Stand by Me, Oxford Castle Unlocked, Thursday 30th July 2015
If there is one film that benefits from being watched under the stars, it’s Stand By Me. What better way to be immersed in the journey of four adolescent boys hiking through American backwoods in search of a body? Alright, that last is creepy, but I certainly felt a kinship with the characters as they sat huddled around a campfire discussing things you’d only ever admit to contemplating as a child (like what animal is Goofy?).
Cult Screens have done a fantastic job of setting up at an outdoor venue that retains a sense of intimacy. The courtyard in which we were seated was sufficiently insulated by the surrounding castle buildings to shield from street-noise, yet the comfortable bean bags allowed a semi-reclined position with clear views of the screen and the moon behind it. Wool blankets are available for warmth, but I enjoyed the sense of homeliness in curling up under my own. Wireless headsets allow clear access to the soundtrack, and a well-stocked, if somewhat steeply-priced, cash-only bar provides hot and cold snacks as well as drinks. Nevertheless, the prices are comparable with any other cinema and there are plenty of eateries nearby for a meal beforehand. Note that food or drink purchased off-site may not be brought in so leave these at home.
Everything is arranged to provide a comfortable atmosphere with a sense of occasion you won’t get at an indoor venue. However, in spite of all that, there is one issue that left me very uncertain about returning. I was reminded of a phrase from Firefly: ‘There’s a special place in hell for child molesters and people who talk at the theatre…’ At any other venue pulling out your phone and spending the majority of a film holding it up whilst texting and taking pictures may well result in you being thrown out. Sadly, on this occasion, the organisers were more concerned about cinema-goers sneaking in their own food. This combined with people frequently getting up and obscuring the screen - eight times in thirty minutes at one stage - meant that it was difficult even to see the screen at times and certainly marred enjoyment of the film for those not seated in the front row. Given the cost of tickets and refreshments could easily set a couple back £50, I would seriously consider a different venue in order to guarantee simply being able to watch the film in question.
That said, the films being shown here are impressive, with a selection of recent hits as well as classics, of which Stand By Me is certainly one. A moving, at times gritty coming-of-age film, this movie is essentially a character study that captures effectively what it is like to be 12 years old and dealing with the stark reality of adult problems whilst on the cusp of maturity. Each child is confronted with his own unique circumstances that lead to a loss of innocence far greater than that caused by the grave spectacle of a dead peer. The combination of precocious acting, subtle but considered direction, and an understated but brilliant script leave you heavily invested in even the most pathetic of the four main characters.
Admittedly, there is a greater sense of pathos now, thirty years after its release, knowing what happened to each of those child actors – the premature death of River Phoenix being particularly tragic. However, you don’t need to be aware of its history to appreciate this film, any more than you need to be gifted with the relevant anatomy to appreciate the horror of a young boy discovering leeches in his underwear. And it’s impossible not to share a grim satisfaction as a weedy Will Wheaton faces off Kiefer Sutherland’s disturbingly well-crafted bully at the film’s climax.
There is a simple truth in the main character’s final declaration: ‘you never have friends like the friends you have when you’re twelve’. If you can’t remember that feeling, go watch this film – preferably under the stars; just make sure you’re in the front row.