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.
Colin Geddes, who programs the Toronto International Film Festival's Midnight Madness section, recalls the special kind of vibe that permeated the city's Ryerson Theater—the 1,200-seat location used for Midnight Madness premieres—when Zombie's film screened there last September. "The Lords of Salem is such a perfect midnight film," says Geddes. "It's like a weird fever dream. Zombie is drawing on the language of so many different films, but he makes it unique. When we screened that in Toronto, I walked back onto the stage once it ended to start the Q&A, and you could feel this energy of dread that had the audience in its grip. It was remarkable. I imagine that's what it must've felt like after seeing something like Eraserhead for the first time at midnight."
As memorable as The Lords of Salem's TIFF screening was for Geddes, though, it's also a source of bitter sadness. "I'm going to forever pride myself on the fact that, with The Lords of Salem, we screened that in a 1,200-seat cinema," he says. "That was probably the biggest screening that film is going to get in North America for a long, long time—perhaps ever."
The Origins of Cinema's Hour of the Weird
Unless you're over 50, you aren't lucky enough to have been alive during the heyday of the midnight movie. Fortunately, there's a must-read tome for anyone interested in vicariously reliving the days when theaters would gladly keep cinematic oddities in rotation for well over a year with midnight-only showtimes.
First published in 1983, Midnight Movies, co-written by esteemed film critics J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, is the closest you can get to actually to watching a film like, say, Jim Sharman's The Rocky Horror Picture Show inside New York's Waverly theater. Rich with firsthand accounts (from filmmakers and filmgoers alike) and meticulous reporting, Midnight Movies should be required reading for anyone who purchases a ticket to see The Lords of Salem or any of its midnight-minded contemporaries.
It's important to note that a horror flick screened at midnight isn't necessarily a true "midnight movie." Take Paranormal Activity, for example—yes, its supernatural atmospherics work best when audience members exit the theater into the pitch-black dark and return home to unlit houses. But Paranormal Activity isn't cut from the same cloth as the films discussed by Hoberman and Rosenbaum; it's far too conventional. Midnight movies resist classification, resist genre, by pushing the boundaries of typical film experiences. They're extreme, transgressive.
Like John Waters' gleefully vile Pink Flamingos, where a man fucks a chicken and a woman eats dog shit. Or the tongue-in-cheek musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film bursting at the seams with different genres.
Most definitely a horror movie, The Lords of Salem falls into this camp because it wants to savage your senses. It privileges spectacle over story. In Hoberman and Rosenbaum's book, three seminal films of that ilk are covered in immense detail, a trio of hugely influential works that, in one way or another, are responsible for all of the aforementioned new-millennium midnighters, be it through their stylistic flourishes or cultural impacts. These three cult classics are: Night of the Living Dead, El Topo, and Eraserhead
First came Night of the Living Dead, originally released in 1968. One year later the black-and-white zombie shocker began its midnight run with a 25-week stint at the Walter Reade theater in Greenwich Village. Directed by Pittsburgh native George A. Romero, Night of the Living Dead is the genesis point for all things undead, particularly AMC's The Walking Dead (comic book creator Robert Kirkman and original showrunner Frank Darabont have long been outspoken fanboys of Romero's film). Night cost $60,000 to make and, upon its initial theatrical release, didn't register with audiences, not until Walter Reade, owner of the aforementioned theater, put it on a double bill in late 1969 with Dionne Warwick-starring Slaves. After that, Night of the Living Dead caught on, going on to gross $1 million by the spring of 1970.
That same year, El Topo pushed the boundaries of the midnight movie even further by straying from the path of conventional narrative and focusing more on hallucinatory imagery. Alejandro Jodorowsky's singular work is one part western and one part bizarro horror show, chronicling a gunman (the titular El Topo, played by Jodorowsky himself) who embarks on an odyssey full of strange violence, cave-dwellers, and disfigured townsfolk, all cast in a weirdly religious light, that, when experienced at midnight, stuns like drugs.
