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Now in our sixth calendar year
PCR #281  (Vol. 6, No. 32)  This edition is for the week of August 8--14, 2005.

"Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo"
 by Mike Smith
Midnight Movies: From Margin to the Mainstream
 by Andy Lalino
Crypto-Animals....The Black Wolf Of Clearwater
 by John Lewis
The Big 5.0....Cheater, Cheater, B. S. Eater
 by Matt Drinnenberg
Happy Birthday....Why Do They Call Them Funnies?...Makes Sense....Passing On....Say What?...Jaws: The Story, Part 29
 by Mike Smith
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Andy Lalino
Oddservations by Andy Lalino

Midnight Movies: From Margin to the Mainstream
Review & Commentary
Before I begin, let me just inform you that this is a subject very close to my heart.

To a horror/avant-garde film aficionado, there is perhaps no greater way to experience cinematic orgasm than the beloved Midnight Movie. Spending two hours in the dark at the witching hour, with an unruly crowd of like-minded fans creates an indescribable, kinetic atmosphere unique in the history of film exhibition. Stated simply, there's no better way (except for a drive-in) to experience a cult/underground movie than at a midnight screening at an actual movie theater.

And yes, you must switch off that DVD player and get out of the house if you really want to have a true Midnight Movie moment.

Customers who have the Encore network as part of their cable package were graced with a very rare treat indeed: the premiere of a 90-minute documentary entitled "Midnight Movies: From Margin to the Mainstream". As the title implies, the doc is an examination of six motion pictures that were instrumental in beginning and maintaining the Midnight Movie craze, which, according to sources, ran from 1970-1977: "El Topo", "The Harder They Come", "Eraserhead", "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", "Night of the Living Dead", and "Pink Flamingos". Though not prominently featured, two other Midnight Movies were highlighted: Tod Browning's "Freaks" and the incomparable "Reefer Madness". Further proof that the 1970's were without doubt the greatest decade in world civilization.

It's also interesting to point out that "MM:FMTTM" was produced in Canada, which to me demonstrates that far too often U.S. producers and media companies are too willing to pass up opportunities to educate the public about such fascinating periods of uniquely American cinema.

Pre-Midnight Movies, world cinema had a small but effective arsenal of daring, avant-garde films (underground films) that orbited around the Hollywood juggernaut, typified by filmmakers/producers such as Kenneth Anger, Godard, and Warhol. It was their groundbreaking approach to imagery, storytelling, art, and pop culture that was to influence the next generation of moviemakers, who were to create a niche in the industry that was Hollywood's alternative, eventually creating a style that suited the parameters of what was later to be christened the Midnight Movie. Not to mention the extensive library of horror/sci-fi/fantasy/exploitation films that were just as relevant in shaping the phenomenon.

It must be asked: what exactly is a "Midnight Movie"? Doubtful if anyone knows for sure. It's not simply a horror or exploitation film. Certainly, there are horrific and exploitive elements usually inherent in a Midnight Movie, however they do not necessarily make it so.

Are Midnight Movies expected to be "artsy" or surrealistic? Not always. "Rocky Horror", "Pink Flamingos", and "Reefer Madness" negate that theory, with PF being unabashedly trashy, "Rocky Horror" bizarrely straightforward, and "Reefer Madness" over-exploitive.

Are they intended to appeal to the drug culture? Almost certainly. Part of the deal when attending a Midnight Movie is that ye be stoned, or if you weren't you were soon to be, with a perpetual pot smoke cloud hanging overhead.

The common denominator seems to be that all Midnight Movies are outrageous in some fashion: be it horror, exploitation, drug use, surrealistic imagery, violence, tastelessness, gender-bending, or most any other type of art or camp.

A subject not explored by the documentary is that before the '70s inception of the "Midnight Movie", there were for decades midnight screenings of horror films in the form of Spook Shows; the wonderfully theatrical concept of blending live theater, magic, comedy, and cinema. Like the Midnight Movie, Spook Shows were interactive, rowdy affairs typically performed at the witching hour. It is my contention that the proper "Midnight Movie" owes its concept and structure to the Spook Show (whether the key players were aware of it or not) which was sadly beginning to die out at the time.

Midnight Movies were not so much made as they were indoctrinated, by both the audience and the theater owners themselves. A filmmaker back then didn't set out to make a midnight hit; in fact many of them (Richard O' Brien included) had no idea of what a "Midnight Movie" was. Quite often, a particular film made its way to the desk of an exhibitor who booked midnight screening. He'd watch the film in order to determine if it's one that he believes the audience would dig (often, they were right on). The movie was played before the rambunctious (and high) midnight crowd, and it was they who gave it a final thumbs up or down, much like patrons in the Roman coliseum.

What about the concept of Midnight Movies sprouting from the underground? Not always so. "Rocky Horror" was produced by 20th Century Fox, a major studio. The doc was quick to point out that many of the elements contained in Midnight Movies, meaning sex, violence, and brazen social commentary, had found it's way into the mainstream.

