Taking Cues From The Cue Dot: A Providence-based Effort to Preserve Film Projection History

By John Campopiano

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

The equipment is a connection to the past. A projectionist from the 1920s could come in here and run this. Nothing has changed.– Rick Shamel on the film projection booth, THE DYING OF THE LIGHT

As someone who grew up in film projection booths, Taylor Umphenour knew he wasn’t going to merely be a passive observer to what has been the slow, yet steady, conversion to digital projection. So in 2011 the Providence-based projectionist launched The Cue Dot, a multifaceted effort to capture the look, feel, sound, smell, and history of the film projection booth and all that dwells within them. The Cue Dot is a portal to another time when physical film ruled and the idea of living in a wireless world was still a thing of science fiction. NEMMC recently caught up with Umphenour to learn more about The Cue Dot project and to better understand how he’s taken his love of film and film projection to new, artistic heights.

NEMMC: Can you talk about the various phases you’ve established for The Cue Dot project and what influenced you to start all of this in the first place?

Taylor Umphenour: The Cue Dot started back in 2011. I’d been working professionally as a projectionist since I was seventeen: all through college, and after. I kind of grew up in the booth. I always had my own projects and side businesses going on, but working as a film projectionist was the one stable constant in my life over about nine years full of change and growth. I started seeing news stories about projection booths closing as they fell, one by one, to an industry-wide conversion from film to digital projection. I had a moment of recognition: the world of the booth, as with all things, wasn’t going to be around forever. So I put my other projects on hold and set myself to capture the energy and life of that special world before it changed forever.

Capturing the booth took four months of principal photography: with both film and video shooting, and sound recording. This was followed by many months of photo editing. The project is being released in phases mostly because it’s a personal project that cuts across multiple mediums.

The first phase was driven by gathering a group of likeminded people on social media: an audience for the project. I knew there must be other people out there like me who’d enjoy taking a trip into the world of the film projection booth, and I found them one-by-one on social media.

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

The next phase focused on creating physical pieces of art that tied into the main project. I wanted a way for people to bring the feeling of this magical cinematic world into their own lives. I released the first edition of photography from The Cue Dot and sold archival prints from the site to people all over the world. I can’t tell you how many people have written in expressing their gratitude for my making this project. It’s been inspiring to hear from so many along the way—and it’s what has kept the project going.

Beyond this, I wanted to take the physical film—the lifeblood of the projection booth—and find a way to repurpose it for a new generation. This became an entire apparel collection called Film Leader.

The next big phase of The Cue Dot will be to build a solid community from the audience of social media followers. This work will begin with the opening of FilmProjectionBooth.com as a new expanded home for the project. My focus there is on creating a place for anyone who loves the world of the booth to come and experience it whenever they so desire. While social media is full of lively conversation and interaction, it’s very easy for work to be easily buried in an avalanche of distraction. My hope with this third phase is to create a web-based experience that allows people to get as close as possible to the experience of what it was like to be a projectionist in the old carbon arc film projection booth.

If FilmProjectionBooth.com is a success, it may pave the way for some surprise phases I’ve already laid the groundwork for—but those will have to remain surprises for the moment since each phase depends on the completion of the prior one in order to move forward…

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Taylor Umphenour

NEMMC: Are there other ways of capturing the essence of the projection booth that The Cue Dot is not yet doing?

TU: Absolutely. There’s technology that’s around now that wasn’t around when I shot The Cue Dot. I still think someone could do an amazing VR project taking people back into the booth. And there are potentially thousands of untold stories. When I first started the project back in 2011-2012, this was a story that hardly anyone was telling. But after the widespread conversion of theaters from film to digital projection, the story has become part of the zeitgeist—with quite a few other projects and pieces out there that have been made about this particular transition point in cinema history. It’s great to see so many people trying to tell this story in different ways—whether in short videos, feature films, articles, and so on. One of my early insights when I started making this project was how sad it was for something so beautiful to slip quietly into the past when so few people had a chance to appreciate it and experience it. It was as if the film projection booth was a special exclusive world that very few people were even aware of—and then one day, it was gone.

