A Not So Brief History of Graveyard Shift
I started working for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in March 2011. I spent months trying to convince the Houston franchise to hire me in any role available - eventually coming on board as Executive Support / Accounting. I was not very good at either of those roles - but it didn’t matter because what I really wanted to do was program movies.
Like so many other men in their twenties, I was exceedingly cocky about my taste in film. I still am. The difference between the version of me today and the version of me from 2011, though, is that I now actually know a thing or two about movies. See, cocky! What I lacked in film knowledge beyond the surface level “cult movies are kewl” attitude I possessed in 2011, I made up for in enthusiasm.
Despite having a ton of actual, real administrative work on my desk at any given point in time, I would spend hours crafting exhaustive event proposals, trying to convince the powers that be that we should be showing movies such as BUGSY MALONE or SIX-STRING SAMURAI. You know, the stuff that was *really* going to draw in the crowds.
Around the same time I began working for the Alamo Drafthouse’s Houston franchise, there was a change in the leadership structure at the corporate level and a lot of signature programming that had previously not been offered up to the franchise theaters was now available via monthly packets that the theaters could plug into their calendars. Movie Parties, Sing-Alongs, Big Screen Classics, and series dedicated to ‘80s and ‘90s films were included in these monthly packets. A lot of my event proposals were rightfully turned down because they overlapped with what was already being offered up as part of the national brand programming.
If I was going to dip my toes into the film programming world at my local Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, I needed to discover an area that was already not being served by the national packet. Weirdly, that would be horror.
In retrospect, it’s odd that there was not a national horror movie series offered up by the Alamo Drafthouse corporate programming office back in 2011. Perhaps the Austin-based programmers were focused on their local Terror Tuesday series or perhaps they just felt that the occasional horror film that made it into the existing national series would suffice. Either way, I saw the lack of a national horror series as my way into the programming game. I put together a proposal for a monthly horror series and submitted it to my boss.
This proposal was met with skepticism at the Houston theater. After all, it was a different world in 2011 - special events used to be a tough sell in the non-Austin markets. When I started working for the theater, it was not unusual to have some events that would have less than five people show up. Before my boss would commit to a monthly series, he wanted to see proof that there was even an audience for horror in the Houston market. Maybe there was a reason, after all, why the national Alamo office didn’t put together a horror series for the franchises.
I looked at the calendar and saw that there was a Friday the 13th coming up. I suggested we show the original 1980 FRIDAY THE 13TH on this day. It seemed like a no-brainer, right? Right. We put it on sale just a few weeks before the event happened and, with very minimal promotion, the screening sold out! I was going to have a theater full of horror fans ready to watch campers be slashed to pieces - now to put on a show.
I had not been working at the Alamo very long at this point, at least officially. For the previous year, though, I had hosted a ton of events for the theater on a volunteer basis - this was part of my scheme to try and convince them to hire me. Nothing says "Give me a job" like "I'll work for free!"
My hosting skills back then were, let’s just say, interesting. My introduction for FRIDAY THE 13TH lasted thirty minutes! I’m not exaggerating. If anything, I might be erring on the shorter side of reality. Given my first opportunity to program and host an official Alamo Drafthouse Cinema event, I went a bit overboard. I brought up two friends to help me host the screening and we each took turns talking about the movie. I then brought up audience members to play themed games such as a “lifesaving relay” in honor of the drowned Jason Voorhees, an archery competition where guests had to shoot suction cup arrows at pictures of Kevin Bacon, and a Bug Juice chugging contest. It was too much. Way too much. But it was a blast.
Response to the screening was great, sales were great (people will order a lot of food and beverage when they have to sit in a theater for thirty minutes waiting for the movie they came to see to start) and I was in a position to convince the theater to let me do this monthly.
That said, it still took a long time to get that initial proposal through the approval process. I put together budgets and programming roadmaps, teaching myself a lot about the various costs of film booking, promotion, and preemption fees in the process. This was my first introduction to the real work that goes on behind the scenes of film programming. It wasn't as simple as just picking a movie - you had to understand the numbers behind making these screenings successful.
