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Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream
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by brianorndorf

"The classics of the midnight hour"
4 stars

Not long ago, there was once a potent theatrical release invention that brought uncommon cinematic sights to a select few of those in the know. It was called the Midnight Movie, and it took the most unreleasable of films and made them stars; creating celebrities out of the directors and cashing in on movies that wouldn’t last a matinee in the mainstream theatrical exhibition market.

A filmed companion to director Stuart Samuels’s book, “Midnight Movies” isolates six of the most legendary underground features in history, keen to express a broad overview of why exactly this phenomenon started and how it enjoyed a ten-year run of unparalleled strangeness and whoda-thunk-it profit. Using clips of the pictures, along with interviews with the filmmakers and critics that gave them notoriety, “Midnight Movies” is a plucky documentary recalling an extraordinary era when claustrophobic marketing wasn’t always the safe bet in selling a movie. Sometimes all a film needed was a pinch of shock value, and the word-of-mouth shot off like a rocket from there.

Credited as the genesis of the midnight movie circuit, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” detonated in the fall of 1970 at the Elgin Theater in New York. A whiplash piece of spaghetti western ritualistic surrealism, “El Topo,” at first unable to locate suitable distribution, reluctantly debuted at the throwaway midnight hour and never looked back. Playing seven days a week for six months, the film became the “it” movie of the year, attracting hyperbolic reviews and articles, arousing the curiosity of audiences who wanted their minds blown watching Jodorowsky’s career-defining assemblage of madness. “El Topo” offered the counterculture shelter from the masses, giving early mornings a new purpose to entertain with selections too challenging and bracing for average tastes.

And marijuana. My god, the marijuana. An embarrassment of it. As entertaining and blissfully daredevil as watching some of these movies could be, the consensus of “Midnight Movies” is that to best appreciate the rabbit-hole aesthetic of the evening, the viewer must be stoned out of their gourd.

With the release of “Night of the Living Dead,” the response was a collective shriek. George Romero’s landmark horror experience pushed the envelope in terms of suspense and gore, leaving a general release nearly impossible outside of the grindhouse and drive-in circuit. It ultimately became a midnight sensation, though a financially tarnished one, when careless managing opened the film up to a public domain free-for-all; great for the movie, but not for the filmmakers.

John Waters’s “Pink Flamingos” is perhaps the brightest, most jubilant film Samuels investigates. With the charismatic Waters as our guide, he walks the viewer through the creation of his filth epic, marveling over the success it gave him and releasing amateurs New Line Cinema, who didn’t have a clue how to sell the picture to the public, relying heavily on the feces-encrusted shock value of the piece to prod the curious into the cinema. For Waters, this was his “Citizen Kane,” riding the wave of nausea “Flamingos” created into a career that has deliciously continued to this day. Essentially, he was Lady Midnight’s first born.

A discussion of “The Harder They Come” (an odd, if entirely appropriate title) looks at the idea of cultural doors being swung open by these special screenings, permitting the viewer a look at Jamaica from an entirely fresh perspective, from music to the street life. David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” is embraced as the dourest of the midnight breakouts, taking years to build an audience due to its oppressive mise en scene, acting as the last film to truly benefit from its weekend-only screening schedule.

Of course, Samuels wouldn’t leave behind the “Star Wars” of the midnight movie era, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Perhaps the greatest of all the stories, “Rocky Horror” was the film that took midnight movies to an entirely new level, turning what was a studio-funded theatrical bomb upon release in 1975 into an audience-participation sensation. “Rocky Horror” ushered in a whole new atmosphere inside the theater, turning screenings into free-for-all celebrations, where the audience intermingled with the movie through the timing of quips and on-stage recreations. It’s estimated by the producer Lou Adler that “Rocky” has grossed over 175 million through the midnight movie circuit alone; still time warpin’ in areas of the country to this very day.

Throughout the entire documentary, the influence of film critics is repeatedly demonstrated. While critics are now unfortunate pariahs in the internet age, “Midnight Movies” presents the 70’s subculture as one lorded over by the film writers, who were the top nerds exposing the latest sensations week after week, becoming a road map to the best and brightest of underground cinema. See! We’re not all so bad.

Back in the 1970s, cinematic ambiance was set by single-screen domination, creating an event out of going to the movies, especially the midnight selections; a festival of taboo and mind-altering offerings only for the most courageous of viewers. Today, the midnight marketplace is a roach motel of retro ick, bating generation X with the Hughesian movies of their youth, or trying to sucker gorehounds out of their allowances with “premieres” of the worst grade-Z dreck imaginable (the Landmark Theater chain’s dismal programming is a great example). “Midnight Movies” can only wistfully remind us how it used to be before home video and multiplexes, where a film could exist for years without mom and dad hearing about it. For any movie nut who craves their exhibition history, this is a must see documentary.

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originally posted: 11/09/07 18:43:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2006 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

User Comments

10/27/06 Isaac Baranoff Good look at some important cult films. But not enough depth. 4 stars
9/28/05 E. Northam A wonderful kinetic stroll down memory lane of the best of midnight movies 5 stars
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