When the national Showcase Cinema chain dropped the two-screen Allston Cinema, it looked as if yet another neighborhood theater had gone the way of most neighborhood theaters in the era of the stadium-seating multiplex: into the precinct of memory, roll credits, The End. It wasn’t a particularly surprising development given the economics of the film industry. What is surprising is that the theater is still in operation — without the benefit of first-run Hollywood films, and indeed without the benefit of American cinema at all. It’s now operated by Aap Ka Manoranjan, a small production company that fields a weekly Asian television program, the occasional concert, and screens first-run Bollywood hits at the Allston Cinema — now dubbed the Allston Bombay 2, though the old Allston Cinema sign remains on the building — on Fridays through Mondays. And now Coolidge Corner Theatre program director Clinton McClung has joined the party, taking over one of the screens by cobbling together a schedule of Asian kung fu, action, and exploitation films, all lumped together under the title of the Allston Cinema Underground.
McClung and Coolidge manager Andrew Thompson had talked about forming a nonprofit organization to take over the Allston’s lease themselves — " We were big fans of going to that theater and watching terrible movies, " says McClung — but when the Bombay took over the lease, the two camps stayed in touch. And last month, when an Indian-film-industry strike halted Bollywood production — leaving the Allston Bombay without programming — the Bombay turned to McClung. " They said, ‘Look, we need to make some money, what ideas do you have?’ They liked the programming we had in mind and thought it was a good addition to what they were already doing. And they felt they didn’t need both screens, so rather than bringing in a few films here and there, we decided to start a micro-cinema. "
At the Coolidge, McClung’s focus has been on the theater’s oddball midnight-movie series, which has presented everything from musical documentaries to the films of Brazilian horror master José Mojica Marins ( " Coffin Joe " ). " I’d always wanted to expand those screenings past midnights, because I think they’re the kind of films that can be enjoyed at any time — and I can’t do that at the Coolidge, because the theater’s always full. So I was looking for an outlet to, well, I guess you’d say to express myself. "
When I mention that the Allston Underground offerings look really bizarre, McClung responds as if he’s been paid the ultimate compliment: " Hey, thanks! " On Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 and 9:30, the Allston Underground’s " Extreme Asian Action " series presents Japanese thrillers. After this week’s gory Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991), they’re all local premieres, including hot Japanese director Takashi Miike’s bloody, stylized gangster epic Fudoh: The New Generation (1996; screens June 13 and 14) and Ichi the Killer (2001; screens June 20 and 21); and the zombie-gangster film Versus (2001; screens June 27 and 28). On Wednesday nights at 8, the " Hong Kong Horror and Exploitation " series draws from a well of supernatural sex, blood, and mayhem. (Last week’s series debut, Sex and Zen, included a horse-to-human penis transplant and acid-tripping, bondage-loving lesbian feminists; this week’s offering, Mr. Vampire Part 3, stars Sammo Hung in a tale of ninja bloodsuckers, ghosts, and demons.) And on Saturday afternoons, " Black Belt Theater " presents old-school kung fu matinees culled from the collection of Garo Nigoghossian, a Hong Kong film buyer who also doubles as the Bombay’s projectionist. (This week it’s 1979’s Dragon, the Hero, with John Liu and a Bruce Lee imitator dubbed Dragon Lee.)
As he’s done with the Coolidge midnight screenings, McLung is looking to program the series around a month-long theme. Among the offerings in July will be a spate of music documentaries, including a couple that’ve been here — Jem Cohen’s Fugazi film, Instrument (1998), and Tom Waits’s Big Time (1988) — plus Daniel Bitton’s 2001 portrait of Wesley Willis, The Daddy of Rock and Roll, and the acclaimed hip-hop films Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme (2000), and Joey Garfield’s Breath Control: History of the Human Beat Box (2002).
The Allston Cinema Underground is located at the old Allston Cinema, 214 Harvard Avenue in Allston, near the corner of Comm Ave. Tickets are $8. Visit www.allstoncinema.com for times and features.