The team at Belfast Film Festival have devised a programme of site specific location screenings called ‘The Haunted Screen’ as part of the UK wide BFI Gothic film celebrations. Over the course of November and December a series of unique film screenings are being held at carefully selected locations all over Northern Ireland. The films were selected from the BFI Gothic ‘The Dark Heart of Film’ re-releases schedule, giving audiences a chance to see much loved classics in themed settings. I went along to the screening of Hammer Horror classic Dracula (1958) staring Christopher Lee as the title role.
Showing at the Belfast Harbour Commissioners Office, this was a great opportunity to explore a historical building I’d never seen before. It’s a very grand old building with detailed stone masonry on the outside, full of oil portraits and lavish decorations on the inside. On entry I was directed up a huge stairwell and through laden corridors lined with historical artefacts. Instantly I could see the correlation between the choice of venue and the film. Count Dracula’s home is very much painted in the same colours and teaming with historical items, grand stairwells, high ceilings and beautifully dyed soft furnishings. Although the venue has it’s own clear and individualised style and theme of decorations, the ships in stained glass windows and other harbour related memorabilia fitted into the travelling by sea section of the films narrative. Walking the hallways of the offices, the wonderfully carved wood word furniture and preserved original architecture gave an aged feeling that compliments the period style of the film. The screening room was equally as impressive, decadently set out with red drapes covering the windows. Bust statues lit from behind and surprising little extras put in place by the festival team, I couldn’t wait for the lights to go down on the well proportioned screen.
The suspense and magic of going to the cinema was added to by the general ambience of the location. The bustle of finding seats, instead of what you’re used to seeing in the standard screening rooms that we all commonly frequent, prompted an unusual excitement within the audience. The public seemed much more open to sitting beside a complete stranger, or talking to the person beside them, united by the good faith that the shared experience generated. An eager crowd had their anticipation amplified by a welcome from a Festival representative and a short introduction by Hammer Horror specialist Robert J. E. Simpson. Sharing in his passionate knowledge of the film got heads nodding and quiet whispers of intrigue dotted the room. When the lights went down a tense silence ensued that continued throughout the screening a sign of respect for for the unique viewing experience. Surely that’s how cinephiles would dream of the old time theatre appreciation? The Multiplex experience of constant interruption by smart phones sending beacons of light throughout the room, and random conversations in the middle of important scenes, has no place here.
This isn’t always the nature of location or event screenings and deliberately so. In their many colourful varieties, event screenings have become increasingly popular over the past few years in the UK. The demand for unique cinema experiences has seen film festivals delving into more event screening programmes and the welcome introduction of specialist film events companies, such as Secret Cinema UK. A film event can be anything from an introduced screening to a sing-a-long musical with onscreen lyrics. Photo opportunities with props and prizes for the best fancy dress all add to the screening’s allure. A film event screening can be anything. Short horror films screened in alley ways on brick walls has been one of the most inventive options I’ve seen. The assumption of thinking that site specific film events are for hard core cinema fanatics alone is now beginning to subside. Audiences of all demographics and tastes are wowed by the lasting impression an event screening can have. From super-fans to first time viewers, location screenings are giving a unique perspective on cinema going – one that offers up a reevaluation of the big screen’s potential.
The appeal of making cinema unforgettable has reached a new level of memory function with event screenings. It’s not just what you watched or who you watched it with; it’s now where you watched it that’s gaining importance. The digital media generations are sharing film in so many ways and what a location screening offers is soon in photos all over social media sites. The option of taking away a personal experience gives the event a voice for many different reasons. It’s the film, it’s the atmosphere, and it’s the thrill of seeing film in a different light. My lasting memory of Dracula will always be of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners Office and I’ve got some gloriously gothic themed snaps to match.