There was also the question of the series' name. My first proposal, if I remember correctly, was that the series should be called “CULTure Club." I hoped to show other genre films besides just horror. That series name was nixed for various reasons and so I suggested a handful of other options. I wish I could find the original email with all the stupid names I floated because, while I don't remember specifics, I do remember that they were almost all extremely stupid. One name, for example, was Phantomagasmic Cinema. Barf. Out of all the names I suggested, the one that eventually got approved was “Graveyard Shift.”
And now, with a series named and the go-ahead to plan the first four screenings, I was off to the races.
The first official Graveyard Shift screening was CREEPSHOW in June 2011. The screening was on the Saturday before Father’s Day and, like FRIDAY THE 13TH, I went all out. I decorated the theater with homemade prop replicas such as a decapitated head cake and a crate rigged with a motion sensor so it would shake when somebody approached it. I dressed up in overalls and glued grass to my face. Like with FRIDAY THE 13TH, I brought my friends Chuck Bird and Alan Cerny out to help me introduce the film. It was another overlong, overstuffed intro featuring games (pickle juice chugging instead of meteor shit) and props (everybody got a Little Debbie cake as a Father’s Day treat). Like FRIDAY THE 13TH, though, it was a sold-out success!
The second screening was THE FLY. Before the film, I brought out a blender and, on stage, mixed together a collection of super-sugary treats such as donuts, Red Bull, breakfast cereal, ice cream, candy, raw honey, and more and had contestants try and drink the sugary shake the fastest in a simulation of the famous vomit slurp scene. As for ambiance, I built and displayed a replica Brundle Museum of Natural History, featuring little clay fingers, ears, and penises I had sculpted. I bought flyswatters in bulk and passed them out before the screening.
The third title was CAST A DEADLY SPELL. My friend Chuck had clued me in on the film earlier in the year and I was obsessed with it at the time. I thought this would be my chance to see how obscure I could get with the series. This screening was also the first time I had the opportunity to play “rights detective.” I knew the movie had been released by HBO but they don’t have a department for booking their films for theatrical screenings. I cold-called a dozen people whose phone numbers I found online before I discovered somebody at HBO who would even agree to talk with me about getting permission to show the film.
“Why would you even wanna play that?” he asked.
The HBO rep finally gave me permission, as long as we didn’t charge any money. Maybe it was because the screening was free, maybe it was because I had gotten Jef Roner, a local writer for the Houston Press, to cover it, but either way - despite the movie being relatively obscure, the screening was my third consecutive sell-out!
I was getting cocky and I asked if I could schedule a double feature. For the August 2011 screening, I noticed on the calendar that a full moon was going to fall on a Saturday, the day I normally scheduled Graveyard Shift. I begged, I pleaded and I whined, and eventually, I was given permission to show a thirtieth-anniversary double feature of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and THE HOWLING. Only one problem - our film booker was having difficulty finding the rights for THE HOWLING. Well, time to put the detective hat back on again. I spent weeks searching online for anybody who could point me in the right direction. I tracked down other theaters that had played the film recently (nobody responded - likely because they hadn’t cleared the rights themselves). I searched for other films that had been released by Embassy Pictures but none of the rightsholders for those films said they had the rights to THE HOWLING. Eventually, I found a company in France called Tamasa Distribution who said they did have the rights and would be all too happy to license them to me for a screening. All they wanted was $600! Jeez...
I crunched the numbers. The $600, plus the cost of booking AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, was too much! Unfortunately, I had to change my plans. Thankfully, Sony had a new restoration of FRIGHT NIGHT they were touring at the moment in conjunction with the remake’s release. My double feature would still go on - except it would be AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and FRIGHT NIGHT.
