If you’re fed–up with the blockbuster selection of Rave Cinemas and bored of the indie rosters of the Ritz theater, you might want to head to Exhumed Films to catch a screening of a cult horror classic.
Jesse Nelson is one of the founders of Exhumed Films, based out of the Lightbox Film Center of International House Philadelphia on 37th and Chestnut. Since 1997, Exhumed Films has hosted movie screenings and special events like the 24–Hour Horror–thon. Jesse said the group tends to screen “oddball films.”
“Sometimes they’re horror films, sometimes they’re exploitation films, every once in a while we throw in some comedy,” Jesse said. “Things you don’t see all the time.”
For Jesse, along with fellow founders Joseph Gervasi, Harry Guerro, and Dan Fraga, Exhumed Films is a “side project”—something they do for fun, but also something they’re committed to running. All four have day jobs—Jesse and Joseph are co–owners of an online Blu–ray movie store, Harry is a union pipefitter, and Dan is a high school English teacher—but they’ve remained dedicated to running Exhumed Films for over twenty years. Three of the four went to high school together, but never met, only becoming friends years later when they were working at a video rental store together in Audubon, New Jersey. One day, the chance came up to rent out a local independent movie theater, the Harwan, near the video store where they worked. They rounded up their friends, rented some movies, and screened them.
“We thought it would be a one time thing—that we would go, and have a good time,” Jesse said. “But it turned out to be a pretty big hit, and here we are twenty years later still doing that.”
Exhumed Films had to relocate several times before settling down at Lightbox, the theater attached to International House Philadelphia, where it's been for twelve years. After a couple of years at the Harwan, they moved to the Hoyts theater in Pennsauken, NJ, but that didn’t last long either. Jesse explained that the Hoyts opened at the same time as the Loews Cherry Hill, just down the road, and the larger chain cinema quickly put the Hoyts out of business. The Harwan, their first screening location, has since been sold and replaced by a Walgreens.
“No movie theater chain wanted to deal with us.” Jesse said. “We had to find an independent theater, so the International House was probably our best choice.”
IHP turned out to be ideal. Not only were they happy to host Exhumed Films, but their theater is equipped to show both 35mm films and 16mm films—a crucial capability for the group, which almost always show their movies on film, having only screened video “a handful of times” in twenty years.
Jesse said he expected more college students to come to screenings after Exhumed Films moved to IHP, but he hasn’t really seen that happen. He said the audience is largely in their thirties and forties, who grew up with VHS, in “the video store era,” and whose nostalgia pulls them back to the kinds of movies Exhumed Films screens. For college students nowadays, that pull doesn’t really exist.
“It’s a tough sell sometimes, to talk people into coming out and spending fifteen dollars on a movie that they could watch on YouTube for free,” Jesse said. According to Jesse, what differentiates a public theater screening from a dorm room YouTube one is the rich social aspect of the former.
“We have a community,” Jesse said. “We have this great group of people that come out all the time, and they’re enthusiastic about the movies, and they just want to hang out with like people. It’s a social event—not just seeing the movies, but also seeing your friends.”
Exhumed Films enjoys a loyal core audience: some patrons have been attending their screenings for years, since the group’s very first showing back in 1997. Jesse points to the fact that horror and exploitation films tend to attract a “rabid fan base.”
Despite his enthusiasm for cult films, Jesse has no prejudice against the mainstream. “I’ll watch anything. I watched all of Stranger Things,” Jesse said. “I love exploitation movies, I love horror movies, but I’ll watch anything that I feel looks good to me.”