NEMMC: What kinds of challenges have you faced and anticipate facing as the project evolves?

TU: Funding is always the biggest challenge for personal projects that cut across multiple mediums. But the core challenges of this project are the same as with any project: keeping it compelling, telling a good story, being specific and clear, and creating an emotional connection with the audience. I tend to find that most projects have the defects of their virtues: that is, the very things that make them challenging are also the things that make them compelling to begin with. With The Cue Dot, I’ve chosen to focus on a place, a feeling, an era, and a process. It’s a challenge because there isn’t a main character to piggyback on. I’ve chosen to try to create something that stands at the crossroads of many different mediums, symbols, and historical shifts: mechanical vs. digital, human vs. machine, film vs. video, past vs. future. And yet to do this without focusing on a singular main character who can take us all through it has been quite a challenge.

NEMMC: We’re living in an era of remakes, reissues, and pop culture resurgences. Do you feel film projection will ever see a mass rebound the way vinyl records and other formats and mediums have?

TU: I’m a romantic about the subject matter of The Cue Dot, but a pragmatist when it comes to the economic reality facing many theaters, especially single screen operations. I don’t think film projection will ever see a mass rebound, but the key word there is “mass.” The economic model of theatrical exhibition has remained essentially unchanged for decades, and it’s now being forced to evolve, confronting real challenges with deeply rooted issues that go way beyond film vs. digital projection.

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

That said, no technology ever invented by humans has ever gone away entirely. People are still making all sorts of things by hand that can be made with machines. And there are still a core group of theaters out there running films, some of them with reel-to-reel projectors. More important than a mass rebound, I think it’s important to keep the culture of it alive through storytelling, which I believe to be the foundation of community building. I do think there’s space in the market for a loosely affiliated network of film-based theaters, and that the novelty of such a thing will only grow, further adding to its appeal. My hope is that these theaters find a way to band together, pool resources, and create a strong film culture around what they’re doing. It’d be very gratifying if The Cue Dot can help inspire people who want to be part of keeping that culture alive.

NEMMC: Is the act of repurposing (or recycling) and possessing a willingness to adapt critical to keeping something–like the physical medium of film–alive? Have these approaches been part of your work with The Cue Dot?

TU: Repurposing and adapting is critical to keeping the medium alive, both in the big macro paradigm and at a smaller scale. The film medium and arguments about whether or not it’s “dead” are largely an issue of point of view, where in the chain you spend most of your time and focus, and how close you are to it. I’ve personally grown tired of these debates because they miss the point: from an aesthetic standpoint, film and digital are capable of being symbiotic… as symbiotic as painting and photography or television and radio. It’s also important not to confuse the medium for the economic model that has been built around the medium. This frequently gets lost in the debate about the way in which film technology needs to adapt for the future.

When it comes to The Cue Dot, I chose to shoot a lot of what I created for the project digitally. Ironically, it was done this way for the same reason the theater I was photographing was converting from film to digital: economics and flexibility. I knew that for the amount of material I wanted to shoot, I’d have to stop and spend six months raising money to buy the film stock I wanted. Only, we didn’t have six months to wait. A date had already been set for the theater’s conversion. If I’d waited until we had the funds to shoot on film, there would have been nothing left to photograph.

I’m interested to see how the economic model around theatrical film exhibition can be adapted, now that we’re almost 20 years into the 21st century.

NEMMC: Of course filmmaking has long been considered an art form, but the way you write about film projection may lead some to think you view the film projection process as another type of art form…

TU: Without getting deep in the weeds of semantics or touching off a huge comment thread about what constitutes an art form, I’d say: yes—I absolutely believe there’s the potential for film projection to become an art form. Whenever a technology or practice reaches the end of it’s “useful life” for its original purpose, you reach fertile territory for a new art form to emerge. When painting no longer had to shoulder the weight of capturing a likeness in vivid detail, it was able to evolve and grow in ways that created a new aesthetic vocabulary. When LPs were no longer the medium for listening to everyday music, DJs repurposed them and a new art form was born. Film projection—especially dual carbon arc reel-to-reel film projection—has that potential. As for the expressive potential of the medium outside the context of a cinematic theatrical presentation, who knows what the boundaries are. I’ve often thought it’d be fascinating to have a stage show where a team of a dozen projectionists used a dozen on-stage projectors to mix between different reels and create a kind of hybrid cinematic/dance piece.