El Topo's late-night legend began on December 18, 1970, at the Elgin Theater, a 600-seat Manhattan dive north of Greenwich Village; an advertisement explained the midnight slot by calling "a film too heavy to be shown any other way." The Elgin's owner, Ben Barenholtz, kept El Topo's midnight home intact through June 1971, screening the film at 12:00 a.m. weeknights and 1:00 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays throughout those seven months. The film pulled in a reported $6,000 a week before Beatles member John Lennon, a huge fan of Jodorowsky's unexpected hit, had his manager, Allen Klein, buy the rights for his Abcko Films imprint and, as a result, cease its Elgin run.
Disregarding story even further, David Lynch's Eraserhead remains the most experimental of the golden era midnight movies. Discovered by El Topo advocate Ben Barenholtz, the haunting black-and-white masterpiece is the ultimate dreamscape. You could say it's an exploration of one guy's (Jack Nance) anxieties and fears after suddenly becoming a father; visually, it's an unparalleled excursion into head-scratching strangeness: a newborn baby mewls like a lost alien; a lady with tumor-like growths swelling her cheeks sings about heaven; and a human head lands in a factory where workers turn it into an eraser. You know, that whole thing.
In the fall of 1977, Barenholtz started screening Eraserhead at NYC's Cinema Village, where it gradually developed a midnight audience and played into the summer of '78. The next year, the film found a new Big Apple home in the Waverly Theater, and stayed there for 99 weekends. By 1982, Barenholtz had 32 prints of the film actively playing in theaters all around the world.
What makes these films so ideal for midnight screenings? It comes down to what most people else who weren't seated inside the Waverly were doing at the time: sleeping. "The human brain operates on certain patterns, and it's going into its dream mode at that time," says Lars Nilsen, programmer for the Austin Film Society and renown midnight movie promoter. "Eraserhead is the prototypical midnight movie, and why is that? It's a dream. Doesn't Eraserhead look and feel like a dream? The same goes with El Topo. These are films that operate in a dream space, so it's best to play them during the dream time. That's what a midnight movie is: It's like a dream of a regular movie. If a movie could actually dream, it would look a lot like Eraserhead and El Topo."
Today, El Topo, Night of the Living Dead, and Eraserhead can be seen as a holy trinity of harder-edged midnight movies—they're the reasons why we have events like Toronto's Midnight Madness and films like The Lords of Salem. But all good things must come to and end—or, to put it optimistically, evolve.
By the mid-'80s, the midnight strategy was becoming less and less viable for new, first-run movies. Several mainstream distributors did see some of their otherwise widely released films get adopted by the midnight society, but as independent theaters began to close, the movement lost a great deal of its power. After-hours screenings of soon-to-be cult movies like The Evil Dead (1981) and Pink Floyd - The Wall (1982) could be found, but they lacked the urgency of their predecessors.
The '90s saw the Australian drag-queen comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) tap into the free spirit of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and enjoy a solid midnight lifespan at Rocky Horror's old home, the Waverly. Aside from that, though, newer movies were absent from the midnight world. Instead, the focus primarily shifted to revivals of older films. It's an age-old facet of the midnight movie scene that dates as far back to 1972, when Reefer Madness—a hilariously over-the-top anti-drug flick made in 1940—played simultaneously at NYC's Olympia and Elgin theaters. Tod Browning's see-it-to-believe-it sideshow masterwork Freaks (1932), meanwhile, gained a second life through a midnight rejuvenation in the '70s and '80s.
Celebrating the cult favorites of the past is a foolproof way to keep the midnight mystique alive—as long as there are 35mm prints remaining of films like Eraserhead and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, fans will keep lining up to lose precious hours of sleep in the name of cinema.
