Those of you who are in your Thirties or Forties may well remember, after a busy Friday or Saturday night, going to the midnight Movie. For those of you who are too young too remember, midnight movies were a weekend ritual which originated in the early Seventies and persisted in some form or another until the late Eighties. Currently there only a few threatres across the country (most located in urban areas) which still show midnight movies.
While midnight movies are generally considered to have originated in the Seventies, in some respects they were nothing new. The spook shows of the Twenties and Thirties could well be considered their predecessors. spook shows were a peculiar form of entertainment usually consisting of one or two horror movies, a magic show (often containing Grand Guignol special effects, hypnosis routines, and spiritualistic routines, and often costumed monsters and ghosts). Often they were hosted by characters one would later find on late night horror movie television shows (in the spook shows they were often called "ghostmasters"). Spook shows were themesevles descended from the Spiritualist Movement. With the popularity of the Spiritualist Movement in the late 19th Century many magicians would incorporate seance routines into their acts. Most of these magicians made it clear that they were not contacting the dead and that their seances were for entertainment purposes only. Regardless, they often called their midnight shows "spook nights." With the introduction of motion pictures, these spook nights became spook shows. Spook shows continued in popularity until the Sixties and Seventies, when television and other home entertainment media took their toll.
Discounting the spook shows (which did not occur on a regular schedule), the first true midnight movie is generally considered El Topo. An underground film made in 1970 by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, El Topo is a bizarre and violent blend of spagetti Western, Eastern philosophy, Christian symbolism, ultraviolence, and surrealistic imagery. The film opened in 1968 in Mexico to immdediate controversy. It would not be released in the United States until December 18, 1970 and might not have been seen at all had it not been because of Ben Barenholtz, owner of New York City's Elgin Theatre. Barenholtz caught the film at a prviate screening at the Museum of Modern Art. Barenholtz was struck by the film and succeeded in persuading the film's distributor(music producer Alan Douglas) to allow him to show the film midnights at the Elgin. It was Barenholtz's thoughts that the midnight showings would attract the hip crowd to whom the movie would mostly likely appeal. He turned out to be right. El Topo made its debut at the Elgin on December 18, 1970, running until June 1971. With virtually no advertising, it became a smash hit at the theatre.
With the success of midnight movies at the Elgin, other theatres would eventually follow suit. In fact, for much of the Seventies, at least in large metropolitan areas, it would be hard to find a theatre which did not have midnight movies on its bill. Among the theatres best known for their midnight movies were the Elgin in New York City (where it all started), the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, and the Orson Welles Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
While midnight movies proved popular, however, there seems to have been no consistency in what would make for a successful midnight movie. El Topo was an art film, albeit a strange and violent one. A few art films would be successful on the midnight movie circuit. Indeed, director David Lynch's first movie would turn out to be one of the most successful midnight movies of all time. Eraserhead is a surreal film in which dream sequences intermix with a decidely strange reality. What it is ulitmately about is anyone's guess (my best friend has the theory that it is about the horror of being a young parent in modern industrialised society, but he could be wrong....). It would run at the Elgin for years.
Of course, only a few midnight movies would actually qualify as art films. Sometimes they could best be described as "trash." This might well be the best description for Pink Flamingos, the first successful film from director Roger Waters. Pink Flamingos has been described by Waters himself as "an exercise in bad taste," and that is perhaps the best possible description for it. There is something guaranteed to shock, offend, or sicken nearly eveyrone (the climax alone will proably make most people sick). The movie's sheer shock value led to it becoming one of the more sucessful midnight movies of all time.
The power to shock may also lie behind the success of what may be the quintessential midnight movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Based on the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show and released in the United States in the United States on September 25, 1975, it was a colossal failure in its first run. This was perhaps with good reasons. For one thing, the movie covered ground where the typical viewing audience feared to tread; transvestitism, bisexuality, incest, voyeurism, and even cannibalism all appear in the film. For another, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an odd blend of sci-fi/horror spoof and musical, with references to everything from Forbidden Planet to Lili St. Cyr. Having been a failure in its first run, Twentieth Century Fox decided to give the movie a new life as a midnight movie. On April 1, 1976, The Rocky Horror Picture Show made its debut as a midnight movie at the Waverly in Greenwich Village. The movie proved to be a hit at the Waverly and was soon showing up at other theatres. With the movie's success there also developed a strange relationship between the film and its fans. Starting out with fans simply talking back to the screen, eventually there would evolve a full fledged ritual in which fans would dress as their favourite characters, dance the Time Warp, and even recite lines of dialogue. Quite simply, The Rocky Horror Picture Show became what could be considered the first audience participation movie! Showing at some theatres for literally decades, it is arguably the biggest midnight movie of all time.
