In the 1970s, a movement celebrating nocturnal cinema consumption rose up from the underground circuit. The films at its center were known as "midnight movies," and have since influenced damn near every genre flick in their wake. But why have we all stopped watching them at the best possible time, and in theaters instead of laptops?
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
It takes a certain kind of person to stand in line for an hour-and-a-half on a chilly night in Texas, waiting to watch a movie where fiendish priests give rough handies to sex toys. It's midnight, the perfect time for such a feature, and the men and women crowded under the canopy outside the theater are die-hard film fanatics who'd wait in line for another hour if need be.
They've gathered here for a special advance screening of The Lords of Salem (in select theaters now), the latest dose of nightmare cinema from rocker turned filmmaker Rob Zombie. Waiting outside of Austin's swanky new SXSW Film Festival screening venue, the Topfer Theatre at Zach Scott, are upwards of 500 eager film badge holders and ticket buyers, all of whom have decided to lose sleep in order to spend the wee hours of this Monday night meeting Zombie's devil-worshipping witches.
The fans congregating outside of the Topfer aren't having any difficulty killing time. They argue about like-minded movies. In this corner, there's the skinny, long-haired guy in tight jeans and a black T-shirt who's high on the horror anthology sequel V/H/S/2, which screened two nights prior; angrily claiming that the home invasion flick You're Next, the previous night's midnight headliner, is the superior film is a larger twenty-something whose voice is loud enough to momentarily drown out the applause that erupts once a black van pulls into the Zach Scott parking lot. Mr. Zombie, along with his wife, and The Lords of Salem, star, Sheri Moon Zombie, have arrived. Dozens of line-holders happily surrender their spot just to get Zombie's autograph and take pictures with him. He obliges as many requests as possible before he's ushered into the theater.
Almost 30 minutes later, the 420-seat Topfer Theatre is filled to capacity. Out walks one of SXSW's film programmers, who introduces Zombie onto the stage to thunderous applause. Microphone in hand, The Lords of Salem's writer-director says, "50% will think this is the greatest thing ever, and 50% will hate it." The crowd breaks into laughter. "But you're here at midnight to see a crazy movie about Satan, so we're off to a good start."
The Lords of Salem is the quintessential "midnight movie." What little bit of plot exists in the film revolves around Sheri Moon's character, a grungy disc jockey living in the infamous town of Salem, who unknowingly brings about all kinds of destruction by playing a mysterious vinyl LP. Narrative falls back in the face of Zombie's brain-scarring imagery, including burnt surgeons, demons walking goats, paintings that ooze blood, and decrepit old witches in the buff. It culminates in a final act that's a waking nightmare where images collide with no regard for logic.
Unsurprisingly, Zombie is a big fan of Alejandro Jodorowsky, one of the patron saints of the original midnight movie phenomenon, that legendary time between the late '60s and early '80s that saw the arrival of maverick pictures like Night of the Living Dead (1968), Pink Flamingos (1972), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Eraserhead (1977). The counterculture and all its provocations and side effects—drugs, uninhibited sex, Vietnam-inspired dread'n'violence—came to the picture show, and to great effect. The mad Chilean Jodorowsky, for his part, made the midnight classics El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), two of the trippiest entries in the canon.
"There's a certain type of movie that doesn't really exist now, and if it does it's very aware that it's emulating what came before," says Zombie over the phone a month after the SXSW screening. "Back then, the variety in these films was very wide-ranging—you had Eraserhead, The Holy Mountain, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which are all very different from each other. I remember seeing those films as a kid at weird little theaters at midnight. The feelings of disorientation that they gave me, I couldn't experience that from any other films."
With The Lords of Salem, Zombie's consciously trying to bring that feeling back. "While we were filming, [co-star] Patricia Quinn came up to me and said, 'You know, I haven't felt like this on a movie set since I was in Rocky Horror.' Everybody had a sense that we were bringing them back to those older days."
The Lords of Salem, then, is the latest example of the modern-day midnight movie, those small, left-of-center films that usually premiere in one of the major film festivals' midnight-scheduled lineups (in addition to Toronto and SXSW, both the Sundance and Tribeca fests host popular midnight screenings), get picked up by an independent distribution company, and are more likely screened via Video On-Demand than inside a theater. In recent years, films like Beyond the Black Rainbow (an acid throwback to '80s-era hallucinogenic sci-fi), The Loved Ones (a twisted John Waters meets John Hughes horror-comedy), and the horror omnibus V/H/S (imagine Creepshow but with found footage) have followed that model, even though they'd play best at 11:59 p.m. for theaters packed with folks looking for a communal rush and a transformative visual experience.