Decades after theaters like the Waverly and Elgin closed their doors and ended the original midnight craze, the films spearheaded by the likes of Ben Barenholtz still endure and influence. "When I was in high school and I really wanted to see those movies, there was no other way for me to see them outside of trekking it out to some rinky-dink theater at midnight," recalls Rob Zombie. "Those movies weren't popping up on TV. Most of them weren't even available on VHS. Your friend would say, 'That movie is playing three towns over,' so we'd have to drive all the way there if we wanted to see something like Andy Warhol's Dracula in 3D." It felt like an event whenever they did actually show up somewhere for a midnight screening. And they were all so different from each other. Each movie was such a unique experience onto itself."
"I grew up in the countryside, so all I could do as a kid was read about all of these weird films," remembers Colin Geddes. "The closest theater was on the Queens University [in Kingston, Ontario] campus. My dad took me to see a screening of Eraserhead there when I was young [in the mid '80s]—that was a life-changing experience. I knew about the film and I'd read about the film, but seeing it with a weird crowd of assorted students really drove it home. I could hear the beer bottles opening up, and I'm pretty sure that was the first time I'd ever seen two women kiss—they kissed in the seats right in front of me. You're not going to get that watching a romantic comedy somewhere in the afternoon."
Let the New-Age Madness Begin
As the 1980s began winding down, midnight movies, theatrically speaking, became less of a craze and more of a rarity. With the rise of home video and cable television, folks who would normally migrate to the nearest indie theater to see cinema's strangest and most culturally divisive films stayed home, popping in VHS tapes or tuning into late-night cable movie programs like Joe Bob's Drive In, The Movie Channel's B-movie series hosted by comedic film pundit Joe Bob Briggs.
Up in Toronto, though, a midnight revolution was about to change the game. Founded in 1976, the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival came into its own in 1988. Academy Award contenders emerged from its lineups and powerful executive like Miramax's Harvey Weinstein attended screenings. But the festival's Director and CEO, Piers Handling, noticed something alarming: TIFF's crowds, like the audiences at other film festivals around the world, were getting older and older by the year. Things were getting a bit too conservative for his liking—TIFF needed something new and innovative to hook younger viewers.
Handling challenged his youngest staffers to attract more youthful and energetic crowds. "All of us were cinephiles, we loved movies, and we loved the great art film directors of the time, but we also loved blood and guts and gore," says Noah Cowan, one of the festival's young programmers at the time (and current Artistic Director of TIFF's Bell Lightbox theater). "Genre films were just starting to show signs of reemerging. There had been a kind of rise of the new horror that had taken place in the underground but started to filter up into the studio system by that year. There was a lot of film writing starting to happen around Sam Raimi, for example, and filmmakers like George Romero were still making interesting movies. There were also some studio horror films being made at that time that were artistically interesting and midnight appropriate."
And with that, TIFF introduced the Midnight Madness program during its 1988 edition, premiering films like Frank Henenlotter's Brain Damage, Penelope Spheeris' The Decline of Western Civilization Part II, and Hellraiser II: Hellbound. ""I moved to Toronto for college in 1988, and my first week there, I stood in line for the first edition of the Midnight Madness program," says Colin Geddes, the program's programmer since 1997. "I stood in line to see Brain Damage and Hellraiser II, and neither experience disappointed. Seeing those at midnight with an audience of 900 people were life-changing experiences."
Midnight Madness was the first all-midnight film festival series of any kind. For the venue, Cowan and his colleagues chose the Bloor Cinema, a 900-seat locale with plenty of personality. "This was before its renovations, so half the seats were broken and there were stains on the floor that you didn't even want to know what they were," says Cowan. "It replicated the original midnight experience in that way. It was still Toronto, though, so we weren't as tolerant of pot smoking in the theater as New Yorkers were during El Topo at the Elgin." Still, Bloor had its own storied history. In 1973, after 60 years of operating as a regular cinema house, new management came in, renamed it Eden, and turned it into a porno den. Seven years later, the smut left the building, new owners entered, and, rechristened the Bloor, it became a repertory cinema specializing in late-night runs of films like Eraserhead and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Year by year, Midnight Madness grew in popularity, simultaneously drawing sell-out crowds and legitimizing its brand of genre films. "Putting it into a major film festival like ours gave it this small veneer of respectability that allowed anyone who had any reservations about jumping back into that swimming pool all the excuse they needed," says Cowan. "Don't forget, Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman had been championing those movies at that time, so it wasn't like midnight movies were out of fashion for film critics—they just were for audiences and the studios. Critics like Hoberman and Rosenbaum came out to the screenings during those first years, as well as our dearly beloved Roger Ebert. He was at Midnight Madness all the time."