Of course, pivotal in the success of The Rocky Horror Picture Show may well have been its music. Music would be central to the success of many midnight movies. In fact, one of the earliest successes on the midnight movie circuit was The Harder They Come, a 1972 Jamaican movie starring reggae singer Jimmy Cliff. Among other things it helped popularise reggae in the United States. Another successful midnight movie to feature music was more in The Rocky Horror Picture Show mould. Directed by Brian Palma and featuring songs by Paul Williams, Phantom of the Paradise was a spoof combinging The Phantom of the Opera with the Faust legend. Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Phantom of the Paradise failed in its initial release, but recieved a new life as a midnight movie. It remains a cult film to this day. Forbidden Zone was another sci-fi/fantasy spoof that was also a musical. Released in 1980, it featured an early appearance by Danny Elfman and his band Oingo Boingo.
Other midnight movies centred upon the music of popular rock groups. Quadrophenia was a 1979 film based on The Who album of the same name. Pink Floyd: The Wall was based on the Pink Floyd album of that name. In some respects, Pink Floyd: The Wall may have been the ideal midnight movie. It was a surrealistic art film with shocking imagery and rock music.
Of course, not all midnight movies were fairly recent releases (independent movies like Eraserhead or failed pictures from major studios like The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Older movies wound up on the midnight movie circuit as well. George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead received a new life as a midnight movie. Its sequels would follow in its footsteps. Another older film to be a hit as a midnight movie was 1936 film entitled Tell Your Children. It was originally released as a serious drama about the evils of marijuana. It would later be bought by exploitation maven Dwain Esper, who rechristened the film Reefer Madness and spiced it up with some more salacious inserts. Rediscovered in 1971, with its poor production values and wild overacting (not to mention some pretty inaccurate demonstratons of the effects of pot), Reefer Madness became something of a camp classic as a midnight movie.
As I said earlier, there seems to have been no consistency with regards to what would make a successful midnight movie. Indeed, it perhaps should not surprise me that films produced by the Hollywood studios that did fairly well at the box office would have afterlives as midnight movies. The Goonies was produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Richard Donner. Released in 1985, it placed among the top ten grossing movies of that year. Surprisingly it would later become a hit as a midnight movie, perhaps largely due to the children of the Eighties. It is perhaps one of the few instances in which a family film has also become a midnight movie. Stand By Me, the 1986 Rob Reiner film based on a Stephen King novella, is another example of a film successful in its original run that later became a hit midnight movie.
It was in the late Seventies that midnight movies began to go into decline. In the Eighties they would go into an even sharper decline. The enormous growth of cable in the late Seventies and early Eighties and the advent of the VCR were perhaps responsible for midnight movies fading in popularity. Eventually, even such famous midnight movie venues as the Elgin and the Orson Welles would close their doors. Today only a few theatres in a few large cities still have regular midnight showings of movies. The era of midnight movies would be remembered on various cable channels. From 1981 to 1988, the USA Network aired Night Flight, a TV series that not only showed music videos and film shorts, but many midnight movies as well (I remember them showing Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains). More recently premium channel Encore has had midnight movie marathons and even produced a documentary based on the book Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream.
Given that midnight movies are a fond memory of my youth, I find it sad that they are no longer as common as they once were. I never regularly attended midnight movies, as the theatres here in Randolph County never showed them. But I did get to see a good many midnight movies at the Kennedy, a beautiful old theatre done in Colonial Revival design that was once in Kirksville. Unlike theatres in larger cities, it generally did not show specific midnight movies for weeks or months (let alone years) at a time. One Friday and Saturday one might be able to watch Quadrophenia; the next weekend the midnight show might be Black Christmas. Of course, there were midnight movies that had many return engagements at the Kennedy--most notably The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Quadrophenia. More often than not, many members of the audience would be drunk (I must confess, I was one of those--I was in college, okay...) or worse. I remember one weekend in December when my brother, our friends, and myself had been awake for over 72 hours. That Friday we went to the Kennedy to watch a midnight double feature of A Boy and His Dog and Scanners. We returned the second night to watch the same double feature because our friend Carol (the only one of us who had gotten some sleep) had been drunk the night before and couldn't remember the movies. As it turned out, all of us fell asleep during A Boy and His Dog (except Carol--he was wide awake) and had the misfortune to wake up during the expoding brain portion of Scanners--not the first thing you want to see in that twilight between sleep and wakefulness! Regardless, I did enjoy watching the midnight movies at the Kennedy. And many films that were hits as midnight movies rank among my favourite films (Phantom of the Paradise, Pink Floyd: The Wall, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and so on). I do think it is a shame that only a few theatres now show midnight movies. Quite honestly, I think they offered an experience that no VCR, DVD player, or cable channel ever can.