Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream

Midnight MoviesSynopsis: Between 1970 and 1977, six low budget films shown at midnight transformed the way we make and watch movies. The allegorical freak-out El Topo, the graphic horror of Night Of The Living Dead, outrageous filth test Pink Flamingos, outlaw reggae’s The Harder They Come, the phenomenal Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the darkly disturbing Eraserhead. In this acclaimed documentary, discover the surprising stories behind the movies that defied mainstream America to change the world of cinema forever, featuring startling clips, rare archival footage and revealing interviews with the films’ directors, exhibitors and supporters, including John Waters, David Lynch, Roger Ebert, George Romero, Richard O’Brien, Alejandro Jodorowsky and many more.

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Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream 7.5

eyelights: the interviews with the midnight movie directors. the archival footage.
eyesores: the ambiguous sense of history.

“Midnight movies were the opening wedge in the birth of irony” – Roger Ebert

‘Midnight Movies’ is a 2005 documentary that talks about the birth of so-called midnight movies, of that short moment in time when there was a market for genre films at late night showings in cinemas across North America. It discusses six key films of that era: “El topo’, ‘Night of the Living Dead‘, ‘Pink Flamingos’, ‘The Harder They Come’, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and ‘Eraserhead’. It also touches on a few others along the way, but in brief.

With the help of the original filmmakers, producers and exhibitors, the film attempts to trace the path that midnight movies took during that short 10-15 year span. It doesn’t define what a midnight movie is, exactly, or what makes it stand out from the average exploitation film that had been around since the mid-’60s, but John Waters suggests that they tended to offer something that Hollywood films didn’t have; they were shocking or out of the ordinary.

It was likely just a question of timing: midnight movies were counter-culture at a time when there was a lot of opposition to the status quo. So all these people who rejected societal edicts were drawn to these movies, even those that would have been deemed objectionable only years prior. Of course, it likely helped that many (if not all) of the patrons were stoned while watching these movies; it was a trip, if not a rite of passage of sorts.

The first midnight hit was ‘El topo’, in 1970. Word of mouth made its success, playing at midnight at The Elgin Cinema in New York. Ben Barenholtz, its owner, had a knack for recognizing this sort of film and would play a big part in the life of the movement. At the Elgin, everyone smoked pot in the cinema itself. It became a ritual experience. Understandably, ran it seven nights a week for six months. SIX months!!! Imagine!

Then John Lennon and Yoko Ono, massive fans, bought the rights and tried to play it in a regular cinema. It lasted two days, killing the film’s run. Barenholtz was clearly gutted by this, and says in this doc that he didn’t understand why they didn’t let him continue playing it, or at least return it to him afterwards. And thus began the search for the next ‘El topo’; ‘Freaks’ and ‘Reefer Madness’ were contenders, but didn’t make the same mark.

The next one was ‘Night of the Living Dead’.

Although it was originally released in 1968, it took a while to make a connection. It got terrible reviews; Roger Ebert, in particular, denounced it then. It was principally a drive-in movie at first. It disappeared, but a cult following built up. It finally took hold in 1971 as a midnight movie. What’s amusing is that director George Romero claims he was trying for scares, but also a political message. I seem to remember another DVD where he denied any such intentions. Ah, the passage of time…

Then came John Waters’ ‘Pink Flamingos’. Although it wasn’t his first film, it was his breakthrough. He signed with New Line Pictures, then a nascent company. It then took a year to come out because they didn’t know what to make of it. Waters was able to get Ben Barenholtz to give them one showing, one night only. It was a busy screening (partly because Waters purposely brought all of his friends), and that landed him another night. And then another. It becamse a hit.

Roger Corman‘s New World Picture tried to release ‘The Harder They Come’, but didn’t advertise it right and failed. It died. Another distributor released it as a midnight movie, and it was a hit; it played at the Orson Welles Cinema for six YEARS!!! Its reggae soundtrack was a large part of its success and it could be heard playing just about everywhere at the time. In fact, it is said to have opened the doors for Bob Marley and the Wailers.

‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ started as a stage production. It was so popular that it kept moving to bigger and bigger theatres. When they brought it from the UK to L.A., it blew the roof off. It eventually made its way to Broadway, where it failed. However, it landed a movie with 20th Century Fox. It didn’t do well at first either – not until it was screened as a midnight movie. Then it took on a life of its own (fans interacted with it, dressed up, …etc.).

The rest, as they say, is history.

David Lynch’s directorial debut, ‘Eraserhead’, was rejected by Cannes and the New York Film Festival. Then it got a midnight showing at Filmex. Barenholtz got behind him and decided to play it at the Elgin. His strategy: putting it up at midnight. It was a slow grind, but if not for his efforts it would never have made it – he let it run even when the cinema was empty. John Waters was instrumental in helping it along, by pushing it in interviews. It became a cult classic.

According to the participants, most notably (the ever engaging) John Waters, midnight movies died for two reasons: 1) Hollywood picked up on their subculture, and appropriated itself the humour and clichés, turning in huge box office numbers in the process. 2) The VHS player/recorder came out, and anyone who wanted to see a late-night movies could just stay at home and watch a tape – you didn’t have to go out at midnight anymore.

But the midnight movie’s influence remains – not just in Hollywood, where many genre movies have now become mainstream, repurposed and processed for mass appreciation, but in the memories of many of the people who were lucky enough to be a part of that era, who experienced it. It can also be found in local independent cinemas, where old fans now program late-night movies, bringing these genre movies for new generations to discover and savour.

Midnight movies are not just a fond memory. They’re actually alive and well – somewhere, in the dark of night.

Date of viewing: April 16, 2014

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