Popular filmmakers also helped make midnight movies cool again. The early '90s brought forth the former video store clerk turned maverick writer-director Quentin Tarantino, who, with his 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs, won over critics and executives alike with his profane, gruesome, and witty style of moviemaking. In interviews, Tarantino spouted off references to exploitation flicks, spaghetti westerns, foreign horror, and other left-of-center films, and as Tarantino's star rose, so did the interest in his favorite genres.
Cowan recalls the excitement Tarantino brought, alongside his entire Reservoir Dogs cast, to three separate Midnight Madness screenings—including the premiere of Tokyo Decadence an edgy Japanese skin flick about a college girl who becomes an S&M prostitute—while at TIFF to exhibit his debut in 1991. "There was no Twitter at the time," says Cowan, "so we relied on word-of-mouth, and through guys like Quentin, Midnight Madness became known as a cool place to show your movie."
Over the years, Midnight Madness—which will celebrate its 25th anniversary this September—has hosted premieres and early screenings of a veritable murderer's row of the best and most influential genre films of the last 20 years. The list includes: Ichi the Killer (2001), Cabin Fever (2002), High Tension (2003), Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), Inside (2007), Martyrs (2008), and Insidious (2010). The program itself has been a major influencer, too, inspiring other festivals, whether top-tier (Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca) or lesser known, to build their own midnight-centered lineups.
Attending a midnight screening at a film festival is a euphoric event. Typically the audience isn't sober, though being under the influence isn't necessary—rowdiness, applause, and enthusiastic participation are all welcome. Hell, they're encouraged. Most importantly, though, seeing new, weird flicks through TIFF's Midnight Madness, or SXSW's Midnighters, or Tribeca's Midnight programs are the best way to understand what it must've been like for audiences in 1977 to see Eraserhead at the Cinema Village for the first time, before David Lynch's bewilderingly original film became public knowledge.
"Nothing beats sitting down in a theater filled with other movie lovers at midnight to watch something that, decades from now, could be the film that the next generation rediscovers," says Geddes. "Especially when I watch old kung-fu movies, I think, man, what would it have been like to see these films in a packed theater in Hong Kong? What would it have been like to see the first Bruce Lee movie with a Chinese audience who'd never seen a hero portrayed that way? Or even blaxploitation films—what would it have been like to be in an audience in Harlem when Superfly first opened?"
The Importance of Being Theatrical
In January 2002, Phil Hartman and his employees at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in Manhattan's East Village were tired of the same old shit. The single-screen, 99-seat venue (which closed its doors in November 2008 due to the unmanageable cost of rent) hosted special 35mm revival screenings since its opening two years prior. (It was also next to a pizza shop.) One of the Pioneer's missions was keeping midnight movies alive—the only way it could do so, though, was by living in the past. 'We had been discussing where the next generation of midnight movies would come from,'' Two Boots owner Phil Hartman was quoted as saying in a 2004 New York Times article. ''How many times can you show Pink Flamingos and Eraserhead?"