Tickets went on sale and the event was a huge hit! I sold over 100 tickets within the first week of it being on sale, and sales weren’t slowing down. By the night of the event, we had moved the screening into a 150 seat auditorium and we ended up selling 145 tickets! Like all my screenings up until that point, the event was a huge production. I bought two costumes - a werewolf costume and a vampire costume - so I could do a mid-movie change. I asked my parents to build me a fake coffin so I could have a photobooth element in front of the theater. I bought Moon Pies for every single person at the screening.
Something to note about all my props and decorations - I was buying all of this crap out of my own pocket. I didn’t realize I had another option. It wasn’t until after one of the screenings, half a year into the series, that I was pulled aside by a theater manager and told I should ask for a company credit card to cover these expenses.
This double feature was a financial success, but it was also my first taste at post-screening constructive feedback. We had a TON of people at the screening - more than had ever come to a previous Graveyard Shift event. A lot of those people were casual movie fans pulled in by the big-name titles and they weren’t, let’s say, super keen on following the rules regarding talking and texting during the film. It was hard to police the screening too, just because of how big the audience was - even though I spent both movies prowling around the back of the auditorium on the lookout for talkers and texters. The feedback that we received from guests after the screening that hit closer to home, though, was in response to my failed attempt at doing trivia as a pre-movie game.
I had successfully gotten some cool swag bags donated from Fearnet, the short-lived horror-themed cable network, and had planned to give them away during the event through a trivia contest. Unfortunately, the trivia was a bust! The people I called up didn’t really know any of the answers and, in a panic, I tried to play it off by being a snarky host and teasing the contestants. The whole thing just came off as mean, though. The end result was a long, awkward, drawn-out example of why a trivia contest is never as fun as you think it’s going to be.
I'm sure there are ways to successfully do trivia, but I’ve never found them. What I have found instead are examples of people getting snippy because they weren’t called on, people getting snippy because the people who were called on didn't know any of the answers, and people getting snippy because the answers they gave weren’t the right ones by a small margin of accuracy. I hate trivia - it’s not fun for the audience who isn't playing and is only marginally more fun for the people who are actually competing.
What was successful, though, was my dart game idea. In planning the double feature, I had the dream of having a game where people would throw darts at a collection of balloons taped over a picture of David Naughton running naked through a London zoo. To make this dream a reality, I asked my mom - a wonderful painter - to paint a picture of David Naughton naked, running through a London zoo. She did not let me down. I attached balloons to this wooden masterpiece and then, for a chance to win prizes, people attempted to throw darts at the balloons and pop them. It might just be my finest achievement.
I have a lot of great memories from that first year of Graveyard Shift. I remember showing the fantastic Chris Peckover-directed horror film UNDOCUMENTED and convincing Peckover and film star Alona Tal to do a Skype Q&A after the film. Unfortunately, this was one of the first Graveyard Shift screenings that did not have super great attendance. Only about ten people showed up for the film and, of that number, only five stuck around for the Q&A. The audience could see Chris and Alona on the theater screen and talk to them via a microphone but, because the laptop was situated upstairs, Chris and Alona couldn’t see the tiny number of people in the theater. To try and hide this disappointing fact, I asked each audience member to ask two questions - in two different voices - so that the Skype guests thought more people were in the screening than actually were.
There was a double feature of THE GATE and THE GATE II. I was so pumped for this event because we were showing 35mm prints that I had personally purchased off of eBay just so I could screen them at the theater. I wanted to put on a hell of a show so I scouted out a death metal band online to do a concert between the films. Unfortunately, I was super busy with my day-to-day work duties and didn’t listen to their music ahead of time as I should have. The band certainly looked the part - dressed in cloaks and having one member of the band whose only purpose was to burn incense - but their music wasn’t exactly the vibe I was going for As the band played a 20-minute set, I became nervous when I discovered the music was an unmelodic drone that sounded like a telephone waiting line from Hell. I almost had a heart attack when their performance culminated in a stunt in which the lead singer breathed fire at the theater screen!
I did a screening of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 in which I had contestants suck chocolate pudding through a straw that was stuck through a hole drilled into the center of a plastic butt. That was the screening that my boss and his wife decided to show up for. They, luckily, got the joke.
