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Midnight Movie Madness

Midnight Movie Madness

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Brad” and “Janet” act out The Rocky Horror Show in New York

For millions of people around the globe, the moviegoing ritual is a familiar one: grab a friend, buy a ticket, get some popcorn, wait with anticipation for the lights to go down and let the show begin. But for more adventuresome cineastes, the rite doesn’t end there. For more than three decades independent-minded audiences, tired of the same old Hollywood endings, have found refuge in midnight movies—where the films are anything but formulaic—and what’s happening on-screen is only half the show.

While most fingers point to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 film El Topo as the very first “midnight movie,” there are earlier instances. In 1968, Michael Wiese and Steven Arnold had just completed their thesis film, Messages, Messages, for the San Francisco Art Institute “and wanted to premiere it ‘big time,’” recalls Wiese. “So I took it to New York, to Salvador Dali—who was an inspiration for our surrealistic film—and he held a premiere in New York where everyone from Warhol’s group to Masters and Johnson to the Hell’s Angels showed up.”

Back in San Francisco, with some serious buzz surrounding them, “we were able to book the Palace Theater in North Beach. At the premiere, 2,000 people showed up for a 20-minute black and white film with no dialogue.” Impressed with the turnout, the theater managers invited Wiese and Arnold to program additional films. The catch: the only time slot available was midnight. “That was the real genesis of midnight movies,” laughs Wiese. “It was the only available slot!”
The exact time or place of the very first midnight showing may never be known. But what is clear is that, as an outgrowth of the youth-driven counterculture—particularly in urban markets—the midnight movie experience, and the films that defined it, came along at just the right time. While their popularity has fluctuated over the years, midnight movies remain an important part of the indie cinema movement, and a platform for alternative moviemakers to let their voices be heard. It’s a distribution method upon which several moviemakers have made their names—from John Waters (see pg. 114) to Richard Kelly, whose Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut is easy proof of their continued importance (see pg. 82).

While it’s easy to pinpoint the most popular midnight movies, extrapolating a specific formula for guaranteed late-night success is not so simple. “The one thing I’ve learned… is you just never know what ‘new’ product will sell,” says Rob Arcos, Landmark Theatres’ Houston City Manager.

If history tells us anything, it’s that it’s easy for a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania to comingle with just about anyone after midnight. And while it may not be possible to trump the king, what follows is MM’s list of the 25 best reasons to stay up late: the 25 best midnight movies—past, present and future.

1. The Rocky Horror Picture Show

No, this list isn’t numbered. But it’s hard to not pay homage to the undisputed king of the midnight movie scene.

If El Topo originated the midnight movie, then The Rocky Horror Picture Show defined it. When we think of a “midnight movie,” we picture a group of die-hard Rocky Horror fans, singing and gyrating to the music—and with good reason: The film has been playing midnight shows consistently since 1976!

The reason Rocky Horror worked in the 1970s and still draws crowds today (there are Rocky Horror conventions and live casts around the world) is that it takes all of the elements that, individually, create a midightby Jennifer M. Wood movie success, and rolls them into one big cinematic orgy: a darkly humorous tale, a toe-tapping soundtrack, an anything-goes sexual atmosphere and a huge cast of characters.

“The reason the film has lasted so long is because the characters are based on human emotion,” says “Mad Man Mike,” the NYC RHPS cast’s Riff-Raff. “This is not something you see in a lot of films nowadays, but is what makes it possible for an audience to feel a connection to a particular character. And once a piece of media makes that connection, its impression lasts a long time.” Twenty-nine years and counting?
We have to agree!

Spinal Tap

Shock Treatment

Its popularity pales in comparison to big brother Rocky Horror. But Shock Treatment was not made to make money; it was made to make friends. Hoping to ride the Rocky Horror wave, the film was made specifically for midnight audiences. The film (ultimately overshadowed by its predecessor, which was still drawing crowds at the time of Shock Treatment’s release) follows Brad and Janet Majors (now married) back to their hometown of Denton, which is really a 24-hour television show, where residents’ moves are filmed. In an effort to save their relationship, Brad and Janet become contestants on “Marriage Maze.” But losing contestant Brad is sent to “Dentonvale,” the televised local mental hospital. As America’s fascination with reality TV persists, Shock Treatment may prove a more prescient film to today’s audiences.

