Five of My Most Memorable Movie Theater Experiences


In my review of Gravity earlier this week, I mentioned how a common complaint these days is that a movie theater just isn’t worth going to because of long drives, high prices and rude patrons, not to mention the accessibility of movies at home now.

I said Gravity was an exception to that rule, a movie that truly must be experienced in theaters to be appreciated. It’s the type of movie that makes the theater and even the insanely high IMAX ticket price worth it, and we need more like it.

I’ve seen a lot of movies in the theaters over the years, easily over a thousand which I can prove by the fact that I’ve saved every ticket stub since I was like eleven. Over that period of time, there are a few experiences that have stood out to me. Sometimes because of the movie, other times because of the situation, but usually because of both. This is just a short jog down memory lane, and five of my most memorable times in the theater are below.

The Matrix Reloaded First Date (2003)


I was a bit of a late bloomer, so my first “real” date was when I was 16 and could finally drive. Really anything where your parents drop you off doesn’t count, and I had it rougher than most as I was a full year and a half younger than all my classmates. I was a bit embarrassed to be picked up by a girl, so I waited until I could drive to start dating. Yes, that’s the reason. I’m sticking with that.

Anyway, on what I would consider my first real date, I brought a girl to the theater after a lengthy AIM conversation about The Matrix. She hadn’t seen “Reloaded” yet, though she liked the first one, and I figured that would be a good first film to see together. In retrospect, Reloaded is pretty awful, but at the time, I cared not.

But guess who can’t see an R-rated movie like The Matrix Reloaded in theaters? Sixteen year-olds. That fancy drivers license still didn’t grant me access to the theater itself, so I pulled an old trick I’d honed with my friends for years now.

“Two tickets for 2 Fast 2 Furious, please.”

The AMC theater we were at helpfully labeled each theater entrance with whatever movie was playing. We were in past the ticket kid, and free to go wherever we chose, and we stole into The Matrix Reloaded instead.

Going to a private, Christian school, this was about as bad boy as I could get, and she was stunned we could do something so illegal. I earned massive cool points for this move, and felt like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause after that. It wasn’t the movie I remembered, but it was the theater experience that made the night possible.

The Lonely Nightmare Before Christmas (2006)


In college, I joined the film staff of The Michigan Daily instead of pledging a Greek fraternity house. Less of a need to talk about sports and chug beers. As a new member of staff, I was tasked with covering movies no one really gave a shit about, and one of my first assignments was to review the 3D re-release of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

It was a unique experience, because I’d never gone to movies by myself before. Either I’d taken dates or friends, and if I didn’t want to see a movie, I didn’t go. But now that this was my job, I was going to have to start making a habit of seeing movies alone.

But in this case, it meant truly alone.

The theater was empty. Fully empty. As it was 3D, and there were no other 3D films out at the time (this is 2006, mind you), it was showing in their biggest theater that claimed to be an IMAX. I sat in the middle and had literally the entire place to myself. I’ve seen movies before where you think you’re going to be alone, but sure enough, five minutes into the trailers a family finally walks in.

But not so this time. I was truly alone for the entire feature, and that’s the first and only time that’s ever happened to me, and in such a large theater to boot. It was a strangely calming, transcendent experience, and made me feel more comfortable with seeing movies by myself after that.

The Terror of Paranormal Activity (2007)


Yes, it’s true that the Paranormal Activity series has become as much of a running joke as Saw now in the horror genre, but like Saw, it wasn’t always that way. When the first Paranormal Activity came out, it was in limited release and had the best viral marketing campaign ever, with people planting stories about how it was so scary, that viewers were actually passing out in the theater.

At long last, it finally came to my college town of Ann Arbor, and premiered in a midnight showing one foggy Friday night. The line was a mile long and we barely got in. The house was packed and the movie started playing.

It was a horror experience I’d never had before, and have never had since. Yes, I do think the movie is somewhat inherently scary, but it was the audience who made it even more intense than it would have been otherwise. The fear was palpable in the room. You could feel the energy of the vast majority of the audience terrified in nearly every moment of the film.

Each time the film reset to “night vision cam” which is when the ghostly occurrences would happen, whispers spread out through the audience like pond ripples, and you could feel the nervous energy with everyone shifting in their seats.

The ending, which contains one of the biggest jump scares in movie history, effectively rocketed nearly everyone in attendance out of their seats, myself included. Yes, the movie might be tense and scary seen at home, but that night, with that crowd, it was ten times as terrifying as it ever could be anywhere else.

The Best Comedy of the Year, The Happening (2008)


Audiences can really enhance movies in other ways as well, especially when the movie is overtly terrible. The Happening was supposed to be a horror film, I mean, it has the entire world committing suicide in the creepiest ways possible, but the M. Night Shyamalan film also happens to be one of the worst scripted, worst acted movies ever made.

The theater I saw it with thankfully realized that a short while into the film, and it became an unintentional comedy. People burst out laughing during “scary” moments, or nearly any time Mark Wahlberg opened his mouth.