Three months later, Newport News, Virginia, native Richard Kelly was visiting New York City, still reeling from the failure of his feature film debut, Donnie Darko. A strange character study steeped in sci-fi and religious undertones, Donnie Darko would've been a tough sell at any time: an up-and-comer named Jake Gyllenhaal plays a socially awkward, mentally imbalanced teenager who becomes obsessed with time travel after a man-sized rabbit tells him the world's going to end, a conversation tipped off after a jet engine crashes through his bedroom ceiling. The film premiered at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival to mostly negative, scathing reviews. Six months passed before a small distributor, Newmarket Films, ponied up the cash for the rights, but their plan was a straight-to-DVD release. Kelly and his producers, including co-star Drew Barrymore, fought for a theatrical. Somehow, they won.
Donnie Darko opened on 58 screens nationwide on October 26, 2001, and the timing couldn't have been worse. The country was still coming to grips with the events of 9/11, and the last thing anyone wanted was to watch a movie in which a plane falls on top of a house. The film's opening weekend gross was a dismal $110,494; by April 2002, when Newmarket mercifully ended its theatrical run, Donnie Darko had earned just around $517,000. As far as Kelly was concerned, Donnie was dead. "I always believed in the script, I fought really hard to direct it, and I stuck to my guns," says Kelly, 12 years after the fact. "I put myself on the line to get that movie made on my own terms. We were really proud of the film and thought we had something special; we were blindsided at Sundance by the backlash and negative reception. That was a huge letdown, but I hoped that the movie would eventually find its way."
In New York City that April, Kelly was walking down East 3rd Street, in between Avenue A and Avenue B, when he noticed a Donnie Darko poster plastered on the window of the Pioneer Theater. "I stopped and stared," recalls Kelly. "I said to myself, 'What's going on? Why's the poster for my movie hanging up at this pizza shop?'" He went inside and spoke to the manager, who informed Kelly that his film had been playing sold-out Friday midnight shows for months. He was then invited back the following week to do a post-screening Q&A and witness the phenomenon for himself. "I expected there to be two or three people in the audience, but I showed up and saw that the whole place was sold out," says Kelly. "People had cameras; Michael Musto from The Village Voice was there. I thought, 'Wow, maybe this movie is actually getting its second wind with this midnight thing.' And it just kept going and going."
Thanks to the Pioneer's efforts, Donnie Darko found its worldwide audience. Today, it's a regular midnight experience on college campuses and various revival theaters around the country. Its domestic box office climbed to $1.3 million; across the globe, that number reached $7.7 million total. A "Director's Cut" edition screened in New York in July 2004, and DVD sales have escalated well above $10 million—all thanks to midnight. "I never expected it to explode in the midnight phenomenon kind of way," says Kelly. "We knew we had a special film and I'm grateful that the midnight audiences rescued it. They saw something in it and embraced it. No pun intended, it's the Energizer Bunny of movies."
As it stands, Donnie Darko is the last genuine midnight success story, in terms of a fairly new film exploding in the same way that El Topo, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Eraserhead did in the past. It's not that similar efforts haven't been made in recent years—last year, Beyond the Black Rainbow was given by a midnight-specific run by its distributor, Magnet Releasing (a subdivision of Magnolia Pictures) at theaters like Brooklyn's Nitehawk Cinema and Austin's Alamo Drafthouse. And earlier this year, another Magnet film, the ambitious, 26-director horror anthology The ABCs of Death, received the same treatment.
Granted, neither film, or any other related one, has connected with viewers like Donnie Darko did, but the theater programmers' and exhibitors' attempts have been appreciated by those who'd much rather watch these films with an audience rather than alone on a TV or laptop, via On-Demand or iTunes, at home.
To further the moves made by indie theaters like the now-defunct Pioneer, several passionate film lovers-turned-cinema owners are pushing for midnight communions on a weekly basis. In Austin, the Alamo Drafthouse offers late-night series like "Terror Tuesdays" (dedicated to '80s horror flicks like Night of the Creeps and The Town That Dreaded Sundown) and Lars Nilsen's old baby, "Weird Wednesdays" (for little-seen cult and exploitation flicks of all genres, like a young Nicole Kidman's BMX Bandits and odder entries like Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon).
