Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ante Meridiem Theatre: Late Night Movie Watching Requires Stealth and Elasticity

Ante Meridiem Theatre is a place to focus on movies that used to crop up on television late at night into the early morning hours. This month, I thought I’d stick with the theme of Movie-Watching Memories and share with you the things that can happen when you stay up past your bedroom for a movie.

In my youth, a wide range of movies was not exactly at my disposal. The premium movie channels – HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, The Movie Channel (shockingly, only one of each) – were available to rich folk. Not that my family was poor. Let’s just say that my brother and I’s G.I. Joes didn’t convene at the coveted USS Flagg Aircraft Carrier but instead enga
ged in battle at the Barbie Dream Condo – though its three floors and elevator access made it ideal for snipers. But those guys who had the USS Flagg were the same ones watching HBO every night while I stayed at home and held a tape recorder up to a radio, waiting for the guitar solo before sneezing so I wouldn’t forever wonder what the lead singer was actually saying in the second verse.

Turn to a channel not in your dish package today, and you’ll just see a message telling you to upgrade. With basic cable, you saw snow, but sometimes, just beyond the snow, you could see movement. People. More specifically, actors. Acting out a movie. Crank the volume, and you could hear crackling voices reciting lines. The snow on the HBO channel we didn’t get was unrelenting. Nothing but snow. But on the other channels, all bunched together in sequence, films were often slightly visible and barely audible.

The quality of the movie pushing through the static varied. Cinemax would be nearly perfect one night and unwatchable the next. Sometimes a film on The Movie Channel couldn’t be seen on one TV but was drive-in quality on another. The television in the basement was the best, which was fitting since my mock bedroom was there – “mock” because the b
asement and my bedroom were all one room, separated by a desk and a bureau and a gun cabinet that acted as my closet but turned away from the community side of the room for, you know, privacy and what not. But one fateful night, at around two o’clock in the morning, the movie I was attempting to watch wasn’t very clear. I decided to risk checking the TVs on the first floor.

On the top floor, my stepfather, mother, sister and brother slept. When it was this late, watching anything on the TV in the TV room (my stepfather’s TV) was a little like juggling knives in the dark. You’d have to stand and listen by the stairs for any creaking to allot yourself ample time for fleeing. Fortunately, the stairs to the basement were adjacent to the TV room. On this particular night, however, the TV room TV was no better than the basement one. So I opted for the TV in the dining room, an ironic location as we were never allowed to watch TV while eating. The movie was Stripped to Kill (1987), which, of course, I had to see because I’d already seen Stripped to Kill II (aka Live Girls/1989), and I wanted to see if the first film would help the second film make more sense. As it turns out, they’re only related by title.

It was a cold night, and I was wrapped in a blanket, sitting uncomfortably in a wooden chair and watching a tiny television resting on a countertop, all atop two cabinets, like a faux desk. The good news: The movie looked amazing, like I’d bought a pristine VHS copy. The bad news: The dining room was farther away from the basement stairs than the TV room, and I didn’t realize that I hadn’t mapped out an escape route until I heard someone creaking down the stairs.

I quickly turned off the TV and ducked into the cubbyhole under the countertop. I pulled the chair as closely as I could, sitting with my knees against my chest. My stepfather appeared from around the corner and walked into the dining room, thankfully not turning on any of the lights. He stood next to a huge window and surveyed the backyard. He was maybe five feet away from me, and I could smell his Old Spice. I pulled the blanket up to my nose and held my breath. Finally and mercifully, he walked away, headed for the restroom. I waited patiently, frozen like a derelict statue. He finished his business and headed past the dining room and in the direction of the stairs, but I still couldn’t move, convinced that he’d seen me and was waiting around the corner. When my knees started cramping, I slowly pushed the chair away, crawled out from my nook, and half-jogged to the basement, not a stepfather in sight. I decided to catch the film some other time.

At the time, it was an unsettling experience. It didn’t prevent me from taking first-floor trips for marginally visible movies, but the dining room did become a quarantine zone. Years later, I saw
Stripped to Kill in its entirety, and let me say: It’s no Stripped to Kill II.


  1. Sark, you made me remember similar experiences as a kid when I would sneak downstairs at 2:00 in the morning to catch a movie. I don't know why, but watching alone on the sly is more fun than doing it when you are allowed to. It's like seeing a favorite movie starting on TCM, even though you have your own copy you could watch any time. There is something special about just catching it and watching it that way.

    I've never seen either of the movies you mentioned -- when I was that age, I had 4 channels to choose from, and channel 4 was the one who ran movies very late. Thanks for a well-written and funny trip down memory lane!

  2. Sark, I think you should write down more recollections like this and publish them in a modern day equivalent of A CHRISTMAS STORY for movie buffs. Very funny...but, hey, suspenseful, too! I loved it! You were much bolder than I'd ever be. However, your tale did remind me of "the frozen Coke" incident experienced by my sister and me. We used to put a bottle of Coke in the frezer a couple of hours before watching Shock Theatre on Saturday night, because--you know--all soft drinks are better partially frozen. I have since learned the art of opening a frozen drink, but I was naive in my youth. When I popped off the bottle cap too quickly, liquid cola spewed on the ceiling, curtains over the sink...just about everywhere. Our sleeping parents heard nothing, but the kitchen was a mess. I panicked, but my teenaged sister was eerily calm. She told me to clean up the counter and floor while she washed the curtains in the sink, ironed them dry, and mounted them on the rod again (later, she told me she considered using the dryer in the basement, but decided it'd wake the parents). Mission accomplished, we finished the movie and the parents were never wiser. My sweet sister had bailed out, as she would do a couple of more times in my youth.

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