In the early 70s a marginalized batch of groundbreaking films crept their way into the theaters and changed the way millions of moviegoers experienced midnight.
Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream is a dynamic documentary by filmmaker Stuart Samuels that tells the story of the great midnight movies-El Topo, Night of the Living Dead, The Harder They Come, Pink Flamingos, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Eraserhead-and their influence on the American pop culture.
“It’s like catching lightning in a jar,” says one theater organizer describing these cult classics. The midnight movies were mostly low budget horror films that were launched at midnight in the now-defunct Elgin Cinema in New York. They were made outside the system and appealed strongly to a small number of loyal filmgoers. Their aesthetics and content were definitely transgressive and they outraged many traditional customs and sensibilities with their exposure of taboo tendencies and issues behind sexuality and violence.
Their filmmakers’ intentions were to terrify, shock and offend. Midnight Movies set out to push the envelope as far as they could. They had no advertising to support them and their visibility depended strictly on word of mouth. But that was all they needed. Soon, the cinema’s midnight releases lineups began to stretch around the block. Samuels explores this phenomenon in his documentary by interviewing the films producers, directors, writers and fans.
“Monstrosity is a very beautiful part of life. I hate everything that is normal,” says Alejandro Jodorowsky, the grandfather of the Midnight Movies and the director and star of El Topo.
El Topo is a far out, mystical, bloody, overtly ritualistic, spaghetti-western-like film and the first of the great midnight movies. “Violence for the soul,” is how one viewer described it. But El Topo is more than an arm-chopping, blood-squirting gore film; it is a visually alive representation of the determined underdog in the face of brutal normality. This was unlike anything else people had ever seen and they flocked to the theater to watch it over and over again.
A devout following is what all the Midnight films had in common. The Village Voice even began to describe the experience as the “midnight mass” at the Elgin Theater. Indeed, a different world was created around the concept of midnight, and the audience devoured it.
“It’s the audience that makes a cult, not the filmmakers,” says Ben Barenholtz, the founder of the Elgin Cinema.
In one of the most successful midnight movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the fans completely took over the show. Every time the film played, moviegoers dressed up like the characters and interacted with the screen. This tradition is still ongoing – the film is screened in Montreal every year around Halloween. You’ll know where to go when on a particular night time metro ride, you happen to see dozens of people dressed in cross, tripping over their heels and calling themselves ‘Dr. Frank-N-Furter.’
“We were talking to the screen, we were acting out the movie and we had the props. We were taking over the movie, and we were making it part of our lives,” says one devout follower.
“Five days a week I’m a nurse, and two nights a week I’m a star. It levels out my life,” says another.
The audience took the movie away from the writers, directors and producers.
“Strangely, it was a bit like Frankenstein’s monster. It kinda got a life of its own, which was separate from anything we wanted to do with it,” says the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s creator Richard O’Brien.
The midnight movies were a huge success and that success was part of their downfall. They broke the barriers of horror, taste, humor and censorship and made the grotesque a little more acceptable. But then the mainstream absorbed them.
“I don’t think I’ve changed,” says John Waters, the director and producer of Pink Flamingos. “I think my humor is the same. I think the American public has changed.”
“Midnight movies loosened up everything else,” he says. “And then everything changed… As soon as video came out, it was over. You could have your own midnight movie in your own home: you could smoke pot, you could have sex, you could do everything people did at midnight movies in the privacy of your own home.”
Although Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream is no longer showing in Montreal and is not yet out on video, El Topo, Night of the Living Dead, The Harder They Come, Pink Flamingos, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Eraserhead can all be found at PHOS Video Club at 5147 C