We did a double feature of THE MONSTER SQUAD and NIGHT OF THE CREEPS - two films I love. Unfortunately, there was a scheduling mishap and the event was put into a 300 seat theater. Only 60 people showed up. This would have been a decent audience in our normal 100 seat theater but in the massive auditorium we were put in, I felt the weight of the empty theater the entire night and it was a miserable experience. I have never programmed NIGHT OF THE CREEPS since, due in large part to the anxiety I felt staring out into that massive, empty theater.
We showed RARE EXPORTS and I had my parents help me build a Santa cage like I had seen other theaters do when the film was first released. I sat in the cage dressed like Santa Claus for two hours each night in the days leading up to the event - hoping to promote the screening. The theater we were in at the time was in a mall so we would have lots of teenagers walk by the theater and, as you might expect, plenty of them stopped to heckle me.
“You look like the dude from THE HANGOVER,” one of them shouted.
“You mean Bradley Cooper?” I shot back.
At a double feature of TROLL and TROLL 2, I had an eating contest where I made one dude eat a baloney sandwich three inches thick and another dude eat an entire head of lettuce. I also tried to use a confetti cannon to shoot popcorn all over the audience during a sex scene in the film that involved corn (don’t ask) but the pressure of the cannon vaporized the popcorn and all that happened was one dude in the back of the theater got covered with popcorn dust.
We did our first triple feature in 2012 - showing the first three FRIDAY THE 13TH films, including the last in 3D. I had gotten word that there was going to be a super-advanced screening of THE AVENGERS the day after that triple feature and I was determined to get into it. I watched all three movies with the audience and then drove out to an AMC in Pasadena to camp out so that I could watch THE AVENGERS that next morning.
One thing I was proud of during that first year was my decision that Graveyard Shift was not going to just spotlight classic movies but would also showcase new horror films that I was a fan of. I was tired of hearing horror audiences lament the fact that no new horror movies get made anymore and I wanted to showcase great indie horror films during their initial theatrical release. That first year we showed THE DEAD, A LONELY PLACE TO DIE, THE INNKEEPERS, KILL LIST, and THE LOVED ONES. Over the years, I’ve used Graveyard Shift to spotlight some tremendous new horror films that I’m sure will one day be rep cinema staples such as THE UNTAMED, TRAGEDY GIRLS, MOM AND DAD, MANDY, ONE CUT OF THE DEAD, VIOLENCE VOYAGER, and KOKO-DI KOKO-DA.
I worked my ass off to promote Graveyard Shift that first year. I would enter each month’s event on every local online calendar I could find, I had postcards and posters printed out that I would not only put up at the theater but would place around town. I bugged the hell out of local and national bloggers to cover the events. One trick I had was to go into used movie stores around town and insert small flyers promoting the series into the DVD and Blu-ray cases of horror films. People would, I imagined, take home a copy of GHOULIES II and then when they opened the case, discover that they could watch similar horror films on the big screen every month at their friendly neighborhood Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. I don't know how much this helped, but I got kicked out of at least one Movie Exchange doing this trick.
Graveyard Shift, in that first year, was a group effort. Friends like Alan Cerny, Chuck Bird, Jonathan Watson, and Cliff Holverson were a huge part in the planning and promotion of the series. They frequently would come up on stage and help me introduce the films - often times several of them at once - leading to excessively long introductions. People from the Alamo Drafthouse like Lacy Edmondson, Nate Wells, James Ness, and Mike Esparza were also keenly essential to the series' success. Without these pals and colleagues, Graveyard Shift would not have survived its first year.