As it originally existed, and as I captured it in The Cue Dot, I believe there was an art to being a good projectionist. A skill, but also a sensitivity. You were part of the performance. You were the last person whose hands were entrusted with those ribbons of celluloid. As time went on, the responsibility of that performance was gradually shifted from the human to the machine… until in the end, it was the machine’s responsibility entirely. At some point along the line, the sensitivity required of projectionist was shifted and the art was lost. At some point, it had more to do with the machine’s performance than with the projectionist’s. I’m not sure if that was when platters were added, or perhaps earlier with the end of carbon-arc… but at that point, a bit of the “art” of film projection died.

NEMMC: Has your geographical location of Providence, RI, played a role in the creation and evolution of The Cue Dot? If so, how?

TU: Providence is a great place to live for all sorts of reasons, but it’s most lasting contribution to The Cue Dot is that Providence is the home of the Avon Cinema. The theater opened in 1938 and has been run by the same family for three generations. Almost eighty years of continuous operation meant the projection booth at the Avon was unique. My friendship with the owners and their willingness to let me turn this project into such an elaborate endeavor played a determining role in The Cue Dot being as thorough and substantial as it was. I should also say that great credit is also to be given to the other projectionists, who happily allowed me to photograph and film them for months on end while they worked. The booth is a solitary place and that kind of invasion—with the lights and gear, and everything else—can be overwhelming. Those guys were troupers and their patience with the whole process is part of what makes this little time capsule so special.

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Avon Cinema in Providence, RI. Photo by Ken Zirkel

NEMMC: On your website it states, “The Cue Dot is far from over.” What does the future hold for The Cue Dot?

TU: The future is all about expanding the audience for this story and telling it in increasingly complex ways without losing the soul of what makes it so special. FilmProjectionBooth.com will be undergoing an expansion as the next phase of this project starts to click in to gear. I continue to receive messages from people with deep roots in this world, and that only reminds me that there are lots of people out there still waiting to hear this story and experience the world of the film projection booth and everything I was able to capture there.

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

Interested in more stories about film and film projection? NEMMC has you covered! Check out these links below:

All For One (Continued) by Eric P. Gulliver

Inside the Booth by Stephanie Pixley

Providence Has a Film Society: The Arkham Film Society by John Campopiano and Josh Thomas Gravel

Crate Diggers Part 1: A Man & His Projector by John Campopiano and Andrew Bobola

 

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Providence Has a Film Society: The Arkham Film Society

by John Campopiano

There aren’t many film buffs left in the New England area who are as passionate about print film and getting eyeballs in front of movies as Josh Thomas Gravel and the Arkham Film Society – a Providence, RI, based film group dedicated to, at their core, showing movies. As a film lover myself as well as a native of Rhode Island, I knew sitting down with Josh and picking his brain for an NEMMC post was a must. Thankfully, Josh found some time amidst his busy schedule of programming and penning film reviews to answer some questions for NEMMC.

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New England Media & Memory Coalition: What is the Arkham Film Society and when did it start?
Arkham Film Society: The Arkham Film Society is basically me – independently booking and hosting screenings of cult, horror, exploitation, or otherwise just strange movies with the help of a couple friends. The events are held around Rhode Island and occasionally Massachusetts and we try to present these movies on actual film whenever possible. We have gotten to the point where we are hosting (almost) monthly screenings as well as occasionally collaborating with film festivals. At the moment most of our events in Providence are being held at The Black Box Theater. They were attendees of our events prior to us working together and they have been extremely  helpful and generous with their space.
Our current screenings are a mix of 16mm and digital (when a particular title either isn’t available or would be overly cost prohibitive to screen via film). We have not had the pleasure of sharing any of our 35mm prints with an audience in quite some time due to many cinemas going digital and the higher premium placed on those who haven’t, but we are currently in talks with a couple of potential venues to bring back our 35mm screenings.

