They’re easy to spot. Among Haight Street’s Saturday night barflies, they’re the only ones circling the Red Vic’s entrance a good 90 minutes before the movie theater unlocks its doors.
My contact is Sydney Swartz, a petite 20-something in a fedora and fingerless black gloves. She’s adopting me into her gang, a special class of B-movie lovers known as The Room superfans. I’d asked the Red Vic about the film’s biggest groupies, and Sydney’s gang was at the top of the list. Sydney designed her friends’ tuxedo shirts in homage to a scene from this cult flick, and she’s standing across from another costumed buddy, Frances Mesa, who’s wearing a Room -style red dress, complete with fake rose petals stuck to her neck and shoulders. The prop bags piled at their feet bulge with noisemakers, party poppers, a Nerf football, and every style of plastic spoon on the market.
Since my preparation for the screening extends only to the Pacifica bottles rattling in my purse, I’m counting on a stranger’s generosity to get me through the night. I am still something of a Room innocent, having seen it only once. This affable group, with its insistence on always being first in line for the film – and its encyclopedic knowledge of crap films – is about to teach me the tricks of turning a terrible movie into a platform for stand-up.
It doesn’t take long for the average passerby to notice our gang and ask why we’re queuing up so nerd-ily early. “I never know what to say when I get asked that question,” Sydney admits with a grin. “Am I supposed to tell people I’m here to see the worst movie ever made?”
If you’ve never seen The Room , I don’t blame you. The clunky love triangle, set in San Francisco, isn’t campy-bad by choice. Everything a director could possibly screw up is a disaster here: wooden dialogue; haphazard focus; characters arriving and disappearing inexplicably; the leading man’s sun-parched chicken-skin ass. This same actor, Tommy Wiseau – The Room ’s writer, director, and star, it should be noted – later dry humps a red cocktail dress. And yet, every month since its first screening here last March, The Room sells out at the Red Vic.
I tried to avoid Tommy’s drama, but the expanse of its fandom is intrepid. Eventually the film came for me, like Death Bed, the bed that eats people.
First, a friend who interviewed Tommy spread the story that he takes his 2003 debut very seriously. Then my sister talked up the 2008 article in Entertainment Weekly discussing The Room ’s sudden cult status. My cousin at SF State informed me I wasn’t a real local if I didn’t watch the film at least once. And Tommy’s doom-y, melting wax figure visage stalks me monthly from the Red Vic in the form of a bobblehead and movie poster.
I finally offered myself up to The Room earlier this summer. The Red Vic’s regular host for the movie, Sam Sharkey, introduced the screening by apologizing for showing the movie. Then the lights dimmed, and within the first 10 minutes of the film I was watching Tommy pumping his on-screen girlfriend Lisa. From there, The Room was a blur of SkineMax coitus between Tommy (as Johnny), Lisa, and her lover Mark; robotic confessions and denials of passion; oddly-timed neighbor visits; and random football tossing.
Generally, I’m no fan of wasting 90 minutes on schlock, but this was comically bad. I could see the car-wreck attraction. Just when I thought Tommy couldn’t possibly screw up something else, he absolutely did. More than the movie itself, though, I understood The Room fever was based on crowd participation. (And, I should add, getting drunk.) As the audience shouted punch lines – yelling “focus!” or exaggerating lip-smacking sounds during kissing scenes – and synchronized real-time football tosses with the film’s scenes, I was soon doing that giggling-crying thing that comes from laughing so hard for so long.
I could pin most of my joy tears on one action – the ridiculous spoon storms. These explosive utensil tosses seemingly came out of nowhere. Luckily, for my encore screening, Sydney and company are there to school me on the rules of “spooniquette.”
We’re about to enter the Red Vic for my second round of The Room , but first Sydney’s friends show me their plastics collection. They’re experts at “spooning,” or scavenging utensils left after Room screenings. After hitting the Red Vic 12 times in the past year, they have plenty of projectiles to choose from.
