Have the Halloween Blues? Reminisce with the Jacob Burns Halloween Marathon

Still from George Romero's 1968 classic, "Night of the Living Dead."

by Grayson Lazarus

An internal debate raged at 4:00 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 29. I had just finished the largest available cup of coffee (the first in a line of caffeinated drinks) the Jacob Burns offered and I was halfway through my viewing of “Them,” the fourth film I had seen in nearly seven hours. As I lay comfortably snug underneath my fuzzy jacket-turned-blanket, unable to feel the effects of the excess caffeine now running through me, a critical question nagged at me: “Is now the time that you go to sleep?”

“Maybe,” I thought. There was still eight hours to endure. An experienced marathoner like myself knows that attempting to watch all eight films in the annual Jacob Burns’ Halloween Movie Marathon is a fool’s errand. Pie-in-the-sky motives and high aspirations immediately melt away after the first realization that the last minute has been more about staying conscious than paying attention to the on-screen thrills. At least one film must be skipped, the desire for a nap indulged. Not this time, though. It was my new professional responsibility to write and report on the experience. Plus, I was enjoying “Them.” My newfound declaration of intent to stay awake did not prevent my body from attempting to sabotage and subvert. My body said “Occasionally blurred vision and intensely blurred eyes are a mark of defeat. Perhaps enough of the film has been missed. Just treat yourself and go to sleep.” Thankfully, my mind retorted “No. Stop. Focus. You are watching a movie. Act professional.”

The programers of the Jacob Burns Halloween Movie Marathon want this affect. They are not interested in scheduling an event that is easily accessible to wide audiences; if they were, their 14-hour extravaganza would begin at 9:30 a.m., not 9:30 p.m. This spectacle is reserved only for the madcap junkies of the horror and the Halloween season. Naturally, 2017 marked not only the Burns’ fourth year hosting the event, but also my fourth year in attendance. Truly, I have found the new equivalent of a festive, trick-or-treat-like delight.

Theater one of the local independent art house cinema annually transforms into a candy-coated dizzying box that enraptures and holds what tends to be an initially packed house. Five minute breaks are always held in between every movie, where patrons can either go to the bathroom, buy a (likely caffeinated) drink, or leave because they have simply indulged in enough. As the night progresses, the crowd dwindles to a quarter of its original size. Those are the survivors. I cannot possibly recommend attending these events in a group enough. Not only is the camaraderie pleasant, but it becomes necessary. Talking about the films with someone immediately after a later screening helps to keep the film in the recesses of the mind, lest one forget it in such a compromised and exhausted state. Having someone ready to wake you when you stumble also becomes comforting.

Over the years a formula has been crafted: three classics (“Suspiria,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “Society”), a live commentary riffing of a bad film courtesy of We Hate Movies (“I Know What You Did Last Summer”), an “underrated” contemporary (“Them”), and three 2017 genre films, which can be either previously released or procured prior to wide release (“Get Out,” “Nails,” “Tragedy Girls”). Depending on the year, some categories will have different amounts, but the structure has remained the same.

From this formula comes great variety, not only in time period, but in sub-genre and stylistic approach. “Suspiria” is a slow psychologically charged haunting. “Them” is a fast-paced home invasion. “Society” is a mind-warping, gross-out conspiracy. The live commentary is a fun and upbeat romp that livens the entire crowd. “Tragedy Girls” is an annoying mess. A new experience is incorporated into every new screening.

What must be commended above all else is the programming. Not only is the feat of obtaining film prints and that-which-has-yet-to-be-released special, but the pacing of the night has been drastically improved over the four years. Previously, films like “The Changeling,” a nearly slow-burn ghost story was screened at 7:00 a.m.; “Train to Busan,” an admittedly exciting, but nearly two-hour long zombie thriller was shown at 8:00 a.m.. Exhaustion eventually takes over regardless of a film’s merit. This year, the only two films longer than 100 minutes (“Get Out,” “I know What You Did Last Summer”) were the first to be screened, followed immediately by the only slow-paced film of the night (“Suspiria”). Quality aside, the length of a film makes all the difference so late in the morning. As a result, a much stronger and manageable experience was provided.

If anybody has ever considered themselves a fan of media marathons (an expanding subculture courtesy of the all-encompassing accessibility of technology), the Jacob Burns’ Halloween Movie Marathon is intense. Fourteen hours itself is an intermediate challenge, but placing its starting time so late at night morphs the experience into a true challenge. Fortunately, it is one of the most delightful endurance tests I could imagine existing in late October and I will certainly be attending next year.