As to the A.F.S.’s origin story it is fairly simple: I worked on the Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival as a programmer for a number of years with my friends, Ric and Scott, and when it became obvious that our abilities were being limited within the festival organization we sought a way to continue programming outside of the festival.

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MANIAC poster from the Alamo Drafthouse/William Lustig poster series

The first Arkham event proper was in February of 2007 and it was a double feature of MANIAC (1980) and THE REDSIN TOWER (2006). Over the years both Ric and Scott have scaled back their involvement but are both still involved and still help out.

 

NEMMC: What kinds of films does the AFS have in its collection? With respect to collecting does the AFS focus on any particular format or genre? AFS: The film print collection is a small but varied grouping of films on both 16mm and 35mm. We have classics, comedies, documentaries, dramas, and of course horror…lots of horror. As for focus I am not focusing solely on a single format as that would limit our screening potential, but when purchasing new films for the collection I do tend to stick with the popular sub-genres within the cult film world such as horror, exploitation, and action, but in the case of someone donating film to the collection we take whatever is offered. We are always open to accepting any donations of film that come our way and are working to properly catalog everything and store it the best we can.

NEMMC: Does the AFS specialize in showing certain film genres?
AFS: I like to say that we present “cult films of all genres”, because every genre has their unsung gems and cult oddities. Admittedly when looking at our schedule we are definitely horror heavy – especially European horror heavy – but in the past we have branched into classics such as, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) and YOJIMBO (1961), more mainstream cult fare like JURASSIC PARK (1993), and even once co-presented a couple of classic musicals on film with an organization from Brown University screening THE RED SHOES (1948) and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). Overall I am open to showing anything that I enjoy and that people should see in a theatrical setting. However, since my main interests lie in horror we tend to show a lot of horror.

NEMMC: Why physical film in the first place? Where did that interest originate?
AFS: I can’t fully explain why film but it probably has to do with the fact that I grew up going to the movies practically every weekend and then gravitated to programming and then actual film projection. I guess it’s partially a nostalgia thing as I grew up watching movies projected on film, and in all honesty digital can not exactly replicate that viewing experience. It isn’t even a matter of having a flawless film print because sometimes when you watch a scratched and possibly faded 30 year old film print there is a certain sense of history there that isn’t replicated with a Blu-ray or digital film. It’s probably an interest I have always had which has just come to the forefront since I’ve been working with films.
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Arkham Film Society storage
NEMMC: Does the AFS have a larger mission aside from exposing people to the films themselves?
AFS: At the moment no. It would be fantastic to someday have a larger organization and potentially a venue that we could use for both programming and educational purposes such as screenings for schools and lectures about film history. But currently the A.F.S is essentially just an expensive hobby.

NEMMC: To date what sorts of New England-based collaborations has the AFS been involved with?
AFS: We have worked with a number of film festivals such as SENE, The Providence French Film Festival, and of course we program the Rock and Shock Film Festival held at the Rock and Shock convention in Worcester, MA, every October. We have also collaborated with other organizations such as All Things Horror for a Boston Strong charity screening of RE-ANIMATOR (1985), the Coolidge Corner’s @fter Midnite series with a screening of BRAIN DAMAGE (1988), and we have helped source films for the NecronomiCon convention in Providence.

NEMMC: Can you tell us about some of the more memorable acquisitions the AFS has received over the years?
AFS: I’ve had a few fun adventures in film hunting. A couple memorable moments include a time Scott and I drove out to Poughkeepsie and rummaged through the garage of a guy who had some films. We ended up leaving with six feature films that day including the cult slasher film MADMAN (1982).