The Midnight Movie craze had its (official) ribald beginnings in New York City in 1970. The hippie movement was burning out, with many of the long hairs becoming hopelessly addicted to pot and harder drugs. They made the switch from inciting public unrest to chilling out and gettin' some kicks. This is where Midnight Movies come into play.

In 1970, "El Topo", a surrealistic fantasy western, was released to an unready public. Due to its highly extreme subject matter, no theaters at the time dare booked it. Ben Barenholtz, the hero of our story, was owner of the Elgin movie theater in NYC. He had seen "El Topo" and had a print of it, and came up with the concept of screening it before a midnight crowd. It quickly became a sensation, with lines for "El Topo" being "around the block", as often heard during the course of the documentary.

This author, though familiar with "El Topo" largely from printed research material, had for the very first time been treated to actual film clips from the heralded underground classic. I was amazed at how shocking the film appeared in terms of sheer exploitation, especially when one considers it was made in 1970 by courageous Mexican filmmaker Alexandro Jodorowsky. One can see why this became an instant hit with sizable and growing NYC underground audience, and established the concept of "Midnight Movies" at the Elgin.

It's interesting to note that "El Topo" and subsequent MM hits, according to Barenholtz and other exhibitors, were often released with little or no marketing campaigns - not even ad art in the papers! During the day the Elgin would run a first-run movie, and mention in the print ad that at midnight they would be having a special screening of some weird, bizarre film. Just the brief one-line was enough to get young stoners packed into theaters.

The cult success of "El Topo" led to many other underground films being played in heavy rotation at midnight screenings. Another big hit was the legendary "Night of the Living Dead" by George A. Romero. In 1970, the film was approximately two years old, and had a second life breathed into it on the midnight circuit. Audiences couldn't get enough of Romero's docu-style narrative, explicit gore (shocking for the time), and downbeat ending.

"The Harder They Come" was the first feature film to be made in Jamaica, man, and starred Jimmy Cliff. In its initial run, it was advertised as a blaxploitation film, popular at the time, which was misleading in that it bears no resemblance to that genre at all. What turned audiences on was the music, which introduced reggae to the shores of the U.S.

John Waters' incredible "Pink Flamingos" was another huge midnight staple. Taking cinema to wonderful new levels of tastelessness (including Divine eating doggie poo), Waters made a permanent name for himself as one of cinema's trashiest filmmakers, and proud of it. For the uninitiated, PF is a crudely made Waters epic containing no shortage of blatantly shocking scenes. To a midnight crowd of New York junkies, it must have seemed like cine-paradise.

The next film celebrated was the most famous of all, "The Rocky Horror Picture" show. A box-office disappointment for 20th Century Fox in 1975, enjoyed an unbelievable run as the most frequently-played motion picture of all time (and possibly the most profitable), and is still playing to this day. So much has been said about the film by those more expert at it than I, so there's little information that I can provide. What "Rocky Horror" did prove is that film fanatics were more than willing to enjoy their favorite movie, tens, dozens, even hundreds of times over. Most RH fans were notorious for returning every weekend for the midnight shows for many years. RH is also the undisputed king of the interactive film experience. If you've never attended a midnight showing, don't expect to see or hear much of the film; chances are you'll be dodging squirt gun fire, tossed toast, or being attacked for being a RH "virgin".

The concept of the Midnight Movie was beginning to slip away, according to the doc, by the late '70s. Blame was leveled on the big summer blockbusters such as "Jaws" and "Star Wars", but at least one interviewee conceded that "Star Wars" was the greatest cult film ever made (which I agree with). There were other factors of course, such as the advent of VCR's and the fact that these things come and go in cycles. It went with a bang, or rather an industrial drone, in the form of the nightmarish epic of David Lynch: "Eraserhead" in 1977. Unlike most of the other films mentioned in the doc, "Eraserhead" was no blatant foray into outrageousness - far from it. It was a deeply personal, gloomy, one-way ticket to the eeriest dimensions of the human subconscious. With his groundbreaking hit, Lynch redefined cinema by taking the viewer somewhere they've never been, and may not ever want to go again. Like most innovations, "Eraserhead" took time to catch on, even with the loyal midnight audience. Lynch attended the debut midnight screening at the Elgin, which consisted of 20-something people! The following night fared no better. Distraught, Lynch was comforted by Barenholtz who assured him that the film would find an audience. It did, and is now regarded as one of the very best horror films ever made.

Barenholtz was an instrumental character - a social artist who sculpted the Midnight Movie into what became culturally. Through word-of-mouth, he was given film reels to screen, and made the determination if it had the right stuff to be labeled an Elgin Theater Midnight Movie. His instincts were good; few of his selections tanked. The ones that did take off made it big, packing the Elgin every Friday and Saturday night for years. Everyone made out good; the exhibitors, the filmmakers, distributors, and above all the hungry audience.

