Cinematic Shrines of My Youth
When I was growing up, film scores and movies were my religion, and the local cineplexes and video rental stores were my holy sites. Every weekend, I made pilgrimages to these communal spaces to soak in new movies and cement social bonds with my friends and family. After a recent trip to my hometown of Bellingham, Washington, I realized my childhood’s sacred places had closed, enveloped by merging media conglomerates, or made irrelevant by streaming digital content.
(Halloween, 1995. That’s me dressed up as Darkman, the titular character from the first major studio film directed by Sam Raimi.)
Unbeknownst to me and my high school friends the mid-1990s, we lived in the twilight of the analog era. In just a few short years the popularization of the internet would redefine nearly every aspect of our daily lives. But at that time, one of the most important places in my youth was Crazy Mike’s Video at the Sunset Square shopping center. Every weekend, my family rented armfuls of movies, laying the groundwork for the forty-eight hours ahead. Every employee there knew me and I knew them. I often called them relentlessly on summer days, asking when a new release would finally be on the shelf. I pleaded with them to give me their discarded displays and posters, many of which still adorn the walls of my old room to this day (including a movie I didn’t even like, Highlander: The Final Dimension, the closest thing I could find to a Highlander poster at the time).
In my youth, the analog era, discussion of movies moved at a glacial pace, only via word of mouth. There was no Rotten Tomatoes score to dictate a film’s worth in a matter of seconds. Wandering the aisles of Crazy Mike’s, my friends and I had only a film’s poster, title, and our instincts, to make our choices. The risk of finding a bad movie was part of the allure; sometimes “bad” movies produced the most memorable evenings. Inspired by intriguing VHX box art, I discovered my favorite cult films, including Cannon Film’s Rambo knockoff Mission in Action 2: The Beginning, Jim Wynorski’s Deathstalker II, Len Cella’s Moron Movies and Boaz Davidson’s American Cyborg: Steel Warrior. I had listened to Danny Elfman’s score to Richard Elfman’s influential cult classic Forbidden Zone thousands of times before I finally stumbled upon a VHS copy of the film. Hidden gems such as The Evil Dead, Dead Alive or Cannibal: The Musical! made Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Trey Parker and Matt Stone household names in my youth years before their breakout mainstream hits like Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, and South Park respectively.
(Fall, 1997. During my first weeks in college in Los Angeles, I was starstruck while attending a screening of Forbidden Zone hosted by Richard Elfman.)
After I went to college, the Crazy Mike’s location at Sunset Square was usurped by Hollywood Video, pushing Crazy Mike’s to a smaller venue across town. I resented Hollywood Video’s takeover of the location, made worse by the franchise’s garish design, with tacky movie industry iconography plastered everywhere like cheap wall paper.
In a few years, Hollywood Video also shuttered, the victim of digital streaming like nearly every other rental store. The location where I spent every Friday night growing up is occupied today by a glossy Xfinity store.
Crazy Mike’s Video survived in the smaller location an admirably long time. Only this year did it finally succumb to the streaming age. Today, the Crazy Mike’s sign sits like a tombstone above a forlorn empty room and “FOR LEASE” sign.
The Sunset Square Mall also housed one of the city’s two multiplexes, Sunset Square Cinema. I saw an unfathomable number of films there over the years, in an admittedly pretty terrible theater. There was practically no sound insulation at all, so every film had a constant low-end rumble permeating the soundtrack, explosions and sound effects leaking in from neighboring screens. There were so many broken chairs that my family and I eventually memorized the seats in each theater to avoid. But, I loved it nonetheless.
(1999. Rocking my Braveheart t-shirt at the local Highland Games.)
I saw The Shadow three nights in a row at this theater. Only on the third viewing did I realize I actually didn’t care for the movie and that I was simply returning to experience Jerry Goldsmith’s gothic score. When Braveheart returned to theaters in February of 1996, I saw it here for what would be my seventh theatrical viewing, and bawled my eyes out at the end with my entire family. The last film I recall seeing at Sunset Square was South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, where I nearly died of laughter-induced convulsions during the “Uncle Fucker” number.
The Sunset Square cinema has since been gutted and turned into a Goodwill. Though the entrance is sealed off, its marquee is still in place, a sad reminder of what used to be.
(Fall, 2000. Hanging at the mall before a movie.)
Bellingham’s other cineplex during my youth was at the Bellis Fair Mall. Built in 1988, the mall was an edifice to 1980s architecture, with bright pink and teal geometric shapes casting neon light across glass bricks. Growing up as disaffected nineties teenagers during the grunge rebellion against consumerism, my friends and I always knew the mall was simultaneously the lamest and somehow coolest place in the world. We made fun of kids who hung out at the mall, even as we did it ourselves.