A more recent experience was when my friend and fellow projectionist, Taylor, spent some time assessing the projection booth in an old theater in East Greenwich ,RI, which is now a performing arts space. There was some hope of getting the projection equipment up and running again since most of it was still in the booth. Unfortunately there were issues with the power running to the equipment which would have put the cost of the project way over the interest level of the organization involved (which I don’t blame them for as it started as a small project and quickly ballooned into a major renovation).

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35mm print of BIGFOOT…MAN OR BEAST

The fun part of that day, though, was going through the booth and storage area finding old film reels and shorts such as the short documentary BIGFOOT…MAN OR BEAST (1972).

NEMMC: How extensive is the film collecting community? 

AFS: It is actually pretty big but also a bit private; while there are many high profile film collectors such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino there is also a huge number of film collectors who are projectionists and theater owners with a passion for the medium.  But it certainly is a welcoming and truly international community once you start to communicate with and learn from other collectors.

 

NEMMC: Are there any inherent risks with collecting film? What are some of the logistical challenges (financial or otherwise) in collecting film?
AFS: As for what we are doing there aren’t any real risks. If we had any pre-1952 prints on nitrate stock that would be a fire hazard and I’ve heard of people having legal troubles if they have a large studio title, but we have neither so we should be good.
There are numerous logistical problems when collecting film and first and foremost is space. Film prints take up a sizable amount of space and when you get into the double digits of prints you have to start dedicating space to storing them properly. Films need to be stored in a low heat and low humidity environment or the film itself can fade and degrade, so it’s best to have a storage space with heavy duty shelving, temperature control, and a dehumidifier running – which all adds up.
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Josh Thomas Gravel
NEMMC: What does the future hold for the AFS?
AFS: As of now we will continue our regular screenings in Providence, RI, and we hope to both get back to presenting films on 35mm again and do more events in the Boston area. If anyone has a theatrical venue that would be interested in having us host an event or wants more info on what we do feel free to contact me through our website Arkhamfilmsociety.com.

Gator Bait: A Love Story

The alligator wants food to chew
Feed him just right or he’ll feed on…YOU
Better be lucky, with the spinner
That tells you to eat him
Or take out his dinner
Give him a TV only he knows
Just when his jaws are ready to close
Take out a jug, put in a case
He’s losing his patience
Just look at that face
Feed him a can
If that’s what you choose
Throw in a block and…YOU LOSE
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Original artwork from the ALLIGATOR  one sheet poster, 1980

By John Campopiano

All of us have a memory of a moment that we’re not entirely sure actually occurred. A blurry instance that we think happened but that we can’t corroborate with someone else or find evidence of no matter how sophisticated the keyword search in Google.

With this in mind, is it likely one might have a childhood memory of sitting inches from  a television set and watching a giant, man-eating alligator burst from the depths of a sewer onto a public thoroughfare? Doubtful. But maybe?

That’s the scene childhood friend, Zac, describes of his first viewing of the 1980 cult classic, ALLIGATOR, directed by Lewis Teague, starring Robert Forster and Robin Riker, and written by the man who also brought us PIRANHA (1978) and THE HOWLING (1981), John Sayles. Originally from Massachusetts and now residing in Chicago, Zac and I shared in a screening of this film at a young age – perhaps too young to be watching the likes of an animatronic monster devouring unsuspecting pedestrians left and right – in his North Attleboro basement.

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Spanish version of ALLIGATOR poster

 

Zac recalls viewing this oddity, “My first memories of seeing the movie are burned into my brain. I was far too young to watch it, maybe six or seven (ca. 1991-92?), and I was downstairs watching it on TV in the basement by myself. The image that is forever etched into my mind is the scene where the alligator bursts out of the street where there is a manhole cover and comes above ground. It was terrifying…”

Clearly the film made an impression on Zac, as it did on me the first time I saw it (Zac’s 2nd go around with it.) Twenty years later that experience with Zac is somehow both vivid and largely unclear in my mind, much like a memory of an experience you can’t quite decipher or confirm. Zac again: “I had that memory of the movie [the alligator bursting from underground] and it had an impact on me for years, but it wasn’t until the two of us connected over it later that I realized it was a real movie in the world. I think I always half-thought that I had imagined it and made it up. Lo and behold, on a second viewing as a teen or adolescent, the same scene came up and it was all confirmed as a real thing in the world.”