Brookline, Massachusetts, (near Boston) is home to the Coolidge Corner Theatre, where the "@fter Midnite" program screens new films (i.e., Brandon Cronenberg's body-horror satire Antiviral), dated B-movies (Killer Klowns from Outer Space), and overlooked gems (Altered States).
Los Angeles harbors the New Beverly Cinema, purchased by Quentin Tarantino in 2007, where the "New Beverly Midnights presents" series goes down every Friday at 11:59 p.m. The City of Angels also has Cinefamily, with its "Friday Night Frights" and "Heavy Hitter Midnites" initiatives.
The closest thing New York City—the original mecca of midnight movies—has to once-prominent landmarks like the Elgin and Waverly is Brooklyn's Nitehawk Cinema. In addition to the food and alcohol avaible to viewers that create a more freewheeling environment, earlier this month, Nitehawk staffers Caryn Coleman and John Woods introduced "Nitehawk Nasties," a Friday/Saturday midnight series aiming to bring beloved, somewhat older horror flicks to the big screen for the theater's younger-skewing audiences; it's a gorier complement to "Nitehawk Naughties," where films like Showgirls greet insomniacs with shameless T&A. Both programs give Nitehawk's programmers some appreciated respite.
"There's always nervousness in programming, but with midnight movies, there's a little bit of breathing room," says Coleman. "Certainly there are some significant costs, like with 35mm prints, which is what we prefer to use. But there's also greater freedom to take more programming risks at midnight."
Though repertory screenings of that kind are typically the bread-and-butter for venues like Nitehawk, there's still a desire within programmers to try to mount newer midnight triumphs. "Sometimes it's tougher to get people to come out at midnight, especially with new, smaller movies," says Coleman. "But on the other hand, we showed Evil Dead II recently and it was a packed house. Those ones that are traditionally classified as midnight movies tend to do really well."
Also cognizant of this reality are the heads of distribution companies like Magnolia's Magnet Releasing and IFC Films' IFC Midnight branch. The new model they use nowadays is simple: Keep tabs on which genre films inspire the most buzz during midnight showings at festivals, snatch those pictures up, and plan either a same-day VOD and theatrical release, or go bigger with a month-long VOD release preceding the theatrical opening date. The economics make sense. Fans who can't wait a month to see the hottest new horror film will gladly pay $10.95 to watch On-Demand, just as people who live in, say, Lawrence, Kansas—a city that doesn't have its own Nitehawk or Alamo Drafthouse—will charge $6.95 to their credit cards to watch The ABCs of Death at home. "We find that the fans of these genre films want to see the films as quickly as possible, whether that means VOD or iTunes, or it means downloading illegally," says Neal Block, Magnolia's head of distribution. "They'll do whatever it takes."
The convenience of VOD and other digital platforms is too strong to ignore. "People have become so accustomed to doing things on their own time," says Nilsen. "Nobody says, 'Hey, what time is 30 Rock on?' They just go and watch it online whenever they want to watch it. People are that way with movies now too. They'll watch 20 minutes of a movie, take a break, tuck the movie away, and come back later to watch the next 30 minutes the next day."
As it turns out, genre films work really well with that model. "When you think about which movies have really taken off on VOD, you think The Human Centipede," adds Nilsen. "You think The ABCs of Death. These are movies that would have all been classic midnight movies in the '70s. Personally, I think it's a shitty experience to sit at home and watch a movie on TV, but there are just fewer and fewer theaters that will show those movies. With more monopolization, most programmers don't really consider, 'What can I turn my audience onto?' The '70s and '80s were real Wild West periods, and there are still a few of old gunslingers around trying to push that experience, but with VOD people are able to discover these movies for themselves. They don't need us as much anymore."
And, let's face it, VOD is, technically, a god-send for the genre film community. Instead of only reading about the latest, cool-sounding horror/sci-fi/action flicks, hard-working movie buffs living outside of New York, Los Angeles, and Austin can now watch these films right away, rather than having to impatiently wait for the DVDs.