El Topo

As the first midnight movie, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s spaghetti western with a sideshow twist is just the sort of surrealistic tale that ’70s audiences could never make total sense of—but had fun trying.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

It’s the story of El Topo (Jodorowsky), whose journey begins with riding into a town where there has just been a massacre, and ends in much the same manner. In between, he helps a community of deformed cavedwellers tunnel their way to freedom.

El Topo befuddles today as much as it did in 1970, when it prompted critic Vincent Canby to note: “I would have assumed that a film with this much underground reputation would have prompted cheers. There was some desultory applause, but most of the people around me seemed to want to be told whether it was good or bad, if not what it really meant.” Defying simple explanation, it’s a film that needs to be seen—and will be cherished for many more years as a result.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

It must be the familiar, heady mix of music and androgyny that makes Hedwig and the Angry Inch an obvious successor to the crown. Like Rocky Horror, Hedwig offers an open-minded sexual atmosphere with a superior soundtrack—attracting its own share of fan support and live casts.

Born in a divided world—both politically and sexually—Hedwig’s only goal is to find her other half. But love is complicated: Hedwig is actually Hansel, and in order to escape Germany, he must convince authorities that he is a she, and so must leave a little “piece” of himself there. 

The Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League promotes their midnight screening of Deliverance

Again tapping into human emotion, whereas Rocky Horror was an otherworldly experience, Hedwig is based in reality. It’s a story of love-gone-wrong and, albeit unconventional, one to which everyone can relate.

Donnie Darko

It’s not every day that a film that fails in its theatrical run gets a second chance. After finding its place among late-night moviegoers, the dark-witted weirdness of Donnie Darko that perplexed critics and audiences the first time around, is being re-released.

At New York’s Pioneer Theater, “We showed Donnie Darko continuously for over two years,” says artistic director Todd Verow. “It developed quite a cult following.”

Like El Topo, Donnie Darko is the kind of film you need to see to understand (or, not understand). An apocalyptic tale of a Reagan-era teen with visions of a six-foot bunny who tells him the world is going to end, the film perfectly fits Verow’s declaration that a midnight movie “has to work if you are stoned, drunk, fucked-up and if you are sober, which is a rare thing.”

The Goonies

The Goonies

While the ’80s as a setting works well for Donnie Darko, the ’80s as a mindset is what makes The Goonies one of today’s most popular revivals. At Dallas’ Inwood Theatre, “The Goonies can almost always guarantee a sell-out,” says general manager Ryan Jewell.

One of those “kid movies” that just gets better with age (both the film’s and the audience’s), The Goonies has all the elements of a great family film—humor, adventure, friendship—and it doesn’t hurt that the story originated with Steven Spielberg, the man who practically invented the blockbuster.

The story is simple: a group of kids discovers a map and sets out to find a lost treasue. With a huge cast of characters—the fat kid, the smart kid, the shy kid, the tough guy, the beauty queen, the geek, the jock— there’s someone for everyone to relate.

It doesn’t matter that, in normal life, these kids would probably never hang out together. It’s all part of the willingness to believe that anything can happen—and that adventure awaits in our very own backyard.

Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness


Even with all its airtime, Ghostbusters is making a run at The Goonies as the King of Nostalgia.

University professors-turned-ghoul-chasers Drs. Venkman, Stantz and Spengler battle the undead—and one very large marshmallow. It’s a premise (and likely a movie) that wouldn’t fly with today’s more sophisticated audiences, who want to believe—even with the scholckiest of Hollywood hits—“it could happen!” (Think Armageddon and Jurassic Park.) But today’s midnight movie success is more contingent on an already-existing fan base, of which Ghostbusters’ is vast—and more than willing to wear a proton pack in public.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

If one were to define the perfect piece of family entertainment by example, it would be Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the original—sorry Tim Burton and Johnny Depp).

We all know the story: The reclusive candymaker Willy Wonka opens up his factory to five lucky winners, and the whole world goes crazy. But Charlie Bucket has more pressing matters to worry about, like supporting his family. When Charlie finds one of the five golden tickets, their lives—and fortunes—change.

It’s hard to determine which is more brilliant: the writing of Roald Dahl, who penned the screenplay based on his novel, or the comedic timing of Gene Wilder. Whatever the case, it’s a film that ranks not only as one of the most fun midnight movie experiences, but one of the most enjoyable moviegoing experiences period.

