Christopher McQuarrie: Nightmare on Elm Street Shows Movie Theaters Can’t Be Replaced

Christopher McQuarrie recalled the life-choking experience of seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street in theaters in 1984 to illustrate why cinema cannot be replaced by content.

Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street
Photo: New Line Cinema / WB

Edgar Wright has assembled a treasure trove. That’s the best way to describe what it feels like to be a cinephile reading the March 2021 issue of Empire magazine. In an approach more persuasive than any weighty think piece on box office numbers, or an introspective Op-Ed from a film critic, the Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver filmmaker made the case for cinema by compiling a list of anecdotes and stories, big and small, from fans and legendary filmmakers alike. Because when the lights go out in a darkened theater, we’re all the same audience for a brief, fleeting moment.

Thus in Wright’s special edition feature, the likes of James Cameron can offer revelries about being terrified by Wait Until Dark, and Steven Spielberg can still marvel at how David Lean’s arid mise en scène in Lawrence of Arabia caused a whole audience to become dehydrated—sending them fleeing for the concession stands after one particularly brutal sequence in the desert.

But the most persuasive story may belong to Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar winning screenwriter of The Usual Suspects and writer-director of the two most recent (and best) Mission: Impossible movies. For rather than a simple reminisce, McQuarrie offered a splendid example about the difference between seeing a film with an audience versus watching it at home.

As revealed in McQuarrie’s own words, one of the filmmakers’ earliest lessons in moviemaking came when he worked as a security guard during his high school years for a New Jersey movie theater. In that rough and tumble cinema, whose atmosphere he compares to the opening credits of The Sopranos, McQuarrie said he would watch “the audience while they watched the movie – a nightly focus group that I later realized was my film school. And as you might imagine, I saw some amazing crowd reactions there.” None, however, matched when he himself attended as an audience member a double feature preview of two upcoming films: The Breakfast Club and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

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Two of the landmark teen movies of the mid-1980s, Breakfast and Nightmare were wildly different experiences, offering uniquely singular types of catharsis. But it was McQuarrie’s description of the thrall that director Wes Craven cast over kids with A Nightmare on Elm Street in its theatrical release which perhaps best underscores the magic of cinema.

“The girl next to me (on whom I had a mad, unrequited crush) spent the whole movie with her arms around my neck and her legs in my lap without her ass ever leaving her seat,” McQuarrie wrote. “A grown man stood up midway and screamed, ‘I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE,’ before running out, only to storm back to his seat a few minutes later, announcing to no-one, “I HAVE TO KNOW HOW IT ENDS.” He articulated exactly what I was feeling. I was petrified. But I felt strongly that if I left, I’d never sleep again.”

Leaving the theater feeling traumatized but thrilled, it took years for McQuarrie to gin up the courage to watch the movie again on the newfangled technology of VHS.

Said the filmmaker, “It was mid-afternoon. There was no audience, no unrequited crush half-choking me. The movie had almost no effect whatsoever. There is simply no substitute for seeing a movie in the dark with a few hundred strangers (and an unrequited mad-crush for a neck-warmer if you can manage it). It’s not just part of the experience, it can often be the very heart of the experience itself.”

McQuarrie’s story is one in a sea of great recollections that Wright’s assembled. Also in the pages, you can find Simon Pegg recalling the “orgasmic” euphoria of seeing Darth Vader turn toward good to save his son—made all the better by a rush in the audience realizing the sudden redemption was coming—during Return of the Jedi; or Jordan Peele recalling how he has never experienced a more grueling tension in a horror movie than that of his 11am audience for Paranormal Activity, who were simultaneously conditioned about when to tense up. Greta Gerwig even has a sweet, very Lady Bird-esque memory about growing up around the Sacramento theater showing Titanic.

So we’d recommend getting your hands on a copy of the magazine if you can find it, and have a nice reminder about why cinema must one day safely return. Or as Daniel Craig described it, “Sometimes art needs a little ritual around it to awaken the magic.”