Watching a movie in a crowded theatre adds immeasurably to the viewing experience. Whether it's group laughter that makes a joke seem funnier than it actually is, outright gasping that adds to the effect of a horror movie or the outright "I can't believe I paid to see this shit" tension that comes from watching a true piece of garbage, groupthink is a lot more positive in a theatre than it was in 1984.
Here are, in only a mildly particular order, the top 15 audience reactions I've experienced amongst a large group of film-watchers.
15. In The Line Of Fire. When I was 11 years old, I only had a vague knowledge of who Clint Eastwood was, based on general pop culture and the fact that his old westerns and Dirty Harry movies were aired on a semi-daily basis on TBS. (I didn't actually watch any of these films at the time, just the ads.) So, I didn't have a full shot of the Clint experience until I was in a theatre for some other movie during the summer of 1993. During the previews, the original trailer for "In The Line Of Fire" ran and wow, does the ending scene ever look corny watching it today. But, in a theatre in 1993, there was an audible "WHOAAAA" from the audience, in the sense of "All right, Clint's gonna fuck some assassins up!" It was at that moment my young self realized just what a bad-ass Clint Eastwood was. This feeling has continued until the present day, with perhaps a slight dip during the "Bridges of Madison County" era.
14. Daredevil. As I've written about this film before, it's quite bad but has three memorable scenes. One is when Daredevil can 'see' Elektra because she's being framed by the raindrops, the second is when Kingpin gets dropped (for its unintentional hilarity) and the third brings us to the 13th entry on the list. At one point, Jennifer Garner makes her big entrance at a ball and looks like the hottest thing on earth. That's it --- that's the whole scene. In fairness, it was indeed a really nice dress, and 2003 was just about Jennifer Garner's absolute prime. The entire audience reacted with a sharp intake of breath and I'm pretty sure every guy in the theatre got at least a semi. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, the "entire audience" was actually just me and four friends. We took in Daredevil during a rainy night at a theatre in Florida during spring break 2003 and the five of us were the only ones there. I'd still say this counts as an "audience reaction in a theatre," though. We paid for the tickets! We were the audience! Let's just move on.
13. Crazy Stupid Love. For the reverse of the Daredevil incident, I give you the scene in CSL when Ryan Gosling takes off his shirt to reveal his 'photoshopped' abs. Literally every woman in the theatre gasped and, presumably, the older women temporarily had their menopauses reversed. And this was in a packed theatre, not just some poorly-attended theatre in Florida. C'mon ladies, I'll give you 2011 Ryan Gosling if you let us have 2003 Jennifer Garner, that's a fair trade for not judging me and my pals to be shallow yahoos.
12. Contagion. I recently noted this during my review of the film, but after it was over, we're all filing out of the theatre when somebody coughed. Some other smart-ass immediately yelled out, "Oh no, we're all gonna die!" It got a nice reaction of about 90 percent laughter and 10 percent "Wait, are we REALLY going to die? Can you catch a fictional virus just by watching a movie?" This 10 percent then all ran in a panic out of the theatre and into traffic, so hey, Darwin Awards.
11. I Am Legend. I also recently wrote about this during my Contagion review, so here it is verbatim….During 'I Am Legend,' they have that scene of Emma Thompson talking about how she's engineering a strain of the measles meant to fight cancer, followed by an immediate cut to a desolate Manhattan. As if on cue, the guy in front of us in the theatre yelled "Uh oh, they couldn't cure the measles!" Doesn't sound great on paper, but the timing was perfect and it just cracked the entire audience up. Probably the highlight of that movie aside from the scene where Will Smith strangles his dog, then asks "How come he don't want me, man?"
10. City Lights. When the TIFF Lightbox theatre opened last year, it ran a 'greatest 100 films ever' promotion, screening 100 all-time classics so audiences could enjoy them on the big screen for possibly the first time. Last year I had the pleasure of watching Charlie Chaplin's legendary City Lights for the first time, and while I enjoyed it, I'd seen so many of the scenes before in various Chaplin retrospectives that it didn't feel totally fresh. That is, until we got to the famous "cigar butt routine." I've included the clip below but it needs a bit of setup: the Tramp has been befriended by a drunken millionaire that has let the Tramp have use of his car. Despite this temporary access to wealth, the Tramp is always out to pinch pennies, so he can't pass up trying to catch a quick smoke from a discarded cigar. Then….
The theatre EXPLODED. This was one of the most sustained laughs I'd ever heard from any audience. It's a pretty simple scene on its own but man…what really sets it off was Chaplin's "pwned" look back towards the homeless guy, whereas the poor bum is just dumbfounded, wondering if he really just got cigar-jacked by a guy driving a Rolls-Royce. If you had any doubts about Chaplin's enduring genius, just look at the that this scene got a monster response almost 70 years after its release.
9. Paranormal Activity 8. Signs. Duel entry here, since both deal with the same basic idea of how watching a horror movie amongst several dozen people can greatly enhance what you're watching. I saw both films on their opening weekend, when the theatres were at their most packed, and it should be noted that virtually the entire audience was comprised of dopey teenagers. It was an audience that was *ready* to be freaked out, and thus they responded with literal shrieks at even the slightest bit of tension, and literal SCREAMS during sudden movements. Cheesy as it sounds, it made both movies seem frickin' awesome. Signs, for instance, suffers anyway from a total lack of tension once you know the twists (a.k.a. Shyamalan disease) but moments like the alien's hand suddenly appearing when they're in the basement just carry no punch whatsoever a second time around.