By the end of the film, things had pretty much turned into Mystery Science Theater 3000. People were opening mocking the movie at full volume, my friends and I included. Normally this is the kind of thing I (and eveyone) hates in a movegoing experience, but everyone was dying laughing at both the film and the running commentary from the most outspoken audience members, and it ended up being the funniest movie I’d seen that year as a result. Try to have the same experience at home, and you probably just would have shaken your head and turned it off after thirty minutes.

The Dark Knight Drops Jaws (2008)


Sometimes, there’s just that one perfect moment in a theater where everything aligns and you have the best moviegoing experience of your life.

By buying tickets in advance, a group of my closest friends and I had managed to secure tickets to the midnight showing of The Dark Knight, the most anticipated film of the year. But not just any tickets, tickets to the IMAX showing of it in Dearborn, MI.

These days, IMAX has slapped its label on any screen that’s 15% larger than normal, but there still exist a few “true” IMAX screens out there. Ones that are square and four stories high with the best sound systems money can buy. The one in Dearborn is the largest screen in the tri-state area, and there was no better way to watch the film.

And I know people love to nitpick uber-popular movies to death after the fact, but at the time, The Dark Knight felt like the best movie I’d ever seen in a theater. Even with all the hype, it blew away all our expectations, and between the film and the IMAX presentation, it was the most engrossing, most enjoyable film I’d ever seen. Walking out, my group of friends were speechless for a solid half an hour before we were able to form words about what we’d just experienced.

Sure, there are better films in retrospect, but that night, the stars aligned and that was simply the most perfect theater experience of my life.

 Honorable mentions:

Beauty and the Beast – The scene where Beast fights the wolves was so scary to me as a five year-old, I had to leave the theater.

The Ring – Seeing it in the front row, and being scared out of my mind because there was no way to look away.

Constantine – So bad it was good, aided by the fact that we were forced into a closed caption screening which constantly narrated things with captions like “rising guitar music.”

8 Mile – Pretending that a couple was our parents so we could get into the theater.

Avatar – Say what you will about the film, but in terms of a purely visual experience, there was nothing like it.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – No movie has every assaulted all of my senses more for such an extended period of time.

The Dark Knight Rises – More IMAX, more speechlessness.

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  1. The Best Movie Theater experiences (and worst movie) I have ever had was going to the midnight premiere of Snakes on a Plane. The crowd had the energy of a football stadium where the home team is just crushing it.

  2. 5. Punisher War Zone. I hadn’t heard of the movie and went in with no expectations. I honestly can’t remember ever having that much fun at the movies. Still one of my favorite bad/good movies.

    4. Not a particular memory, but any movie I saw at the theater closest to my house when I was 8-13 years old. It was one of those old fashioned movie theaters with the balcony seating and the high ceilings. Place was huge. Modern theater rooms suck.

    3. Liar, Liar. I honestly can’t think of any other movie theater experience where the audience was laughing almost nonstop for the entire film.

    2. Terminator 2. I was 7 in 1991 and by that point I must’ve watched Terminator 1, Predator, Twins, Kindergarten Cop, and Total Recall 300 times (and also had seen Conan, Raw Deal, and Pumping Iron a few times). Terminator 1 was and still is my favorite Arnold movie. So to see a new Terminator movie in theaters (not to mention it was rated R) was awesome. I can still remember the audience laughing after Arnold shot the guard in the leg and said “He’ll live”. OH, and I still like part 1 more.

    1. Ninja Turtles. 1990 was definitely the peak year for the heroes in half shells. Every boy was their favorite turtle for Halloween that year (myself included, it was and still is Raph btw). The build up towards the film was like an event in itself (similar to Batman the year before). But that isn’t why this is my most memorable experience. It’s because it was the first time I ever felt embarrassment. I didn’t eat pizza as a child. When April asks Mikey and Donny if they eat pizza and they respond in unison ‘Doesn’t everybody?” my parents, as if they’d seen the movie already and had it planned out, both shouted together “But Steven don’t!!”.

  3. -Agreed on The Dark Knight. I remember that feeling.

    -On a more serious note, two movies that had me unable to speak for real as the credits rolled were United 93 and Fruitvale Station.


    -Seeing In Bruges right in the middle of a frustrating international vacation was probably the ideal way to watch that movie.

    -I got roped into a screening of Mamma Mia (same day as The Dark Knight, actually) that housed exactly two parties: the one I was with and a trio of middle-aged women who sat up front and spent the entire movie positively cackling at every joke. I don’t think the movie is very good at all, but I won’t deny that was an entertaining way to watch it.

  4. GRIND-freakin’-HOUSE! It would have been even better with a crowd, but that’s a thing that doesn’t really exist in my cinematic word anymore outside of the occasional midnight premiere. I adore that Robert Rodriguez puts “audience commentary” tracks on his films where he records the audience at the premiere and includes the audio on the DVD release so you can hear the audience reaction. I live in a small town, work nights, and prefer obscure movies that my wife would hate so that regularly translates into me sitting in an empty theater at noon. Sinister was particularly scary in a lonesome dark theater.

