Big, loud, and with other people,” says Justin Wiese. “That’s the way movies should be seen.” The scruffy-haired 36-year-old, who works in a print and graphics agency by day, will drive an hour or more to see an old film on the big screen. Maybe he’s seen it before, and maybe it’s streaming on a platform he subscribes to. No matter. It isn’t just the motion picture he’s after, it’s the experience.
“I don’t know that I would have reacted as strongly to kung fu movies if I hadn’t been surrounded by 50 people as excited about it as I was,” says Wiese. “And comedies? Ever try streaming one at home by yourself? Miserable!”
Having said that, Wiese owns thousands of movies for home viewing with his goth-chic wife, Heather, who shares his passion for “physical media.” A room of their Spring Grove Village bungalow brims with vinyl records, cassette tapes, books, zines, and a celluloid trove on DVD, VHS, Betamax, LaserDisc, and Blu-ray. Wiese is such a weird-flick aficionado that in 2019 he was tapped by Torn Light Records, the niche shop known for its eclectic music offerings, to create a movie section in the Clifton emporium. “We envisioned a corner of our store to look like the video stores we visited as kids,” says Torn Light co-owner Alex York. “Justin was the only choice to put it together.”
Moonlighting as a film curator allows Wiese to expose fellow movie nerds and a new generation of college students to esoteric gems such as Liquid Sky (a 1982 new wave sci-fi tale) and El Topo (a 1970 “acid Western”). He organized the new and used films for sale into categories like drama, arthouse, cult, exploitation, horror, sci-fi, music, and documentaries. “What’s missing from both the experience of streaming films and the fare at cineplexes is context and curation,” says Wiese. “It helps to know, for instance, that The Harder They Come was the first feature film made in Jamaica and that it went on to popularize reggae in the U.S.”
Shortly after Wiese’s movie section debuted at Torn Light, the nearby Esquire Theatre approached him about a programming partnership in which he’d select cult feature films to screen once a month. The timing was auspicious, says Wiese, because new technology is taking “crusty old films and making them look like they did decades ago when they came out,” and there’s a bumper crop right now of obscure and foreign films from distributors like Criterion and Kino Lorber. It’s a boon for pandemic-weary audiences who miss that communal joy, fear, laughter, shock, and cringe of being enveloped in dark theater and transported to a strange new world—all while feasting on the Esquire’s famously delicious popcorn.
“Torn Light Records Presents…” debuted three years ago with Repo Man, the 1984 low-budget sci-fi black comedy that’s now a punk classic. The pandemic put the series on hold, but it regained its footing this year and now screens the final Wednesday of each month. The August feature is The Visitor, a late ’70s film starring Shelly Winters, Glenn Ford, and John Huston that “takes all the best elements of The Birds, The Omen, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Exorcist,” says Wiese. “The first time I saw it in a theater, the crowd lost their minds.”
Torn Light is now helping the Esquire realize long-held ambitions of enhancing movie screenings with ancillary events, such as music performances, themed discussions, and appearances by actors and directors. To wit: Torn Light will launch its first film festival at the Esquire September 29–30 and October 1, which Wiese is calling the Ohio Psychotronic Film Festival.
York says his shop’s focus on non-mainstream films will continue to grow, thanks to Wiese and the Esquire connection. “With the Marvel-ification and Disney-ification of movies and theaters, it’s crucial to combat it at any chance possible,” he says. “I want Justin to go wild.”
The Esquire Theatre screens The Visitor at 7:30 p.m. August 31.