It's Friday night, and I've driven from Raleigh to the Horace Williams House in Chapel Hill to watch a 40-year-old sex comedy projected onto a bed sheet from a bootleg DVD on the rain-slicked lawn. "Are you in for a treat or what?" shouts Preservation Society of Chapel Hill Executive Director Ernest Dollar, who's introducing the movie. "Or what!" shouts someone from the audience, perhaps half-kidding.
About 50 people are out for tonight's screening of 1968's Three in the Attic. Only about five raise their hands when Dollar asks if anyone's seen the film. Still, it's understandable why they're here; though it's fallen into obscurity, Attic was mostly filmed on the UNC campus in 1967, with the house named for former UNC president Edward Kidder Graham serving as a key location.
Today, the house has fallen on hard times. "The termites in the walls are holding hands to keep it from falling down around them," Dollar jokes. The screening is to help raise awareness of the house's condition, though even Dollar didn't know Attic was filmed there until screenwriter Nat Mauldin (Doctor Doolittle, Open Season), a fan of the film, contacted him about buying it. ("It'd cost him twice as much to fix it as he was willing to pay for it," Dollar says.)
Judging by what unfolds on screen—um, sheet—it's easy to see why the film might inspire someone to want to own the house. Attic is a weird little time capsule of a movie, a relic of the transitional period between the heavily scripted "youth market" studio films of the early 1960s and the more naturalistic works of the 1970s.
Attic stars Wild in the Streets' Christopher Jones as the wonderfully named Paxton Quigley, a lothario frat boy who "knows where it's at" at a school that's supposed to be in Vermont but is obviously UNC. He finds himself seriously involved with a nice girl, played by 1960s sex symbol Yvette Mimieux, whom he picks up with the line, "You have nice hair—it fits the mood of your butt."
Unnerved by the idea of commitment, Quigley cheats on her with both 1960s black sex symbol Judy Pace and relative unknown Maggie Thrett, whose character asks, "Do you think it possible for a woman to be both Jewish and psychedelic at the same time?" When the women find he's been three-timing them, they lock him in an attic and feed him steak while plotting to fornicate him to death.
Despite the strained premise, shoddy directing and use of every bad 1960s editing technique known to man, Attic has a certain charm from its wonderfully overwrought dialogue, including such gems as "A progressive woman's college is not a priori a whorehouse" and "My dear, the sea of love is full of squid!"
Times have changed since Attic was filmed; the extra ingredient in the "magic" brownies available for guests are walnuts, and the only smoke I smell in the wet night air is tobacco. And not everyone who remembers the film remembers it well; Chapel Hill's Tim Galliher, who recalls when the film crew came to UNC, also remembers his reaction to it in the 1960s was "not much" and his reaction today is "about the same."
Attic isn't the best-known film made at UNC—in fact, it's not even the best-known film made at UNC with Mimieux (that would be 1965's Joy in the Morning, which got a bigger release but seems to have far fewer fans). But it maintains a cult following and remains a unique moment in UNC history. "Durham has Bull Durham. What do we have—Patch Adams?" Dollar says. "No! We got Three in the Attic!" Indeed.
For more information on preservatio n efforts in Chapel Hill, visit www.chapelhillpreservation.com. To locate a copy of Three in the Attic, try eBay.