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Friday, July 14, 2006

Witching hour puts a spell on you

You can still see late-night movies these days but, sad to say, there are no more cult midnight movies. Once upon a time back in the 1970s, a cinematic era that looks better with each passing year, midnight screens promised you something forbidden, something so bizarre or disturbing there's no way they could show it during the day. Midnight screenings were a process of natural selection: Nice, normal people just didn't go to see a movie at that hour, which allowed a different, freakier crowd to move in and take over, often ensconced in a cloud of suspicious-smelling smoke.

Midnight Movies Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
News photo
Divine chews the fat in a scene from "Midnight Movies" (C) MIDNIGHT MOVIES PRODUCTION INC., 2005

Director: Stuart Samuels
Running time: 86 minutes
Language: English
Opens July 15, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Yes, people could not only smoke in theaters back in the '70s, they could smoke dope. That's one of many things younger viewers will learn from "Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream," a fascinating documentary focusing on one narrow but highly influential strand of cinematic history. Director Stuart Samuels -- who also made "Visions Of Light," a fine doc on cinematographers back in 1993 -- looks at the six biggest midnight movies of the era, and gives us informative interviews with the filmmakers themselves, spliced with commentary from critics, theater owners, and plenty of clips from the films themselves.

Samuels' shortlist includes films which, some three decades later, remain singular viewing experiences. There's Alejandro Jodorowsky's "El Topo," a mystical spaghetti-Western-cum-acid trip, the first cult movie to break in a midnight time slot, where it drew packed houses of hippies at NYC's Elgin theater in 1970. The marketing niche of the midnight slot was noted when John Lennon and Yoko Ono bought the film, opened it wide, and watched it close in three days, a miserable failure.

Next up was George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," a troubling low-budget zombie flick that broke a big taboo by actually showing its ghouls feasting on human flesh. This film bombed on initial release in 1968, but quickly saw its reputation grow when re-released on the midnight circuit. Its transgressive nature was doubled, and then some, by "Pink Flamingos," the 1972 movie that put director John Waters, and his oversize transvestite star Divine, on the map. With cannibalism, coprophilia, and a plot involving a battle to be declared "The Filthiest People Alive," Waters created perhaps the seminal gross-out film. Seen in Samuels' doc, the director obviously still relishes stories of viewers who retched at the flick's outrages.

Boston's Orson Welles Cinema had its own midnight success with "The Harder They Come," the first film out of Jamaica to showcase (then largely unknown) reggae music, wedded to a potent political message, which essentially boiled down into one catchy sound-bite: "Don't-f**k-wit'-me!" The Rastafarian love of ganja on display probably didn't hurt; the heavy-smoking audience became dedicated repeat viewers, and marijuana's lovely short-term memory effects no doubt ensured a fresh viewing every time. It's interesting to note that this social-realist flick had little to do with the outre excess of other midnight movies, and it stands as a refutation of critic Roger Ebert's claim here that the midnight flicks' contribution to American cinema was irony.

Irony was key to appreciating "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which, surprisingly, was made for a mainstream market after a run on stage as a successful rock musical. It bombed, was resurrected on the midnight circuit, and only took off when the audience began showing up in costume and "interacting" with the film. Last, but not least, is "Eraserhead," director David Lynch's nightmarish debut, which imagined a sort of industrial surrealism, lost in the steam and mechanical whirring of a Dickensian cityscape, and moving to a dream logic that only Lynch could understand. This one proved to be the hardest sell of all, but surprisingly, Lynch has had the longest, most successful career of the bunch (with Waters running a close second.)

"Midnight Movies" does a good job at exploring the making of these movies, the climate in which they were received, and the way such oddities were successfully marketed. While there are a few omissions ("Harold and Maude" springs to mind), Samuels offers a cogent argument that the trailblazing midnight circuit is responsible for much of cinema as we know it today.

If anything, it doesn't go far enough here: The doc points to the success of "Pulp Fiction" as an example of indie filmmaking hitting it big, but let's look at the bigger picture: Without "Pink Flamingos," there would be no Farrelly Bros movies ("There's Something About Mary"), let alone "South Park." Without "Night Of The Living Dead," no "Doom" or "Silent Hill." And Samuels totally omits the fact that "Rocky Horror" was Ground Zero of cosplay; whether it's Goth Lolita girls in Harajuku, or fetishwear clubbers at Torture Garden, going out in public dressed like that is scarcely imaginable without the safe, campy ritual that this film once provided for people to explore their wild side.

The best thing this film does is make you want to run out and watch the originals. Unfortunately, home-viewing hardly does them justice. It's just not the same without 400 people howling as Divine gleefully chews on a dog turd, or the eerie cognitive dissonance that comes from the four nutters in the back laughing wildly at "Eraserhead" while the rest of the audience cringes with a vague dread. If rent them you must, invite friends, lots, and imbibe.

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