In June 2012 - a year after Graveyard Shift began - it officially became the last screening to happen at the Alamo Drafthouse West Oaks. The theater was going to be shut down, to be replaced with a new Northern Houston location at Vintage Park. I wanted to go out with a bang. I had previously scheduled LORD OF ILLUSIONS, not realizing that this screening would happen to be the last movie to ever screen at the theater. Once I discovered that the theater would close the weekend of the screening, I thought a magic show would be a nice touch to commemorate the theater’s end. Unfortunately, once I began pricing out the cost of a magic show I realized I didn’t have the budget to afford a magician. Instead, I thought I would just teach myself a magic trick. How hard can that be? It turns out, magic is extremely difficult to learn for somebody who has never attempted to do so before. Especially when he waits until the afternoon of the screening to teach himself. In a slight panic, I decided I would lean into the shtick and do a purposefully bad magic show. I would stumble my way through a couple of really lame tricks before pretending to hurt myself while swallowing a sword.
It was exactly the shitshow you imagine it would be.
That experience, combined with a screening of POLTERGEIST in which I put off coming up with a game until the last minute and then, the night of the screening, challenged people to try stacking chairs on a table while they wore a bedsheet over their face, convinced me that not every film screening needed a cute game before the show.
With West Oaks closed, I took the series to the Mason Park location in Katy for a few months. There were a few big hits including a triple feature of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETs 3 through 5 but the biggest memory I have during that initial run at Mason Park was my ill-advised attempt to run pyrotechnics during a double feature of MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE and THE WRAITH.
I wanted to show these two killer car movies back-to-back and have live explosions in the theater during the screenings, with a burst of real fire on stage whenever a car exploded on screen. I had used the pyrotechnic set-up in the past for other interactive screenings but this was my first time doing pyrotechnics during a double feature. Unfortunately, it was also the night that my remote control for my pyro kit decided to fritz out. I spent the double feature on the floor of the theater, connecting and disconnecting the conduit for the pyro kit manually every time I wanted an explosion to go off. It was actually pretty fun.
When Vintage Park opened up, I decided to try to do Graveyard Shift twice a month. We would show a film at Mason Park and we would show a different film at Vintage Park. This increased frequency of events, in addition to a promotion at work that left me overseeing all programming across the Houston franchise in addition to the theaters in Lubbock and El Paso, meant I had less time to put on individual shows for each film. The individual screenings didn’t have that extra bit of showmanship that I used to put on - and I do regret dropping that - but I was also getting better at hosting the screenings. I was more at ease with my stage presence, my knowledge about the films I was talking about, and - most importantly - I was getting to know the guests that were coming every month. Maybe I wasn't coming up with silly costumes and stupid games for each screening, but Graveyard Shift was becoming a community. I spent as much time talking after the film with guests as I did watching the films. The Graveyard Shift screenings were becoming less a “Robert Saucedo” show in which I did a song and dance for half an hour before the film than a club that got together and watched horror movies every month.
I was able to show a lot of great movies during that third year - stuff like SILVER BULLET, CAT’S EYE, THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, and more. I don’t have a lot of really good records for this period of Graveyard Shift, but that’s partly because Graveyard Shift began to fall out of frequency. I was busy with so many other programming projects - new events, new series, new theaters - and Graveyard Shift began to fall out of its slot as the most important thing I had to do every month.
In fact, for a few years around 2014 and 2015, there were even a few months where I didn’t host a Graveyard Shift screening. Around late 2015, though, I decided I needed to button down a regular schedule for Graveyard Shift and so I committed to monthly screenings. They would alternate between Vintage Park and Mason Park - with most of them happening at Vintage Park, the theater where I had talked the Powers That Be to install a reel-to-reel 35mm projector. The screenings jumped around the schedule a lot, though. Sometimes we would do them on Fridays, other times on Saturdays.
One time we even did a screening on a Tuesday - but for a very good reason: We showed THE OMEN on June 6, 2016 and charged $6.66 for tickets.
During this time, I tried my hands at making stingers for some of the events I was programming.
Some were better edited than others.
While I LOVED watching the SHAKMA stinger with confused audiences who had sat down to watch BOYHOOD, eventually I decided to leave the video editing up to the professionals.
During this period, I finally got to do a screening of THE HOWLING - this time as a triple feature (!!!) alongside AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and WOLFEN timed with the films’ 35th anniversary. The screening was, of course, on a full moon.
