Gunky's Basement comes to The Charles

In May, the Maryland Film Festival invited experimental musician Dan Deacon to screen a movie of his choice at the Charles Theatre.

It was a regular feature for them: Musician Jonathan Richman once screened "Cyrano de Bergerac," and cartoonist Harvey Pekar showed "The Bicycle Thief" some years before.

But instead of picking the Oscar bait typical of most film festivals, Deacon went down market. He opted for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. He could have chosen "Kindergarten Cop," or even "Conan the Barbarian," but he settled on Paul Verhoeven's "Total Recall."

If you don't recall, that's the movie set on a Mars-type planet where Ah-nuld tries to save humanity from an evil corporation, and Sharon Stone, halfway through, tries to kill him. Near the end, a man opens his trench coat to reveal a parasitical talking baby latched on to his stomach. So much for good taste.

But the screening was a success, in large part because "Total Recall" has become a cult classic for a generation of Americans who grew up on '80s blockbusters that have no redeemable qualities other than being a blast — guilty pleasures with star quality.

On Thursday, Deacon and video artist Jimmy Joe Roche will return to the Charles with John Carpenter's "The Thing," the first in a series of pulpy movie screenings they're calling Gunky's Basement.

"It's a labor of love," said Roche, 20. "Most people only get to experience these movies in their living room."

Roche and Deacon have known each other since they were students at State University of New York, Purchase, and later became members of the experimental arts and music collective Wham City. They came up with the idea for the series over beers after the success of the "Total Recall" screening. Though Baltimore has a film noir series at the Charles, and the Windup Space has a schlocky B-movie series, the movies in Gunky's Basement are generally newer and have bigger budgets. Their list includes Ridley Scott's "Alien," "Repo Man" with Emilio Estevez and "Bad Boys 2," starring Will Smith.

Roche, whose rat-tail haircut makes him look like a lanky Paul Bunyan, said people his age first saw these movies on late-night cable or VHS tapes. If they saw them in theaters, they were too young to remember the experience.

"Now you can download movies. You have simultaneous television and theater premieres," he said. "Most of these movies are pre-Internet, pre- YouTube, from a time when the life of the movie was in the theater. They were conceptualized to be seen on a big screen."

When asked what their main selection criteria was, Roche tripped over his answer before settling on one word: "awesomeness."

The movies aren't likely to show up on any list by the American Film Institute. They're strictlycheesy, bad for you — the kind you'd watch after midnight when your parents were asleep. In other words, unadulterated fun.

And except for "Bad Boys 2" and "Alien" — which were released and re-released in 2003, respectively — none has been in theaters for years. "Repo Man" was first released in 1984.

To get help organizing the series, Deacon and Roche joined up with the Maryland Film Festival.

Screening movies that aren't in circulation is a challenging undertaking, said Eric Hatch, programming director at the festival.

First, organizers have to figure out who holds the rights to the movie to get a print. Sometimes it's as easy as calling up a studio's distribution department. But with a movie like David Cronenberg's "Scanners," they haven't been able to track down the owner after a month of looking.

Then there's cost, which the festival is footing. Renting the print averages $400, and the Charles' biggest room is $1,250 for two hours, though manager Kathleen Cusack said the festival got it for "deep, deep discount."

"Doing something like this is a break-even proposition at best," Hatch said. "That's why it doesn't happen often. Audiences and studios have settled for home video."

But in doing that, Hatch and Roche said, audiences have forgotten the experience of, say, watching a critter explode out of John Hurt's abdomen in "Alien" in a room with 400 other people.

On Jan. 13, maybe they'll get it back when Deacon and Roche screen the 1982 sci-fi classic.

"At 'Total Recall,' I thought, 'Whoa, I'm in a room with a bunch of people who all saw this on video,' " Roche said. "The giddiness came from that feeling of community."

ermaza@baltsun.com

Gunky's Basement screenings

•"The Thing," 9 p.m. Thursday

•"Repo Man," Dec. 9

•"Alien," Jan.13

•"Bad Boys 2," TBA

•"Excalibur," TBA

•"Scanners," TBA

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