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Campopiano visits the North Attleboro, MA house where he first saw ALLIGATOR (1980), February 2016

Indeed, these bizarre memories of reptilian horror were, in fact, real, and in the two decades since, Zac and I have sporadically cobbled together other memories of the film through various email and Facebook message exchanges. It has been – as these things often are – very enjoyable to wax nostalgic for a pleasant time (albeit foggy) in my adolescence. Of course, if you’re someone who happens to suffer from both nostalgia and an urge to collect, the buck does not, as they say, stop there.

In the years since first seeing the film several things happened: I exposed many friends and family (much to their indifference or outright displeasure) to ALLIGATOR. In 2014 I met the film’s director, Lewis Teague, at a convention in New Jersey and had him sign my original Egyptian ALLIGATOR poster [see photo below]. But it was even earlier, in elementary school that I learned of a rare movie tie-in game produced by the IDEAL company, appropriately called ALLIGATOR – The Game. And in the years since its limited release it has become somewhat of a coveted piece by many horror fanatics and board game collectors alike.

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ALLIGATOR – The Game by IDEAL (1980)

Truth be told, since those elementary school days I’ve kept an eye out for any relics from ALLIGATOR (copies of the film on any format, original one sheet posters, etc.) but it was the IDEAL game that continued to elude me no matter how savvy my search. This all changed when I discovered a seller from North Kingston, RI, selling the alligator piece from the game. No other parts of the game were included, but I didn’t care. The cool part of the game was always the 27″ long alligator itself – in all of its forest green, plastic glory.

The complete game with original box commands a high dollar (upwards of $100 or more) — so to find even the lone alligator in decent condition and under 100 miles from my home in Boston should be deemed a lucky, if not an improbable, find.

But could I really sink my teeth into it and seal the deal?

After some good-natured back and forth regarding price I was able to round third base and slide directly into the jaws of this delicious piece of 1980s nostalgia. After years of wondering when or if I would ever find it, it was mine.

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On a warm, Sunny Sunday in February I made the trek south to North Kingston, RI to collect my treasure. Almost immediately after breaking through the East Greenwich/North Kingston town line I felt as though I had stumbled into the most rural part of the state. Not much separated the modest cottages from an antique store (with a fabulous bathtub propped up proudly on the front porch) and some railroad tracks. The owner of my beautiful beast lived in (what felt like) an abandoned farmhouse. Kids toys and rusty farm equipment littered the property. I rang the bell.

A woman cracked the door open and peered out at me. Children could be easily heard running around and yelling in the background. “Hi, I’m here for the alligator toy…” I said.

She quickly called to one of her children to fetch the gator. “Here you go,” she said. I gave her the $15 I had haggled her husband down to and went about my way.

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Campopiano immediately after claiming his prized alligator, February 2016

Victory was mine and I couldn’t have been happier. Years of hunting were over. Not dissimilar to how I have felt over the years collecting other memorabilia, I now felt closer to a film I’ve appreciated for years. It’s a true sign of a collector when it’s not enough just to admire something from a distance – we must connect with it in a tangible, realtime way. Somehow it satiates our hunger for the past while justifying the effort exerted on the quest itself to find whatever it is we’re hunting for.

It’s funny how things like films (and certainly music) have a way of not only binding themselves to us but also binding us to others in our lives. My pal Zac and I never see one another, and yet we carry this bizarre little connection with us through life. I can’t pass his old street in North Attleboro or even see a status update of his on Facebook without thinking of ALLIGATOR. What’s more, I can’t see the VHS cover in my collection or catch the film on late-night TV without thinking of Zac. It’s strange, yet also strangely comforting.

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Campopiano and ALLIGATOR (1980) director, Lewis Teague, in New Jersey, March 2014

Interested in other horror movie-themed board games? Check out this great article by John Squires on Dread Central!