I also began to pass out themed buttons for each film. If people collected enough buttons, they would earn things like popcorn or free movie tickets. The problem was that buttons are bulky, hard to carry around to each screening and (most importantly) cost a ton of money to make.
When Vintage Park closed and Mason Park was left as the only theater in the Houston market for a few years, I was worried about the future of Graveyard Shift. Our Mason Park screenings always did much worse than our Vintage Park events. I once watched FRAILTY at a Graveyard Shift screening with only two other people. Should I retire the series?
No, I was determined to keep Graveyard Shift going - but if I was going to do it, I was going to go all in.
I decided to launch Graveyard Shift as a weekly event - every Friday night. In retrospect, I wish I had chosen Saturday nights over Fridays because there were plenty of late-night screenings on Fridays in which I struggled to stay awake during the film because I had had a long day at the office and didn’t have a chance to take a nap.
In addition to Graveyard Shift going weekly, I launched a passport program with a reward tier. People would be able to earn stuff at these screenings and, instead of buttons, I would track attendance with stamps. Prizes would include popcorn and movies, like before, but I also added t-shirts, pint glasses, a chance to program Graveyard Shift, and free admission for a year or for life. Looking back, I sat the tiers in which people could earn free admission way too low. This is partly because I thought the weekly series wouldn’t last a month before low attendance and high costs would force me to shut it down. By the time we had to close our theater in March 2020 because of COVID-19, I had over thirty people with free Graveyard Shift admission for life. Half of a screening’s given audience - most of them weekly regulars - didn’t have to pay for their ticket. Good thing people ordered a lot of food and beverage.
I began this weekly Graveyard Shift series with a screening of KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE on Friday, May 5, 2017. For the first few months of this new iteration of Graveyard Shift, I themed the month’s programming. There was a month dedicated to mummy movies (timed around the Tom Cruise THE MUMMY remake), a theme dedicated to sequels (“Graveyard Shift Goes Number Two”), and a theme dedicated to films from Empire Pictures ("Charles Band Camp"). This attempt to theme the programming on a monthly basis culminated with a month of films dedicated to adaptations of Stephen King's books. I began this series the week THE DARK TOWER opened on July 31, 2017, and ended it on the week before IT: CHAPTER ONE opened on September 5, 2017. In between those two movies, though, something happened - Hurricane Harvey.
The hurricane that rocked Houston landed the night of a double feature screening of SILVER BULLET and SLEEPWALKERS. Despite the fact that a massive hurricane was bearing down upon our city, I had over fifty people at the theater watching two goofy shapeshifter movies with me. That’s when I realized Graveyard Shift was going to stick this time.
I made the decision to lean into double features with this new version of Graveyard Shift. Most of my audience was driving anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes across town to get to Katy for this series. I was going to give them their investment and then some with two films, instead of one. The double features also allowed me to mix and match well-known titles with some deeper cuts I wanted to share with an audience. We had some great pairings of movies such as STILL/BORN and THE BABY, MY BLOODY VALENTINE and MY DEMON LOVER, THE FRIGHTENERS and CEMETARY MAN, CHILD’S PLAY and MAGIC, SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE and VAMPIRE’S KISS.
It didn’t take long for people to start earning the chance to program a movie of their own. I loved seeing what people would pick - not only did it help diversify the types of movies we would show (if given my druthers, I would tend to only program goofy horror comedies because I liked sitting in an audience and watching these types of movies with a crowd), but it helped introduce me to films I had not gotten around to seeing myself, like BRAIN DAMAGE, AUDITION, and ANGUISH.
Graveyard Shift was really taking off - routinely selling out the theater every week regardless of what we played. People were coming for the series and for the community more than they were coming for the films. If I pushed against the audience’s expectations and showed them stuff like AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL or THE ZODIAC KILLER, they would still come back week after week. During this period, I was able to program some favorites such as THE DAY OF THE BEAST, IDLE HANDS, NIGHTBREED, PROJECT: METALBEAST, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.
