BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MIDNIGHT MOVIE IN AMERICA
Midnight movies have been around for a long time, but not always in the same way. As early as the 1930s, certain theatres screened low-budget films at midnight, mainly as road show attractions. In the 1950s some local American television channels stuck genre films into late night slots in a move to enhance distribution of exploitation cinema, and which gave rise to the term “midnight movie”.
Putting aside the 1960s for the moment, the quintessential, legendary midnight movie period – the one you wish you had been around for – took off in the 1970s. Urban American art house theatres, particularly in New York, started screening oddball, unorthodox films at midnight. The Elgin theatre premiered Jodorowsky’s El Topo, which was a hit at the outset that ran for nine months. It followed with Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (Karloff’s last role), distributed directly on the midnight movie circuit, also an instant hit.
Among the many that found underground fame and followers at the Elgin, the Waverly, and the Bijou theatres, were Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space, Lynch’s Eraserhead and a revival of Tod Browning’s 1932 Freaks.
Today many of these films have secured their place in the sun via prestigious institutions, such as the New York Museum of Modern Art and the National Film Register of the Library of Congress, but back then they rhymed with sleezy subcultures and very bad reviews. Stuart Samuals, who has documented this unique period of cinema history in his film Midnight Movies: From the Margins to the Mainstream, argues that to be a true midnight movie, a film must have a personal vision, be a total critique of society, and have been discovered by the audience.
Midnight movie screenings in the 1970s were highly communal and interactive events that relied on word of mouth instead of advertising. Repeated screenings built up solid cult followings: John Lennon saw El Topo four times (his manager later acquired the rights) and some fans saw their preferred films so many times that they knew whole dialogues by heart. Midnight movies made light of mainstream taboos such as incest, sexual perversion, bondage, gayness, drugs and often dealt with them humorously.
The movement was fed into by the New York avant-garde and campus radicalism of the 1960s, and its fans included a boisterous mixture of counter-culture hippies, freaks, artists, gays and cross-dressers, among others. Many would show up dressed as a film’s character, most were high, some delivered the actors’ lines themselves, sang the film’s songs and at The Rocky Horror Picture Show, threw rice at the wedding scene. Any squares that had tagged along to gawk ended up by joining in on the joyous bedlam that often broke out.
In its 1970s heyday, the midnight movie circuit was a dynamic one. Besides premiering avant-garde films (Pink Famingos, The White Whore, Elevator Girls in Bondage), it had enough clot to resuscitate critical and financial flops and turn them into lucrative cult hits. Roger Corman released the Jamaican crime film The Harder They Come on the conventional circuit, where it opened to weak reviews before disappearing altogether. A few months later, it bounced back on the midnight circuit where it circulated for 6 years and was influential in popularising reggae across America.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show fell flat at its conventional theatre opening in 1975. But it resurfaced later on the midnight circuit where it became a huge hit before going on to become a national sensation. Ironically, its success was to mark the end of an era. Midnight movies were coming in from the margins and sliding into mainstream culture. Midnight screenings were sprouting up across suburban American theatres everywhere, pale imitations of the real thing. By 1979 Fox had 200 prints of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in circulation. The VCR and cable TV would further contribute to the demise of the art house theatres that showed these daring films in their heyday, and most would fold, convert to live entertainment, or conventional film releases.
Now, back to the 1960s, a period that seems to have been skipped over when writing about midnight movies. Nothing very subversive was going on, but midnight movies were thriving at innovative theatres such as the Inwood in Dallas, Texas, and there were certainly others.
The Inwood scheduled midnight movies on a regular basis as early as 1960 (and perhaps before), mainly for high school students. These were tame by 1970s standards, but the Inwood always had the same cop around, just in case. His name was Knickerbocker and his main task was to keep the switchblade packers out, make sure underage drinking stayed discreet and confiscate any porn cards that were circulating.
Actually, the most subversive element was the Officer Kinckerbocker himself. He told seamy stories about the Dallas underworld, took delight in revealing major flub ups by the Dallas Police Force that had been conveniently covered up and showed confiscated porn cards to all the girls present. He always seemed to have a covey of underage school girls around him. He would have done well in an Ed McBain novel.
Back then, suburbia was substance free: nothing stronger than beer (and the porn cards) ever circulated. But the midnight movie was a place where no teacher or parent ever penetrated (adults had boundless faith in their suburban theatres). This meant you could flirt with the “undesirable” pseudo James Dean types your parents disapproved of (a few bad boys did manage to slip in) and make out with burning ardor in the dark, plush corners of the second balcony.
Midnight movies were noisy events and I can’t say they were interactive in the sense of the 70s, but we got off on the likes of The Thing, The Blob, It Came from Outer Space, War of the Worlds and others, long before anyone knew what a remake was. Girls got hard kicks screaming their heads off with the terrified woman, just before she succumbed to the Goo of the Blob.
Author : Deep Web Wu
“A new time for midnight movies”, Lewis Beale in The New York Times, June 22, 2006;
“The Weirdo Element”, John Patterson in The Guardian, March 2, 2007;
And my personal experience, recounted unenhanced, but the steamy parts omitted.