(1999. My friends and I pose before the mammoth projection television that resided in my childhood living room for nearly two decades. Unlike modern inches-thick flat-screens, this beast extended back almost four feet!)
I saw practically everything at the Bellis Fair multiplex, and frequently snuck into R-rated movies after buying tickets for a PG-13 one. This theater was where I first began to think critically about movies. As I stepped into the mall’s food court after films like Alien 3, Batman Forever, or Independence Day, my critical brain began processing why they were so disappointing. The last cinematic experience I recall there was The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings. Having gone in with practically zero expectations, I recall my friend Steve Johnson turning to me as the credits rolled and proclaimed “that is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen!” and I had to agree.
The Bellis Fair mall was overhauled a few years ago. The gaudy 1980s aesthetic was purged in favor of a rustic lodge look, and the multiplex was replaced by a Chipotle. Judging by Bellis Fair’s now relatively empty halls and available storefronts, the cool kids probably don’t hang out there anymore.
Before the mall, there was another movie theater across the street called (if I recall correctly) Viking Theaters, named after the local WWU mascots, the Vikings. Perhaps the most influential film viewing of my life occurred there, when at six years old I watched Back to the Future. I was so smitten with the soundtrack that I insisted my mom take me back the next day, so I could hold up my Fisher Price tape deck and record the music. (I owe Alan Silvestri an apology for pirating his music, but I eventually bought the soundtrack once I discovered that soundtracks existed!)
The Viking Theater could not survive the impact of the Bellis Fair multiplex, so it vanished decades ago. I’m fairly certain this Sheri’s Pies restaurant is where it used to reside.
(An old image of the drive-in, via Cinema Treasures.)
Across town, an exciting theater experience could always be found at Samish Twin Drive-In. My fondest memory of this drive-in was of my mom taking my brother and me to a double feature of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Gremlins 2: The New Batch, two films that would go on to have a profound impact on my creative life. I later drew upon my memories of this drive-in when I scored Joe Lynch’s raunchy, nostalgic horror-comedy Zom-B-Movie.
Only after I moved to Los Angeles did I realize how rare drive-in theaters had become – most of my college friends from around the country had never seen one. The Samish Twin Drive-In was demolished in 2004. Today the lot is a parking lot, and likely far more profitable than it ever was as a drive-in. When I showed my four-year-old daughter Sonatine Peewee’s Big Adventure, I had to explain to her what the drive-in was at the film’s ending.
(The old Sehome Cinema, in another great shot via Cinema Treasures.)
The best screens and sound systems in Bellingham were housed at the Sehome Cinema. My fondest memories there are seeing Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Mask of Zorro, and the afternoon that would practically change my life, seeing Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
Perhaps no location better represents a metaphor for the state of independent theaters than the Sehome Cinema today – shuttered, overgrown with weeds, and ignored by passing motorists as it languishes in decay. The parking lot has been reclaimed by nature like a shrine from a Miyazaki film.
In the years since I left town, and all these theaters and rental stores closed, independent locations have sprung up to keep the cinematic spirit alive. The Pickford Film Center shows mostly arthouse films (I’ve even presented screenings there of films I’ve scored, including Unrest and Rebel in the Rye). Film is Truth, the independent video store still exists. The classic Mount Baker Theater, where I first experienced Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, hasn’t screened a mainstream film in years.
Today, all major theatrical films in Bellingham have now been consolidated into the Regal Cinemas Barkley Village, a behemoth Imax multiplex located in what used to be swamp land when I was a kid. Its garish rainbow neon colors and asymmetrical architecture seem to suggest the original 1980s Bellis Fair mall design was too subtle. This is the only theater in Bellingham where audiences can find the big-budget Hollywood cinematic experience.
Films that screen here are becoming less significant to popular culture as they once were. An increasing amount of our societal shared cinematic experiences occurs on streaming platforms. The era of the two-hour theatrical film as the definitive narrative cultural touchstone has essentially ended. Communities are now digital, and global. Kids no longer pillage through the video store clutching potential cinematic treasures. Now our browsing experiences are filtered through nuanced algorithms. As a result, we are less likely today to stumble joyously across films that might challenge our tastes or introduce us to new filmmakers.
Driving past these abandoned movie shrines of my youth reminded me of my early cinematic experiences. I embrace the advantages of the digital world, but I am grateful my formative years were in an analog one.