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Sunday, January 13, 2008

DVD Review: Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream

Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream
2007 Starz Home Entertainment
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Perhaps there's one in your local town, but like drive-in theaters, the midnight movie playhouse is practically extinct. From the late sixties through the eighties, a cult phenomenon known as "midnight movies" tollboothed select theaters throughout the United States. Perhaps yours showed A Clockwork Orange or Last House On the Left or Easy Rider or even Blue Velvet. Maybe you had Monty Python and the Holy Grail or the original The Hills Have Eyes. At one point or another, you most assuredly had The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Grand Poobah of midnight films.

In suburb Baltimore, Rocky Horror played relentlessly every Friday and Saturday at the now-demolished Golden Ring Mall from the seventies until its demise about a decade ago, and during my college years at Towson University, a brief revival of the Rocky Horror midnight practice began at a newfangled cineplex in the nineties. The tour was brief, however, considering the angst of the employees who got the shits of cleaning the theatre of popcorn and toilet paper flotsam along with reported bodily fluids slung on the floor. Most assuredly, part of the campus gossip was who scored with whom at Rocky Horror over the weekend. At least in Baltimore (the whereabouts of renowned midnight marauder John Waters), Rocky Horror has time warped on outta here along with the tradition of the midnight feature.

Considering we live in a 24-7 American society, it's odd that the midnight movie hasn't caught back on at-large, though in independent filmhouses and off-the-beaten-path screens, you can still check in at the wee hours of the night to catch a flick if you're an insomniac bored with your cable t.v. The thing is, the midnight movie in essence was a social hub; the more our computerized world conveniently allows us to stay at home, so too does it strip down our propensity to gather amongst ourselves, and not just in the caves of our neighbors' basements.

Midnight Movies: From the the Margin to the Mainstream is an in-depth glance at a bold topic: geek cinema born from avant garde (and sometimes twisted) minds presented for discrminating tastes who'd soon gag on the same dog shit as Divine in Pink Flamingos than stomach commonly-embraced chick flicks that copy the same formula as When Harry Met Sally. The midnight movie gave birth to the David Lynches, the Quentin Tarantinos and even the Eli Roths of the future generation of filmmaking. In this DVD documentary, six films spanning the era of the midnight movie are examined: El Topo, Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, The Harder They Come, Rocky Horror Picture Show and Eraserhead, all low budget movies built of no design other than to express the visions of their creators, and all movies that have enjoyed rabid cult audiences of their time and even still today.

These gonzo films are widely considered cutting edge, visionary, radical, even exploitive by some, but the common thread is that they were each rescued from certain death at the pens of the critics that loathed them and the ordinary walkaday society that ignored them by finding new life amidst the vampires and night owls prowling theaters in search of that something different.

Be it a zombie apocalypse, a western showdown against amputees with more splatter than The Wild Bunch or tranvestites gone wild, these subculture films are not for all tastes, which is why they found safe haven outside of the normal prime time lifestyle schism. As metalheads and punk rockers have to seek out places that cater to their specialized needs and desires, so too did film heads have to work a little extra hard to satiate their cravings for non-commercial dweeb reels. To strap on Magneta and Dr. Frank-N-Furter gear (with many suddenly liberated gay and crossdressing men having full license to parade without persecution) is in its own way similar to strapping on the studs and denim when going to a metal show. Rocky Horror was intended to be a sex-laced rock musical with a roasting of classic terror lore, but instead it was hijacked by an obsessed legion of vamps and tramps catwalking the after-hours scene.

This DVD paints a broader picture behind these movies, such as the Vietnam era that Night of the Living Dead was filmed in and testifed by George A. Romero as being an intentionally ugly rendition of the turbulent sixties, released in the aftermath of the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The Harder They Come at face value appears to be a Grade B Shaft set in Jamaica, yet it was the first actual film to come out of that country and its cross-culturalism ushered in the reign of Bob Marley in the west, along with an entrenched appreciation of reggae culture--for better or worse.

Midnight Movies: From the the Margin to the Mainstream features commentaries from the directors who engineered these cult legends: George A. Romero, David Lynch, John Waters, Richard O'Brien and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Just hearing Romero use the word "fuck" is worth every cent, but it's also fascinating to hear John Waters (who has enjoyed mainstream success with two filmed versions of Hairspray and a runaway Broadway adaptation amongst his many credentials) talk about traveling to New York to catch films that never made it to Baltimore. As a Baltimore native, I can testify that outside of The Charles and Bengies Drive-In, very little connection to the old filmgoing ways exist (which is likely the story of everyone's city) and still to this day the independent film struggles to catch on around here, though it was one of the few areas where Hatchet ran due to overwhelming demand by local horror fans.

The midnight movies were intended to play through the murk of a mary jane haze, which this documentary astutely recognizes as having stemmed from the 1937 propaganda film Reefer Madness, which should be considered the godfather of cult movies, along with its 1932 predecessor Freaks, still today one of the ultimate mondo films. As Midnight Movies: From the the Margin to the Mainstream touches on the mutant climates presented in El Topo, Pink Flamingos and Eraserhead, other movies come to mind, such as the savage Basket Case movies, for example. All birthed from the midnight movie scene along with the chop sockeys and the "art" films brewed for the coffeehouse literati.

The point to all of this is that mankind at heart is susceptible to its own curiosities, which most people try to hide in the pointless effort to maintain appearances. Whether we openly embrace it or not, we're all in awe of what lies behind the tent flap the barking carny huckster is trying to usher us into. We're fascinated to compulsion with weird behavior, outlandish stunts and most of all, sex. If society didn't deem porno houses as domiciles of the depraved, there'd be as many tickets sold as a Star Wars film. While the porn industry is its own beast of a subculture, the midnight movie was (for the most part) a gathering of the castaways and the societal dregs, a place to escape the diatribes and norms that said you needed to be in bed fast asleep when the VHF channels signed off at 1:00 a.m., all in a pre-cable, pre-home video, pre-surround sound, pre-hi-def world. We cue up our catered selections using on-demand services or we simply buy the product to consume to our heart's content, to be discussed amongst ourselves a day or two afterwards in our cubicles. Now you tell me; what's the better way, ducking popcorn showers or falling asleep on the sofa with microwaved Orville Redenbacker spilled in your lap at 2:00 a.m.?

Rating: ****


Randy Brown said...

"Rocky Horror" played at UA Golden Ring in 1981-82, and again from 1/25/1985 to 11/7/1992. The Towson Commons run was April 1994 to June 1996, with a brief revival in October 1997. It also played at a dozen or so other locations in the Baltimore area, and for the better part of 20 years I was a regular performer in the casts.

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Considering we live in a 24-7 American society, it's odd that the midnight movie least in Baltimore (the whereabouts of renowned midnight marauder John Waters), Rocky Horror has time warped on outta here along with the tradition of the midnight feature.

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