"I don’t think that technology has hurt the moviegoing experience," says Greg Newman, co-founder of Dark Sky Films, the brand behind critically praised indie horror successes like The House of the Devil, Stake Land, and The Innkeepers. "It’s more fair to say that the way that people access independent films has completely evolved. We're lucky because typically [Dark Sky's] films are driven by positive reviews and word -of-mouth. Now, people in parts of the country where the local theater isn't booking independent horror can find our films on VOD, Netflix, ITunes, Xbox and via a myriad other services. We're able to deliver our brand of film to a much wider audience than ever before."
Still, the importance of screenings these fringe movies in theaters isn't lost on distributors. Thus, the appeal of midnight-only slots and special event showings is gaining interest. "We want to promote the theatrical experience too," says Block. "I'm certainly open to a new midnight movie renaissance if it were to happen. There are so many more films being released every year, and there aren't that many more screens—in fact, there are fewer screens. So who am I to turn away a theater that might want to play a film only on Friday and Saturday nights at midnight? I'm happy to play these movies with people who are excited to play them, and the people who are excited to play them are forward-looking programmers that are maybe slightly nerdy and into the genre stuff."
Adds Block, "The reality is that playing a film like Beyond the Black Rainbow, you wouldn't play that in a big AMC theater with a full week's schedule—those screenings are going to be empty," says Block. "So we we try to make sure a film like that plays in each appropriate market, knowing that having limited showtimes will be more effective than having a full schedule of matinees that nobody's going to go to anyway."
Well, maybe not at first. If you look back at the original midnight movie hits, none of them achieved instantaneous theatrical success. As the story goes, Eraserhead's first screening at the Cinema Village only drew in 25 viewers; as more and more people heard about it and started showing up, it remained there for year before spending 99 weeks at the Waverly and a full year at San Francisco's Roxie Theater. The Rocky Horror Picture Show performed meagerly during its first run at USA Theatre in Westwood, Los Angeles; eventually the buzz picked up, and in 1979 there were two screenings per week at over 230 venues nationwide.
"The problem with the way that cinema exhibition works now is the film has to deliver and make a return right away," says Colin Geddes. "You have the whole 'opening weekend box office numbers' issue now. Often times those opening numbers are only looking at one day. But I think that there is room for rolling out movies in that old way. You just have to have a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality. You have to have patience for this stuff to grow."
Geddes is the executive producer of Dark Sky's latest release, the festival favorite Manborg, "a loving homage to the old straight-to-video sci-fi/action films." After the film's initial week-long theatrical run in Toronto last October, Geddes and his colleagues worked out a deal with the city's Royal Cinema to screen Manborg one Friday per month, at 11:30 p.m., leading up to its Canadian DVD release last week. "We saw a steady increase in numbers," he says. "People were telling their friends, 'You've got to see this thing!' We grew from 20 people to 40 people. It kept multiplying, and then the last screening was a huge party."
Geddes was inspired to try such an approach for growing Manborg's hype by the moves that Paramount Pictures took to break Paranormal Activity back in the fall of 2010. Once it opened on September 25, 2009, the $15,000 haunted house pic over-performed in theaters for four months and grossed $107 million domestically. "There was lots of Internet buzz about Paranormal Activity coming out, and then [Paramount Pictures] started rolling that film out slowly at midnight, where it was like a sneak preview series at midnight. In today's world, to get people excited about seeing a film at midnight is so rare. Automatically when you get a bunch of young people in a cinema at midnight, there's an energy and a buzz in the room. That helps carry the buzz on into the film's marketing."
