This review was updated on May 19, 2005
The film equivalent of the underground rock ‘n’ roll nightclub, the late-night genre pic receives warmhearted if limited treatment in Stuart Samuels’ “Midnight Movies: From the Margins to the Mainstream.” Although phenomenon is viewed here as an entirely 1970s happening, bookended by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surrealist acid Western “El Topo” (1970) and David Lynch’s waking dream film “Eraserhead” (1977), younger mavens will be able to see these films’ relationship to newer Troma trash and Asian extreme pics. Bringing together the key players (and critics), docu should draw distribs interest thanks to its Cannes platform before August airdates on cabler Encore.
Midnight movies burst on the scene spontaneously, forged by a heady combination of adventurous audiences, risk-taking and cinephile theater owners, and filmmakers who found themselves making personal films, usually far from Hollywood’s well-oiled machinery. Samuels, who wrote an early tome on the trend, perhaps wisely structures his account around the creators of what he identifies as the six key midnight pics: Jodorowsky, George Romero (“Night of the Living Dead”), Perry Henzel (“The Harder They Come”), John Waters (“Pink Flamingos”), Richard O’Brien (“The Rocky Horror Picture Show”) and Lynch.
“El Topo” remains one of the more extreme examples of the midnighter, with its roots in Mexican surrealism and drug-fueled mysticism. Because drugs were a vital part of the nocturnal experience from the start — more than one voice here notes that midnight cinemas were routinely thick with pot smoke — the drug culture on the street and on the screen became one, and produced a completely unpredictable hit.
Ben Barenholtz, owner of the now-defunct Gotham cinema the Elgin, explains how he saw the potential for an untapped audience that rejected straight movies, weren’t the typical art crowd, and yet wanted the spectacle of violence, sex, outrageousness, humor and extreme imagery associated with exploiter movies. While Barenholtz is justly viewed as a visionary, followed by Larry Jackson and his Orson Welles Theater in Boston as well as the Nuart in Los Angeles, the pic fails to note an even more extensive and daring midnight movie scene in London and Paris.
Romero comes off as the most enthusiastic of the filmmakers, still a bouncing, grinning kid at heart who got a bunch of his Pittsburgh pals together in the late ’60s to make what became the most famous zombie pic of all. Samuels gives a generous platform here to critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman (co-authors of “Midnight Movies,” still the best book on the topic), whose sensitivity for counterculture and politics allow them to expand on the rich sociopolitical undertones of “Living Dead.”
Most critics come off poorly in the docu, since mainstream scribes (including Variety‘s) either condemned or ignored the midnight fare audiences discovered for themselves. Roger Ebert appears here as skeptical of the sub-genre, recalling his revulsion at seeing “Living Dead” at a shell-shocked kiddies’ matinee and terming the trend as “the opening wedge in the birth of irony.”
Those who know Waters mainly as an ironic showman of harmless and slightly tasteless comedies and Broadway musicals will here see the original Waters in action, forging a genuinely independent brand of post-hippie scatological comedy with “Pink Flamingos,” designed to offend every sensibility. Often forgotten but revived in this account is how Waters deliberately intended to link thesp Divine’s lawless heroine with Charles Manson.
Although “Midnight Movies” is thin in drawing larger meanings from the trend, it’s very good about giving such overlooked figures as Henzel and O’Brien their due as makers of two of the most popular pics of their era, with “Rocky Horror” still packing in the costumed midnight crowds at the Nuart decades later. Jackson’s observations about the reggae music hooks of “Harder They Come” underline how both films presaged musicvids with their dynamic, original uses of rebellious, rock-inspired pop music.
As for the always-enigmatic Lynch, the account of “Eraserhead’s” making offers nothing new (and lacks the sad aftermath involving big-haired lead Jack Nance), but Rosenbaum and Hoberman are right to point out that no midnight movie achieved greater artistic heights.
Younger auds may resent Waters’ arguable declaration that video killed midnight movies, given that youngsters have created their own alternative experience (featuring such star helmers as Takashi Miike), which tends to co-exist on the big- and small screen.
Samuels’ own enjoyment for midnighters comes through in his funky visual design — visually spunky for a clips-and-talking-heads film — and in the energetic editing. At less than 90 minutes, docu is compact and swift.