Divine in Pink Flamingos

Fight Club

a True story: A few years ago, I saw the Farrelly brothers’ Shallow Hal. At one point, Jack Black’s character—who can only see the inner beauty in people—realizes the children he’s been playing with are actually burn victims. It’s an oddly dramatic moment in what is meant to be a comedic movie. As the realization dawned on Black, a man in the audience burst out laughing.

What does all of this have to do with beating Brad Pitt, Edward Norton or Jared Leto to a bloody pulp (for the record, I’d pick Leto)? The story seems to epitomize a recent phenomenon, where audiences seem aware of their surroundings and monitor their behavior accordingly. So if, for example, they are watching a Farrelly movie, they feel it’s necessary to laugh—even when the joke is not funny, or there’s no joke at all. Fight Club’s box office failure seems directly related.

While it’s easy to figure out when to “laugh” at a straight comedy (unless, of course, you’re the jackass at Shallow Hal), the task is not so simple when it comes to truly black humor, as with Fight Club. After all, being the one only laughing at a line like “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school!” could be a tad uncomfortable.

So movies like Fight Club become a much more enjoyable experience at home—or surrounded by an equally appreciative audience. At Denver’s Mayan Theatre, “Fight Club is a guaranteed hit every time,” says manager Matt Morris. “I could play it every week and do well. People come dressed in costume and know every line.” (What exactly “in costume” for Fight Club means, I might be afraid to ask.)

Pink Flamingos

In John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, Mink Stole comments, “There are two kinds of people: my kind of people and assholes.” The statement defines Waters’ fans to a T. You’re either in on the joke or… you get the picture.

Love him or hate him, Waters’ reputation as the king of the midnight movie scene can’t be denied, having produced some of the most off-the-wall films in cinema’s history. While he’s experienced mainstream success as well (Hairspray), Pink Flamingos remains his crowning achievement.

When Divine is crowned “The Filthiest Person Alive,” Connie and Raymond Marble feel jipped. After all, they are in the business of kidnapping and impregnating female hitchhikers—then selling the babies to lesbian couples. Waters’ own description of the film as “an exercise in poor taste,” may be too kind. It’s everything you never wanted to see on film—but can’t turn away from.


If midnight movies are born and not made, so must be their makers. Just about all of David Lynch’s films have probably played a midnight slot at one time or another—but no film beats his debut, Eraserhead.

The general plot: Henry and Mary have sex. Mary becomes pregnant. Henry and Mary get married. But that’s like saying Mulholland Drive is about an aspiring actress who moves to Hollywood. With this oddball auteur, things are never that simple—nor are they clearly explained. The definer of “participatory cinema,” Lynch invites the audience to help write the script, requiring their individual input to make sense of his work.

Eraserhead’s got all the makings of a great late-night movie: mutant baby, big hair, and a director who would look right at home in the audience.

The Warriors

When New York’s most powerful gang leader calls a meeting, The Warriors make the trek from Coney Island to the Bronx. But when Cyrus is assassinated and The Warriors are falsely fingered as the shooters, they have just a few hours to make it home—alive.

Released in 1979, the film was immediately banned in some cities for inciting real-life gang violence (it’s also been said that gang membership rose to an all-time high). When you watch the film today, it’s a stark realization of how much times have changed—particularly in New York City.

“Right now, I am interested in showing midnight movies that capture the craziness that was New York,” says Verow. New York is so dull these days, it’s nice to see how interesting it once was and inspire people.”

But it’s not just in New York that The Warriors is inspiring excitement. At Seattle’s Grand Illusion Cinema, “people were squeezed in, lying on the floor, cheering,” says programmer Zack Carlson. Can you dig it?

Plan 9 From Outer Space

Anyone who has ever watched an Ed Wood film and not been inspired must not be a moviemaker. For every Scorsese and Tarantino who prompts twangs of envy from wannabe moviemakers, Ed Wood proves that you can be absolutely talentless—and still succeed!

Like many misunderstood artists, it wasn’t until after Wood’s death (and Tim Burton’s brilliant biopic) that his talent for lack of talent was immortalized—when he was christened the worst director of all-time, and Plan 9 From Outer Space named his opus. The plot revolves around aliens determined to destroy Earth by raising zombies (a total of three of them) from the dead.

But that’s not what the film is about. The film is about the witnessing of a director with zero talent but a lot of passion. Horribly written and laughably acted, perhaps the best reason to watch this film again and again is to count the number of cardboard gravestones that topple over in the wind!

Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls


Pornography—even soft-core—is so… 1970s. Today’s libidinous masses prefer the Hollywood-released pseudo-porn, as Showgirls’ midnight success has proven.

The ultimate guilty pleasure, Showgirls is the tale of white trash-turned-white-hot stripper Nomi Malone, who comes to Las Vegas with dreams of being a dancer. But Nomi quickly finds out that there are greater skills than dancing required to make it in this world.

While it would be tempting to call this a “fish out of water” story, it’s clear that Nomi fits right in with the Vegas underbelly. (And, as her infamous pool scene with Kyle MacLachlan reveals, she’s pretty damn comfortable in those Vegas waters, too.)

Like Ed Wood’s work, part of Showgirls’ pleasure is in its complete failure. Hot off the success of Basic Instinct, the film reteamed the seemingly dynamic duo of director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Ezsterhas—only to bring in a total of $20 million domestically. And most of that probably came from the horny teenagers whom Eszterhas encouraged to get fake IDs. It’s just the sort of chutzpah you’d expect from, well, the guy who wrote Showgirls.

This is Spinal Tap

Like the falling tree that only makes a sound with someone there to hear it, laughing out loud at Spinal Tap just feels better when it’s echoed.

Marti DeBergi is a documentarian on the road with Spinal Tap, an aging British rock band. But it’s the ’80s and Spinal Tap is still stuck in the ’70s. If they’re not being ridiculed by critics (“The review you had on ‘Shark Sandwich,’ which is a two-word review, just said: ‘Shit Sandwich.’”) they’re being laughed at by audiences (the 18-inch Stonehenge “that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf”).

Just as Rocky Horror lead the way for future rock operas, Spinal Tap’s continued 20-year success has increased the late-night demand for mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman and Best In Show. Or maybe it just paved the way for Christopher Guest?

The Shining

“Would I stay up and watch this [movie] at midnight?” is the question Rob Arcos asks when programming his midnight series. When it comes to The Shining, Jack Nicholson’s performance alone is enough to keep one up into the wee hours of the morning—and tossing and turning for hours afterwards.

Based on Stephen King’s novel, it follows the Torrance family to the The Overlook Hotel, which they’ll look after during the off-season. Mom will cook and clean, son will ride his bike  and dad will work on his novel, go on a psychotic rampage and try to kill his family. It’s just another winter in the Colorado mountains!

While it deals with ghosts and the supernatural to some degree, the scariest part of the film is the statement it makes on isolation—and the belief that “it could happen to you.” It’s a rare breed of horror film (or any film, for that matter) that can draw an audience right into the action. Alongside Hitchcock, Kubrick stands as the master—which explains why people still come out in record numbers to catch The Shining on the big screen!

Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness

The Evil Dead Trilogy

Even before Spider-Man tore up the box office, Sam Raimi was breaking records by beating out the king of all midnight movies, Rocky Horror, with its number of sequels. The 1981 hit spawned both Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn and Army of Darkness, continuing The Evil Dead tradition for more than a decade—and turning Bruce Campbell into the Tom Cruise of the midnight movie circuit.

In the first two films, Ash (Campbell) and friends are trapped in a cabin. They stumble upon The Book of the Dead and unleash an evil force that will turn them all into zombies by morning. In Army of Darkness, Ash is time-warped to 13th-century England, where he must find The Book of the Dead and save the world.

Like Peter Jackson, Raimi’s recent blockbuster success proves it’s not just audiences who are paying attention to the talent behind midnight movies, but studios as well.

The Big Lebowski

If you know that Joel and Ethan Coen once shared an apartment with Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, then it’s probably not surprising that their sensibilities are similar—and that they all rank as important midnight movie figures.

So of all the Coens’ cinematic quirk-fests, what makes The Big Lebowski the big winner? Call it a matter of timing. Like David Lynch, a number of their movies have landed on late-night schedules (Barton Fink and Raising Arizona are two popular selections). But it’s the cynical/slacker-like quality that keeps people coming back for more.

There are two Jeffrey Lebowskis in LA: the unemployed one (“The Dude”) and the millionaire. In a case of mistaken identity, The Dude has his rug peed on and goes to have it paid for by the real Lebowski. From there, and in between bowling matches, The Dude gets entangled in a kidnapping.