The gang of regulars was amazing. Nobody talked during the films, everybody reacted in just the right ways. Occasionally, I would need to go around and wake up snorers but all-in-all, it was an amazing community of horror fans that I was proud to be a part of. We would talk for hours after the screening - frequently getting politely asked to leave by the theater's managers so they could close down and go home themselves.
I made some really deep friendships among the Graveyard Shift regulars and - more importantly to me - I got to see friendships develop. People who started coming to the series by themselves would get to know their seat neighbors, strike up a conversation before the film and, before long, I would see them hanging out before and after the screening and showing up to other movies and events together. Graveyard Shift meant a lot to me. I loved seeing families come together - it warmed my heart to see parents introducing films to their children - and I loved seeing makeshift families form among friends who met at Graveyard Shift.
When our Mason Park theater closed and we had to go a few weeks without a physical location in Houston, I took the show on the road. We did an outdoor screening at City Acre Brewing, an incredible brewpub owned and operated by Meredith Borders. Meredith is a patron saint of Graveyard Shift. She has been one of my biggest and most consistent supporters, helping me whether it’s through programming suggestions, hosting screenings when I was out of town, connecting me with filmmakers and guests, and just being an amazing cheerleader for the series. Meredith is a huge part of Graveyard Shift’s success and was also responsible for picking the batshit crazy Ken Russell flick LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM for the first outdoor Graveyard Shift event.
For our second outdoor screening, we showed GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH. I was able to convince a local park who had paid our Rolling Roadshow crew to show MOANA to let me keep the equipment up after MOANA ended for another bonus screening. Their only restriction was that the movie needed to be family friendly. GREMLINS 2 is family-friendly, right? Unfortunately - or fortunately - the park forgot to turn off their sprinkler system and, at midnight just as the Gremlins were being dowsed with water in the film, the sprinklers in the park went off and the guests who had come out were given a shower. I couldn't have planned it better if I tried.
Just as I was concerned about Graveyard Shift’s survival at Mason Park, I was even more concerned when we moved the series to LaCenterra. The theater was now going to be in the heart of suburbia, a good 45-minute drive from the heart of Houston. Was I going to be able to keep showing deep cut movies and selling out screenings?
If anything, the programing at LaCenterra got even more adventurous. We showed FULL ECLIPSE, MARTYRS, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3, NIGHT GAME (an amazing local film about a serial killer who only strikes when the Astros win a home game), BLOOD RAGE, BODY MELT, RAZORBACK, and more. We had great guest programmers and filmmakers such as Eric Red, Joe Bob Briggs, Phil Nobile Jr., Paul Tremblay, Stephen Graham Jones, Jeff Strand, Michael Perry, Don Coscarelli, Chelsea Stardust, and AJ Bowen.
I had Rolph Kanefsky and Craig Peck come out for THERE’S NOTHING OUT THERE.
I showed truly off the wall stuff like COMMUNION, BURNING BRIGHT, STAY TUNED, PSYCHO COP RETURNS (with Adam Rifkin in attendance), and RUNAWAY NIGHTMARE. We did weird double feature pairings such as DARKMAN and BETWEEN WORLDS, CAT PEOPLE and THE KILLING OF AMERICA, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA and DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT.
We had live alligators at a screening of ALLIGATOR!
The special guests I’m most proud of bringing to the Alamo Drafthouse in Houston are Astron 6. One of the first events I worked upon being hired at the Alamo Drafthouse in 2011 was a screening of FATHER’S DAY with Lloyd Kaufman in attendance. I fell in love with the film and the filmmakers and, in the years that followed, I was able to show their films MANBORG and THE EDITOR as well. Astron 6’s films are linked to my time with the Alamo and to be able to bring all five of the filmmakers to Houston for a triple feature of their three feature films was an amazing experience. Trying to sell my boss on the idea of paying for five plane tickets from Canada was a bit tricky. He had no idea who Astron 6 was and was suspicious of my claims that they were like “The Beatles of Canada”). I was able to make it happen, though, because of all the success I had shown with Graveyard Shift previously. The road to Astron 6 coming to Houston was built upon sold-out screenings of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and HALLOWEEN.