"It's a very flattering thing to have someone pay money to see your movie in a theater, today more than ever," says Richard Kelly. "If someone's going to go see your movie late at night, that means it's the centerpiece of their evening. Their entire day has led up to them seeing your movie. They really want to be there. It's a great cultural, communal experience that I hope people hold onto, and I hope it sticks around. Maybe the theatrical experience is just never going to recover to what it once was, which is sad. It's going to come down to a core group of people who fight to preserve it."
Lars Nilsen has a proposition for, in his mind, a no-brainer way to exhibit these kinds of films to more audiences, one that could completely reinvent the concept of midnight movies. His proposal: starting showtimes two hours earlier.
"We're not living in as wild a time as people were when midnight movies were really big," says Nilsen. "Strictly from a commercial standpoint, 10 o'clock could be the new midnight because exhibitors have enough of those 10 o'clock slots to spare. The only people now who are really able to see movies late are in their early 30s, late 20s, and younger, and those people are not conspicuously present in most movie theaters. People of those ages now have so many other things that they can spend their time on. If they're going out, they're so much more likely to go out and hear music or do things other than attend special movie screenings. So 10 o'clock has the advantage of capturing people of that age as well as older people who are lifelong enthusiasts but don't have the energy to stay up until 2:00 a.m."
Whether it's 10 p.m. or midnight, though, the most important thing is to keep the theatergoing experience alive. "If we miss out on communal moviegoing, then we're losing out on something special," says Nilsen. "Late-night screenings will always appeal to an exhibitor. If you say to an exhibitor, 'I have a film that will bring at least 80 people to your theater late at night, guaranteed,' they'll say, 'Great, let's do it!' If there are filmmakers who are making movies of this type, and distributors who have movies of this type sitting around and they can't figure out what to do with them, there's a wide open market out there with exhibitors who have 10 p.m. slots open. You can just take those and help develop a whole new midnight movie culture, even if it's not technically at midnight. It could still be a vibrant moviegoing culture."
Rob Zombie understands the necessity of seeing his kind of cinema in a setting that doesn't involve a MacBook Pro, flat-screen TV, or iPhone 5. The Lords of Salem is informed by the in-theater experiences had as a younger seeker of the weird, not unlike the folks seated inside Austin's Topfer Theater to meet his fictional Lords. "You'd see something in a gnarly theater in a gnarly part of town and it would add to the experience," says Zombie. "I remember going to see Cannibal Holocaust in some piece-of-shit theater on 42nd Street [in New York City] in the '80s. The movie was terrifying and insane but the theater was twice as terrifying and insane. It added this vibe, this very unsafe vibe."
Although the illustrious Topfer Theater is the polar opposite of a "piece-of-shit," it's no less great a locale to showcase a film like The Lords of Salem. As the bonkers third act gets underway, and Zombie's most bug-nuts ideas ravish the screen, those in attendance for the SXSW premiere are loudly and gamely onboard for the ride.
The film's elderly trio of witches (played by genre veterans Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn, and Judy Geeson) walk onto an opera-ready stage, wearing long robes, and chant in unison, "Satan, come to us—we are ready!"; several audience members, almost on cue, clap at the sight of their favorite aged actresses from cult flicks like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Howling pledging allegiance to Beelzebub. When The Lords of Salem entirely abandons narrative and turns into a visual smorgasbord of evil debauchery (including demonic priests manhandling dildos and a small army of naked women wearing black animal masks), the crowd simultaneously claps and laughs.
This is exactly what everyone came to see. And Zombie, a student of the midnight movie, came to deliver.
After the film ends, Zombie and a SXSW programmer field questions from the audience. One guy asks the director to name his favorite part of the movie. "The little midget guy on the stairs," he says, referring to a hideous monstrosity so ridiculously ghoulish that it's impossible not to appreciate it. "He always cracks me up." And judging by the audience's own collective laughter, they're on the same page.
That's what the midnight movie experience is all about: being in a place where you're not the only person who finds an obese, inhuman dwarf that worships Satan to be equally hilarious and awesome. Even if the ugly bastard doesn't enter your subconscious until 2:00 a.m.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)