Watching a Gothic Horror Film in a 2,500-Seater Open-Air Auditorium

It’s not that I have not invested in experiences before. I hadn’t really given it much thought or importance, as I often used to do what I loved to do without worrying about materialism. It’s the reason why I recently spent a lot of energy and time to get an old wristwatch repaired even though I know most watches excel at their chief job. It’s why I printed my own set of Cards Against Humanity. It’s also why I frequently visit film festivals even though I’m just a cinema enthusiast. At these film festivals, people glare at me in disbelief when I tell them that I came all the way from Mumbai just to enjoy films.

But these days I have been forced to give it a thought. Maybe it comes with age. Maybe it comes with rising inflation. Maybe it comes with declining income. Maybe they’re all the same thing.

And a good example of a worthy experience is of watching Satan’s Slaves 2: Communion, a 2022 Indonesian gothic horror film directed by Joko Anwar. It was during the 2022 International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in Trivandrum last December. I had never heard of Joko Anwar but I knew about Nishagandhi Auditorium, one of the largest open-air auditoriums in Kerala’s capital city.

The problem with Indian film festivals is that the schedule is released only a few days before the start of the festival. This makes planning your days difficult, especially if you’re travelling from another city or state.

Nonetheless, when I saw that a 120-minute horror movie was premiering at midnight on the fourth day of the festival in a large open-air auditorium, I booked a seat without even reading its synopsis or knowing what Satan’s Slaves 1 was about. Watching a movie in an open theatre at midnight in Kerala, where most stores shut by eight and local people go horizontal an hour later was an extraordinary novelty. I wouldn’t miss that chance. The fact that it had only one show in the festival’s eight-day schedule made it even more special. You see, some films have two or more shows in a festival so that viewers can avoid overlaps and have more options to watch them. Some films, often rare, only have a single show. As was the case here.

Trailer of Pengabdi Setan 2: Communion (2022)

On 12 December 2022, first I spent two hours in a queue to watch the premiere of Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (2023) at Tagore Theatre. Then I think I either walked or took a festival shuttle to Sree theatre to catch G Aravindan’s 1978 classic Thampu. I still had about three hours for Satan’s Salves 2. I don’t exactly remember what I did during those spare hours but I must have gotten some food. Then at around 10.30 PM, I walked to Nishagandhi from Thampanoor bus station, an easy three-kilometre tramp.

The novelty of seeing a huge crowd in Kerala at 11 PM shuffling, chitchatting, eating, sipping, and waiting hit me harder than I had thought it would. In my native Muvattupuzha, at 11 PM even a spat with a rickshaw driver would see only the driver and his shadow.

The projector screen at Nishagandhi for IFFK 2022

There are at least two narrow entrances to the expansive Nishagandhi auditorium. While it was originally a fully open playground, it now has a curved ceiling made of metal sheets. It’s almost like a Greek classical amphitheatre with elevated steps for the audience, with a capacity of 2,500 or more. I had already watched the opening film Tori and Lokita (2022), The Whale (2022), and Triangle of Sadness (2022) in the auditorium, so I found what I believed to be the best seat. See if you can spot me in the photo below. Mathrubhumi reported the turnout was a whopping 4,000, and you can see many sitting on the steps.

IFFK 2022 at Nishagandhi auditorium
Viewers preparing to watch Satan’s Slaves 2 at Nishagandhi auditorium / IFFK

And then at 12 AM, it began. Lights out, waves of people around me, and a few whistles as the production logos began to appear. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t bothered to watch its trailer or watch its prequel. The opening sequence of a man being escorted by the police in a cramped state vehicle to an eerie place is a moving image I still remember. The biggest upside of attending film festivals is that the audience is mostly considerate and not irritating family guys with annoying toddlers at their toes. I can still sense the darkness and stillness around me at Nishagandhi as I stared into the screen oscillating between the subject in the middle of the screen and the subtitles below. I think the subtitles were yellow or they were white and the ambience somehow made them look yellow.

Because this was a film festival, the entire film ran without a break. If I had cried at the end of Tori and Lokita and The Whale or felt like I should crash land on a Thailand beach after watching Triangle of Sadness, Satan’s Slaves 2 gave me goosebumps. And it was not a climax-exclusive quality. I remember being blown away by the visuals quite a few times and I think it had a lot to do with the setting. The film itself is not extraordinary but for horror enthusiasts, it’s a treat. A guy fainted during the screening and he had to be rushed to the emergency room.

It was then the best cinema experience I had ever had and it still is. This is one reason why I believe that cinema screens will never go out of business.

Watching silent film Nosferatu (1922) with live piano music by Jonny Best at IFFK was another such experience

More recently, something burned in me when a friend forwarded a tweet announcing that a few popular films by Christopher Nolan were to be screened in select PVR-Inox theatres across India in anticipation of his latest opus. My instant thought was about Inception, his 2010 mind-bending blockbuster that I had already watched three times. It didn’t take much for me to book a seat, travel all the way to the other side of the city on a Tuesday, and spend 3 hours in a closed theatre that gave me another experience worth cherishing.

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