That was the secret to a programing a successful weekly horror series. I discovered. You had to build a foundation and the base of that foundation needed to be formed with the huge, popular horror movies that were going to bring an audience. Patience was key - I could eventually show super weird movies like BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF and NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR, but to get there I had to build an audience with the big stuff.
Well, I had built that audience and now it was time to take things to the next level. It was time for a film festival.
I had tried to launch a film festival several times in the past. My first attempt involved an anime film festival. The only problem was that I didn’t know a thing about anime beyond the fact that it sold really well. Then it was going to be an indie film festival but I got distracted with other responsibilities and overwhelmed with what seemed like a daunting task and dropped the idea. Eventually, it got to the point where I was not allowed to make plans to do film festivals because I never followed through on the plans.
During the summer of 2019, I was in Chicago, attending the Cinepocalype Film Festival. While sitting in the Music Box Theater watching TAMMY AND THE T-REX, I was filled with the certainty that I could do this too. It was a great film festival with exciting programming - but it was also super low key and it just seemed within reach of what I knew I was capable of. I came back home to Houston that week and, during an introduction for a double feature of CHOPPING MALL and DEATH SPA, I announced that Graveyard Fest was coming. Now I just had to figure out how to make it happen.
I spent the next few months learning all about how to program a film festival. I put together a budget, found sponsors, tracked down the rights to both indie and rep films I wanted to show, secured some incredible guests, and planned opening night and closing night parties.
Funny enough, it was the parties that were the hardest for me - I don’t go to a lot of parties at film festivals nor do I attend a lot of parties in my own social life. Having to plan a party? Crap, that’s tricky. It’s no surprise, then, that the two parties at Graveyard Shift looked an awful lot like the parties I used to attend when was a kid - video games, copious amounts of snacks, and party favors. The closing night party was themed around the film VFW. and featured fake drugs and a station where people could snort Pixie Stick dust with fake money.
Graveyard Fest was an incredible experience. I rode a wave of adrenaline the entire weekend - barely sleeping. The highlight was talking with the audiences between each film, hearing what movies they liked, which ones they didn’t. I really got to know a lot of the Graveyard Shifters (or Shifties, a term that regular Eric Hodges coined) that weekend.
I tried to keep things active even during the breaks between movies, at one point leading an impromptu nature walk that ended with us walking into a trampoline store across the street from the theater and taking turns signing waivers so we could bounce on their model trampolines. It was a weird weekend.
Graveyard Fest was an amazing experience and it wouldn’t have been possible without people like Christina Caballero, Meredith Borders, Phil Nobile, Jr., Meagan Navarro, and Valerie Tyson and her team at Strategic Playground.
I fully intended Graveyard Fest to be an annual event. I envisioned the series as it continued to grow and become bigger and better with each new year. I have a habit of making wild promises about things on stage during Graveyard Shift introductions and I could only imagine what kind of madness I would vow to deliver on stage and then have to figure out how to make into reality for 2021’s Graveyard Fest.
Obviously, Graveyard Fest isn’t happening this year.
But it would have been crazy.
The future of Graveyard Shift is unknown for the moment. The last screening we did was TOURIST TRAP on Friday, March 13. We kept the series going as a virtual hangout through the first part of quarantine but, for various reasons, I have not yet brought the series back to the theater. I know this long walk down memory lane can read like a eulogy but I don’t mean it to.
Will Graveyard Shift come back?
That’s the best I can say for now. If it does come back, it will probably look a little different than it did. But that’s OK. Graveyard Shift has changed a lot over the years. From its days at West Oaks to Vintage Park to Mason Park to LaCenterra, Graveyard Shift has reinvented itself every few years. What hasn’t changed, though, is the idea that a group of respectful, dedicated horror fans coming together to watch a scary movie or two in a theater is a better experience than watching the same movies at home. That’s something that will never change.