One thought to ponder is: what makes some films a hit at the witching hour, and some not? According to Hoberman & Rosenbaum's 1983 tome "Midnight Movies" (which the doc borrows heavily from), Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1963 hit "Blood Feast", the very first "gore film", debuted at the Elgin in 1971, but inexplicably did not catch on with the midnight crowd, playing for two weeks and then vanishing. While more cartoonish than avant-garde, it was not unlike "Reefer Madness", another camp classic, that was an instant hit on the circuit. The authors claim Lewis' "Color Me Blood Red" would have been a preferred selection over "Blood Feast", possibly because it contained art/beatnik elements that the counterculture crowd could have more easily related to. This would indicate that "Reefer Madness" was more the exception than the rule of what constitutes the stuff of Midnight Movies, no doubt due of it's over-the-top depiction of marijuana use.

It's somewhat safe to say that most Midnight Movies appeal to the thinking man's cult fan. Other circuit blockbusters include: "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre", "200 Motels", and "Harold and Maude" (a big studio production), all not just simply exploitation for exploitation's sake, but genuine attempts at social commentary and exceptional filmmaking.

Feature films were not the only works being screened at Midnight Movies. They were sometimes accompanied by outlandish, sexually-charged shorts, such as the animated "Asparagus" (which I had the opportunity to see at film school while at the University of Miami) and many of Kenneth Anger's films ("Scorpio Rising", "Kustom Kar Kommandos").

Though the doc and book claim that the Midnight Movie was dead by '77 (at least in NYC), I personally have cherished memories of attending excellent midnight screenings at our local theaters in St. Petersburg, Florida in the early 1980's. The theaters were: Tyrone Square Mall 6, the Plaza, and Crossroads (only Tyrone is still in existence). In fact, the AMC theater chain, the most popular one in the area at the time, ran an exciting and ingenious "Midnight Movie Express" ad campaign, featuring a "promo" that was produced here locally in the Tampa Bay area. Most old-timers recall the promo, which depicted a crazed Midnight Movie audience (I believe the Grim Reaper was in there somewhere) gearing up for tonight's show. I also recall an cell or model animated train, which was the Midnight Movie Express. If anyone has that promo on tape or DVD, please let me or Nolan know.

I actually worked at Crossroads Theaters in the mid '80s, before they tore it down and built a newer 8 screen (which is gone now too). We always had very successful midnight screenings at Crossroads. On occasion they played real porno movies! Yours truly had to work the concessions during the porn showings. That was real fun. You want butter on your popcorn?

Here are just some of the great cult films I had the good fortune to experience during that devastatingly enjoyable time period:
John Waters' "Polyester". Complete with the famous "scratch-n-sniff" card (I still have mine!). Waters will enjoy knowing that I hurled chunks later that night from the nasty smells (a true story!).
George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead"
"Apocalypse Now"
"The Texas Chain Saw Massacre"
"Night of the Living Dead"
"The Rocky Horror Picture Show"
"The Keep"

Now, seeing these film greats at theaters in St. Pete. may not totally compare to having seen "Eraserhead" at the Elgin in '77, however I do consider myself lucky to have been able to experience the last gasp of this venerable cinematic tradition. I can tell you that not being a fan of cigarette smoke or drugs, I probably wouldn't have fit in or enjoyed myself during an Elgin midnight screening, having to watch the film through puffs of pot smoke. I guess I just think like a junkie.

The Midnight Movie enjoyed a "rebirth" in the early '80s, of all places, on television. "Night Flight", one of the greatest TV shows ever produced, was a mind-blowing adventure into the bizarre and surreal, and was very much like a Midnight Movie expressly for the boob tube. "Night Flight" included campy feature films, weird documentaries (one subject was about growing pot), short films, '30s cartoons, music videos, Kung Fu serials and many other bizarre things. Anyone who recalls "Night Flight", which I believe aired on the USA network, will certainly remember the gorgeous computer animation & accompanying logo, and the (unseen) narrator, who was African-American. The show was hosted by Tom Juarez in its last seasons. While employed at the Home Shopping Network as a Graphic Designer, I met Dave Dietz, a freelancer who once produced segments for "Night Flight". I'll have to hit Dave up for an interview real soon.

Are Midnight Movies extinct? Yes and no. One of the last times I recall seeing a Midnight Movie was in 1994, when friend Tom Linkiewicz and myself attended a screening of Tim Burton's "Ed Wood", which was a tremendous experience. In 2002 I had the good fortune to attend a midnight screening of Herschell Gordon Lewis' "Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat" at the gorgeous Enzian Theater in Winter Park, in which HGL was in attendance. He introduced the film and signed autographs afterwards. It was even his birthday that day, and we all got to enjoy a blood-red cake in his honor! These days a "midnight movie" is often a 12am screening of a first-run studio behemoth, such as "Bad Boys 2" or "The Fast and the Furious 2". Who wants to see that?!? The witching hour is designed for the weird, bizarre, avant-garde, horrific, and exploitive. Leave your mainstream sensibilities at the door.

"Oddservations" is ©2005 by Andy Lalino.  The Oddservations banner is a creation of Andy Lalino. All other graphics are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2005 by Nolan B. Canova.