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I see you shiver with antica…pation!
During the '70s, the midnight movie emerged as the best way to get a look at underground cinema, obscure pictures you would never see anywhere else during normal hours. The films didn't stay unknown for long once they hit the late night circuit, and these screenings created sensations out of Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead, Night of the Living Dead, and the "queen" of them all The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Several art house cinemas stayed afloat by counting on the revenue they knew they could pull in by showing exploitation titles or films with a strong following. The midnight movie evolved to a brand all its own, and it became suburban with multiplexes in malls across America showing these films weekly. What had started as counter culture was now popular culture, and only one thing could kill it. VHS and the rise of the rental outlets started to erode the showings because as El Topo or Night of the Living Dead were now available in anybody's living room the need for midnight screenings began to disappear.
Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream chronicles the most influential films of this era, and gathers together the directors who made them to talk about what this all meant. The documentary is ironic since we have a home video format talking about the experience that was killed by the availability of being able to watch these films at any time. It's a DVD celebrating the experience DVD helped to bury. It's a good discussion and examination of what midnight movies meant to counter culture, and a look at some of the darlings of that fad.
The disc itself isn't very loaded from a technical standpoint. We get a nice widescreen transfer which renders all the interviews and graphic interludes in a clean crisp presentation. When clips are shown they are often scratchy and grainy, and this is done for kitsch value. A simple stereo mix makes sure we hear everything well enough as the dialogue is what is crucial. There are no extras at all save for chapter stops which will allow you to jump instantly to a particular film of interest. The subjects examined include : El Topo, the Elgin theatre, Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, The Harder They Come, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Eraserhead. Brief mention is made of films like Freaks and Reefer Madness which also enjoyed late night revivals.
The real treat about Midnight Movies is the chance to see John Waters, David Lynch, George Romero, Richard O'Brien, Roger Ebert, and Alejandro Jodorowsky in individual interviews speaking about films they love. The documentary is structured to talk about each film chronologically by its rise on the midnight scene and take you through the history which roughly starts in 1968 and extends through the '80s. They spend a good amount of time on each film, and show clips as well as "making of" shots you won't see anywhere else. The Rocky Horror Picture Show gets the lion's share of attention since it is cited as the most successful midnight movie and a worldwide phenomenon that still runs today on the after hours circuit. David Lynch gives his insight to Eraserhead, John Waters talks about everything, and Alejandro Jodorowsky talks about inventing the genre. It's an engaging fast moving conversation with a lot of information about the films and the fervor they inspired.
It's intriguing we can have a documentary that easily focuses on what we term cult movies, and yet these films have more popularity than many blockbuster "A-list" studio productions. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has grossed over $200 million in box office receipts with no real method to tag it with a more accurate take. Certainly Night of the Living Dead and Pink Flamingos have been seen by more people than can be estimated, and just one image of the poster of Eraserhead is instantly recognizable by a majority of the population. Now we have mainstream films like Pulp Fiction or Moulin Rouge that purposefully co-opt aspects of these transgressive films, rendering them as standards rather than oddities. Yet you can't manufacture these types of films. There has to be a passion and a vision that makes a cult movie accidental, and nobody can purposefully set out to make these things any more. Certainly many have tried and failed, but these things can't be cranked out by corporations or individuals with an agenda to manufacture a midnight movie.
The magic of Midnight Movies is we get to see the evolution of the real thing. It provides an oral history of a genre that can't exist any more. Midnight movies were a communal experience, and in this new generation, YouTube has somehow replaced our real coming together with a virtual one. Audiences have degenerated so much that you don't have to go to a Rocky Horror screening to get people talking through a movie. There is no reverence for the experience of coming together as fans of a beloved film that nobody was supposed to know about, but one everyone is willing to stay up late to cram in and see. Sure some theater chains still exhibit a midnight showing of strange and wonderful films. Landmark Theaters and the Angelika chain routinely pull out alternative programming every weekend to showcase to a select audience, but attend one and you'll be surprised if the theater is a quarter full. There's no edge or danger any more. We can only dream it, and look for the next way to experience the truly unique in film and art. Midnight Movies captures that magical time when wearing fishnet hose to a late night show was a revolution.
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