pictures on Wednesdays at Campbell Hall and Fridays at the S.B. County Courthouse from July 7 until August 27. The free film series kicks off with Dracula on July 7 and 9. See the full schedule at artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu/Films.aspx.