Like so many great midnight movies, part of the film’s appeal is its enormous cast of immensely talented character actors (like Philip Seymour Hoffman as Brandt, Lebowski’s personal assistant with a perpetual stick up his ass and Steve Buscemi as bowling buddy Donny, who never seems to be part of the conversation). Whereas some of the Coens’ latest movies have seemed to labor along, The Big Lebowski moves along quickly—and hilariously—with a little bit of a psychedlic quality, keeping audiences intrigued from the get-go.

Office Space

You don’t have to work in an office to know that Office Space is not only pinpointedly accurate—but dead-on funny

Peter Gibbons is an office drone who, under hypnotic suggestion, decides to stop working at the same time his company is being “restructured.” The less he works, the more he succeeds, eventually being made a manager while his loyal coworkers are being laid off. So Peter and his friends conspire to get even.

Office Space is the defining example of a film that creeps into the American psyche and lexicon. After all, the film was written and directed by Mike Judge, who had teenagers across America grunting and giggling like morons following the success of his hit MTV show, “Beavis and Butt-head.” If you don’t know what an O-Face or a TPS Report is now, you certainly won’t forget after seeing this movie.

Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon as Harold and Maude

Harold and Maude

Though it earned Golden Globe nominations for both Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, Harold and Maude was largely ignored by audiences—and sabotaged by critics—upon its release, prompting Variety to write “Harold and Maude has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage.”

It’s the story of Harold Chasen, a young man more interested in death than life (he drives a hearse, attends funerals and fakes suicide on a daily basis). Then he meets Maude, a 79-year-old with a knack for living. Together, they embark upon a love affair where age is of little concern.

The film delivers disillusionment as succinctly—and entertainingly—as only a film from the ’70s can. Its message of finding love in the most unlikely of places is one that defies logic—and time.

A testament to its endurance, the film has been referenced many times over the years, both verbally (it’s Mary’s favorite movie in There’s Something About Mary) and thematically (in the work of Wes Anderson—and Rushmore in particular). Which brings us to…


Channeling the spirit of Hal Ashby, Wes Anderson’s follow-up to Bottle Rocket (another midnight movie staple), even goes so far as to incorporate the music of Cat Stevens. Rushmore takes the intimacy between a young man and older woman and goes one step further: it adds Bill Murray!

Max Fischer is a 15-year-old prep school student who excels at extra-curricular activities but fails at school. Relocated to a public school, Max’s life begins to change: he falls in love with a widowed teacher and befriends a local businessman, who eventually find solace in each other.

Like Harold and Maude, Rushmore is about the nature of relationships and love—reciprocated and not. Anderson’s stylistic choices and sensibilities are a genuine throwback to the ’70s, which help him stand out as an individual—and true talent—in a market overcrowded with wannabe iconic directors who should have seen enough movies to know the difference between an homage—and a rip-off.

Wet Hot American Summer

Any film genre worth its categorization has been spoofed at some point—Spinal Tap, Blazing Saddles and Scary Movie wouldn’t exist otherwise. But a movie that spoofs every kind of movie cliche in general is rare in its own right—and in the case of Wet Hot American Summer, a welcome respite.

Wet Hot American Summer is the kind of movie you find either utterly hilarious or ridiculously stupid. “The sense of humor seems to be that you totally ‘get it’ or you don’t at all,” says writer-director David Wain. Lucky for him, there’s enough of an audience to fall into the former category to make it a midnight hit.

Set in 1981, the film takes place on the last day at Camp Firewood, where the tensions of the summer (sexual and otherwise) are about to explode—as is the camp itself. To state anything beyond that would not do the film justice, as it’s a movie so strange and funny that it takes a second viewing (or an altered state) to fully appreciate its brilliantly simple humor.

Forbidden Zone

Richard Elfman has Landmark Theatres to thank (at least in part) for making Forbidden Zone the midnight movie choice for today’s fun-loving, camp-seeking audiences.

It’s about the strange little Hercules family, who move into a new house only to discover a door in the basement that leads them to the Sixth Dimension, reigned over by King Fausto (played Herve Villechaize). From St. Louis to Seattle, midnight movie audiences are rediscovering the science-fiction-musical that Film Threat called “The Citizen Kane of underground movies.”

It’s an accolade that seems appropriate. Just as Citizen Kane defined movies as we know—and watch—them today, Forbidden Zone may just epitomize exactly what moviegoers have come to expect of their late-night movies: a little bit of music, camp and imagination—and a whole lot of fun. MM

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