7. The Dark Knight. SPOILERS. (Though really, if you haven't seen Dark Knight by now, it's your own fault.) This might be another example of an audience that is just ready to be entertained. TDK, opening night, standing-room-only audience and there wasn't a person there who wasn't expecting the movie to kick ass. This is actually three moments from the film, but I've grouped them into just the one entry. Firstly, the pencil scene: a reaction of gasping, followed by immediate "Ha ha, holy SHIT." Secondly, Batman's little rev of the Batcycle up a wall following that big chase sequence: this drew a huge cheer, somewhat inexplicably. I mean, it was a nice chase, but c'mon. Thirdly, when Gordon removes the riot gear helmet and we see that he's been alive the whole time: wild applause. I dunno if we were cheering the plot twist (which wasn't that big a twist since it's not like they're going to kill off Commissioner Gordon….right?) or just the fact that Gary Oldman made Gordon into such a decent guy that we were pumped to see him again.
6. Devil. Poor M. Night Shymalan. Such promise, such a quick spiral into garbage. His negative influence even stretched poor "Devil," a film he didn't even direct himself. The trailer began and things looked promising: five people caught in an elevator, there's a demon in there, all good, all good. Then, just when the audience is starting to get hooked, this pops up in big letters on the screen: FROM EXECUTIVE PRODUCER M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN. Everyone just started laughing. The crowd couldn't have been more turned off if the executive producer had been Osama Bin Laden. 'Devil' actually ended up being a decent little movie, too. Shymalan, it may be time to change your name to Chuck Meriweather and start over.
5. Kiss Of The Dragon. By all rights this should be at least #2, but I'm forced to dock it since it didn't actually happen when I was present. My pals Dave and Trevor went to see Kiss Of The Dragon and came back talking not so much about the film, but about one phenomenal reaction from an audience member. During one particularly impressive kill from Jet Li, some guy yelled out, "That's a broken neck, brutha!" Needless to say, Dave & Trev forgot everything else about the movie and began to recite this line at the drop of a hat for the next, oh, year. In the interest of research, I really should've grilled them about how the rest of the audience reacted, how busy the theatre was, etc. This incident may have already led to a fantasy baseball team called the Broken Neck Brothers.
4. Blade II. My buddy Dave again takes centre stage for this entry, as he caused it himself. During one of the climactic fight scenes, Blade is battling the enemy vampire and, inexplicably, begins using pro wrestling moves to subdue his opponent. Where a daywalking vampire suddenly got the idea to imitate Randy Savage I'll never know, but at one point Blade hits the enemy with a full suplex, then dives across the room with a Macho Man-esque elbow smash. Dave literally stood up from his chair, pumped his fist, and screamed "OHHHHHH!" as if the actual Macho Man had just dropped the big elbow during a Wrestlemania main event. Our group immediately stopped laughing at the ridiculousness of the movie and began laughing at Dave's overblown reaction. I know, I know, this is kind of cheating the concept of the list since it was just us (not the whole audience) reacting, but man, was it ever funny.
3. Rear Window. SPOILERS. I had planned on just being an English major when I began attending university, but switched to a combined English/Film Studies since my first-year film course was just so much fun. Part of it may well have been inspired by the consistently fired-up reactions from the students during screenings. Sure, a good 30 percent of the students were taking the course on a lark, but the other 70 percent really wanted to be there. Given that I'd tried and failed numerous times to introduce my friends to more artistic fare during our movie nights ("Hey guys, I know you want to watch Terminator, but have you ever heard of a little movie called….Fellini's Roma?!"), it was a pleasure to be in an audience that not only appreciated the classics*, but also got as into them as if they were brand new. To wit, Rear Window, during the climactic scene when Raymond Burr suddenly realizes he's being watched, and turns up his head to look directly at Jimmy Stewart's telescope and --- since we're in his point of view --- at the audience. Given that Hitchcock had ramped the tension up to intense heights over the course of the movie, Burr finally noticing he's being watched was a total release of that feeling, and the audience reacted with a noise that was part scream, part gasp and part gulping panic. I'd imagine it was akin to how hot dogs feel when Burr turned his hungry eyes on them.
* = one exception, and it was another Hitchcock film. Segments of the students were laughing and hooting so much during some of the cheesier scenes of 'Vertigo' that, after the screening, our very laid-back professor got angry for maybe the first time in his life and chewed everyone out for "not respecting the film." Talk about a release of tension.
2. Inglourious Basterds. Minor SPOILERS here, though it's only a spoiler in context of the movie itself. You might know what this is already if you saw this film in theatres since I suspect it inspired the same reaction everywhere. But…Shoshanna is sitting with Landa and wondering if he recognizes her, then Landa orders a glass of milk from the waiter. Fuck. A 500-person theatre gasped as one when Landa made his order. Just absolute ridiculous tension in this scene from start to finish.
1. The Big Lebowski. Yet another one from first-year film class. Of all the hilarious or memorable scenes in this classic movie, what was it that got the biggest reaction? It was Steve Buscemi. That's it, just Steve Buscemi. The moment Donnie makes his first appearance, the film students started applauding. I kid you not, actual applause, like he was a heralded theatre actor coming on stage for the first time. I think this was truly the moment when I realized that in the midst of my fellow film geeks, I (unlike Donnie) was in my element.