  5. I know it’s recent and somewhat of a trendy topic right now, but GRAVITY was by far one of the most impacting movie going experiences I can talk about to date. I still find it hard to put into words what that movie was like to experience in such a grand way…

    I saw it with 5 other people and all of us came out of the theater and didn’t say a word other than “amazing” …

    Other nods:

    – 6th Sense, because I’ve never been in a theater when the entire audience did one of those “ohhhhhhhhh snap” moments simultaneously.

    – Bridge To Terabithia, my girlfriend at the time/wife now saw this not having a clue what it was about and it was the first time I cried in front of her … I was not expecting that death by any means, nor was she. To top it off we were 2 of only 10 people in the entire place and we were ALL CRYING.

  6. I’ll probably get mocked for this but the first American Pie movie has stuck with me all these years.

    Its the first time Id ever seen a whole cinema crying with laughter from almost beginning to end. Doesn’t seem like much now but back in the day, humour like this just wasnt the done thing. No-one had ever fucked a pie…

    The Transformers. As a kid seeing the 80s movie-length feature was a little boy’s dream come true. And the heartbreak of an entire room full of kids when Prime died. Wow.

    The Transformers (1st Michael Bay). The aforementioned kid was alive again. When Optimus starts the opening monologue I saw the guy sitting in front of me turn to his mate and say ‘That is fucking awesome.’ He was right.

    The Matrix. Late showing, right down the front. Mind blown.

  7. The first Mission: Impossible when Tom Cruise is suspended by the wires, sweating. Pakced theater, dead silent. It was awesome.

    I remember seeing Zorro with a friend and a group of old ladies in the back that genuinely reacted out loud to everything that happened on screen. They owned it, we cracked up.

    What Lies Beneath. The bath tub scene. I knew something creepy was going to happen, but I did not expect the girl sitting on my left and the girl sitting on my right to both clutch on to me when she came out of the bath tub. Yes, I shrieked like a little girl.

  8. Okay, I really will never forget seeing Jurassic Park as a kid. I was absolutely terrified. My mom kept leaning over and asking me if I needed to leave, but I just continued to stare wide-eyed at the screen, shaking my head no.

    To this day, I still have nightmares about Raptors trying to open my bedroom door.

    And then I pretty much have to agree with all of the above movie experiences, but one that REALLY stands out in my memory is the movie Atonement. I don’t know if anyone here has seen it, but literally it might have one of the most gut-wrenching surprise ending moments in a film. I left that movie completely speechless and depressed for days. It’s not a movie for everyone (romantic war period piece), but NO ONE can see that movie without feeling despair for life by the end.

    Oh, and HAIRSPRAY – I’m not usually into the more bubbly musicals, but my sister begged me to take her, so my boyfriend and I did. We were bouncing in our seats, that movie was so much fun!

  9. 1. American Pie (opening night)- While the movie was damn funny it was during one of the commercials for theater gift certificates and one of the lines they said was “Share them with friends and relatives. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.” Right after this I shout out “Just like Syphilis!” and got a real good laugh from all the high school and college kids in the crowd.

    2. From Dusk Til Dawn – My dad had said he would take me to see this as I was still underage and right before we left my mom said that she would join us. I told her what the movie was and asked if she was sure and she just said that it was better than hanging out alone at home. I then had to sit through the entire movie with my mom trying to cover my eyes even though I was 16. Very embarrassing.

    3. Jurassic Park/Batman (Michael Keaton) – Went to both movies opening weekend and the only seats available were within the first 5 rows. Being that close to the screen for those two movies at such a young age was FUCKING AWESOME!

    4. Batman Returns – For this one what really stuck out to me was the middle aged couple in line behind me and my friends. All of us were around the age of 12 and since it was a PG-13 movie they weren’t going to let us in (one of the first movies we went to without parental guidance) and the guy behind us heard this he just said, “Oh, Jesus. Look they’re our kids. That’s Timmy. That’s Tommy and that one is little Jimmy. Now take the damn money and give them their tickets.” On the way in after that I heard him also say, “Wouldn’t let kids get in to see Batman. What the hell.” It was something that was so cool it really made an impact on my young tween mind.

  10. 1. Avatar in IMAX. Got some free tickets via Adobe and we had to struggle to get there. There was massive snowfall and most trains weren’t running. We had to walk the last few miles to get there. Turns out Adobe had reserved the best rows in the theatre for their guests and had a seperate usher there. Got some seats in the center. Felt privileged 😉
    Had never even been to the IMAX before and was completely blown away by the immersive 3D on the giant screen and that mega audio.. First time I really felt like I was IN the movie.

    2. A dutch movie called “Ciske de rat”.. I vividly remember the part where the main character (a young boy) kills his tormenting bitch of a mother with a kitchen knife. I was probably too young at the time (7) but they didn’t fuss that much back then.

    3. LOTR marathon when Return of the King came out.. great movie of course, but is most memorable because it was the first time I went to a marathon. Really love that atmosphere of a collective of moviegeeks 😀

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