Joey Camozzi pulls out a coveted glitter spoon – the gang has nicknamed this variety “twilight.” Another prized scooper is baby blue; this one dates back to an early Room screening. Then someone holds up a real trophy – a box of silver-coated plastic spoons that look metal. The fact that I am strangely excited by this illusion makes me feel like a team player.
No matter how pretty, these utensils will become airborne on cue. The code, I learn, is a framed spoon photo that occasionally appears in the background. When you see it, throw your spoons. No forks. Or knives. Or sporks! Close attention to detail is key. “We can tell when someone just buys the variety utensil pack,” Joey tells me.
Once the doors open, our geek squad overtakes two pew rows. We need to allow for easy exits. When Tommy aims his wave too low during a party scene, the advanced members of our crew crouch under him and wave back, a hilarious gesture that mocks subtle filmmaking errors along with the obvious ones.
Sydney and her boyfriend Matt Elser guide me into the third row, avoiding the middle of the theater. The Red Vic asks fans to aim their spoons backwards, away from the screen –sit behind the regulars and you’re looking at a light braining. Frances pulls a white Indiana Jones hat from her bag, just to be safe.
A gregarious ringleader, Sydney tells me I can grab spoons from the bag she’s placed to my right. Her friend Jeff Bristow hands me noisemakers for the party and – spoiler alert, sorry – the suicide scene. I am officially embedded with the superfans. I feel like I’ve arrived. Then I feel like I am far too sober to watch this terrible movie again, and I crack open a beer.
The second time around, the movie is much like I remember it. That is to say, it is still the worst movie ever made. But sitting next to Sydney, I’m privy to the clever punch lines I didn’t hear the first time. When Lisa seduces Mark on the stairwell, Sydney makes a crack about the dented banister behind them, which I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Throughout the night, she sets up her jokes a half-second early. I have to wait a beat to see what she’s mocking, which makes me laugh harder when the visual cue arrives. I shout vicariously through her – in silence. In my mind, I’m still in dress rehearsal here.
I do, however, often reach into the spoon bag, gleefully tossing handfuls of plastic – careful not to hit Frances. I also participate in the fourth sex-scene stretch, when Room groupies knowingly rise together to take bathroom breaks and gather projectiles from the floor.
I’m in on a new inside joke here. But I have to admit, I’m also not getting the teary ha-ha’s this round. The Room feels like a drug: the first time it blew my mind, and now I’m slightly disappointed in knowing what to expect. I open a second beer hoping to elevate my sensitivity to comedy.
Luckily, the comedic money shots need little lubrication. During The Room ’s climax, for example, Tommy is so heartbroken over Lisa’s infidelity he rubs her dress all over his crotch because…that’s what you do when you’re sad. The audience starts chanting, “Fuck that dress!” and I lose it laughing all over again. The Room still has me, thanks to this crowd.
After the movie ends, and Sam apologizes again for screening it, I stay to help with the superfan spooning. We pull back the pew cushions – utensil goldmines – for recyclable treasures. When I grab from the floor, I’m careful to leave behind any broken or beer-soaked plastic.
I then say my good-byes to Sydney and crew, who’ll have a fresh round of inductees next month. As Joey tells me, these guys view The Room like the video in the Japanese horror flick The Ring : “We have to show our friends this movie or we’ll die,” he jokes.
My loved ones may end up brainwashed as well someday. I’ve come to realize The Room is a San Francisco rite of passage, as integral to this city as the 2 a.m. burrito and the flaccid Bay to Breakers penis. Now that I can recite the lines, “You are lying! I never hit you! You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” by heart, I feel like a true, screwed-up local.
And I pray none of my exes ever tries to rub one out on my cocktail dress.
The Red Vic hosts midnight screenings of The Room the last weekend of every month. Get your tickets early – these screenings sell out. Grab your plastic spoons ahead of time at Haight Street Market and pick up a cheap red dress or tux at Goodwill. Finally, don’t forget to brown-bag it with a little of Sunshine Wine & Liquor’s finest. Bonus points if you follow Johnny and Lisa’s lead and drink “skotchka” (equal parts brown booze and vodka).