by Paul T. Riddell
With every Halloween comes a flurry of articles in newspapers everywhere about the scariest movies ever. Usually, these lists are cribbed from other sources, and contain the usual suspects: The Exorcist, Alien, Dracula, and Nightmare on Elm Street. Never mind that the scariest movies around are the ones that make the viewer wonder what twisted pile of protoplasm that tried to pass for human contemplated that the particular film was a good idea (History of the World, Part 1, Tales of the Gimli Hospital, Free Enterprise), or the films that keep one up at night wondering What sort of sick bastards actually paid money to see this? (the remake of The Haunting, Armageddon, Star Wars: Episode One). Most audience tastes are going to reflect the selection of the scariest films: the original Howard Hawks The Thing and the John Carpenter remake have only John Campbell's Who Goes There? as source material, and two more dissimilar films there never were, but they both work for different reasons.
This isn't a discussion of horror films, though, except in passing. Usually in these Halloween articles, the reporters make mention of midnight shows, usually because the little darlings just heard about a cool new movie in which people throw toast and rice at each other, squirt squirt-guns in the air, and generally go berserk. They don't know anything about the movie, don't know the particulars about why people are throwing crap in the air, and would run away screaming from the theater the moment they found that the hero is a flaming transvestite, but since it's new to them, they presume it's new to the audience.
Naturally, we're talking about The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Rocky wasn't the first midnight show around, but it was definitely one of the most popular, and it helped herald the end of the midnight show as a cultural phenomenon.
Quite a few cities have theaters that run midnight screenings of various movies on the weekends; most of these are whatever happens to be running in the theater that week. These aren't real midnight movies: this is an attempt to wring whatever little reputation midnight shows have left and scam those who don't know any better into figuring that Love Stinks is somehow better at one in the morning. For those of us who remember real midnight shows, the golden age of the midnight movie ended sometime around 1989, but it had been crawling like a gut-shot hyena for about three years prior to that.
My home town of Dallas had an unusually rich midnight movie heritage in the early Eighties: for starters, the Highland Park Village Theater had the record for the longest consecutive run of Rocky Horror in the world when the Village closed at the beginning of 1986. (Such was the appeal of midnight shows at the time that this made the front cover of USA Today, a feat in itself.) By 1985, the AMC theater chain had an extensive collection of theaters running specialty movies every Friday and Saturday night, and every theater had something different. The Forum 6's specialties were Rocky Horror and Alien, the Northtown 6 carried The Song Remains the Same and Phantasm, the Prestonwood 5 presented Pink Floyd the Wall and Heavy Metal, and the Northwood Hills 4, my personal favorite, hosted Dawn of the Dead and Blade Runner. The selection varied for the other screens, but the only criteria for repeated play was that the movies had to attract enough of an audience to remain profitable. The chain experimented with any number of alternate selections, and current cable fodder or hopelessly inappropriate selections (Firestarter, for instance) usually disappeared within a weekend.
For all of its metropolitan pretensions, the midnight film was a suburban phenomenon, mostly catering to those old enough to see an R-rated film but too young to get into a nightclub, but also appealing to those who wanted to do something besides hang out at a bar on Friday night. The movies were anything but mainstream, and in fact usually attacked mainstream values, which naturally captivated teenagers trapped in the 'burbs. Most were low-budget productions, but almost all of them were commercial flops during their initial releases, giving them the cachet of cult films. (The Cynic's Dictionary defines a cult film as any film seen fifty times by that many people, which has a grain of truth when talking about many midnight films.) Best of all, they were generally socially unacceptable films running at an hour when most normal folk were sound asleep, and they were cheap entertainment for high school and college students not exactly overburdened with disposable income. Two hours of singing along with Tim Curry or watching Divine eat dog shit was a lot more value for the entertainment dollar than most other venues in the Eighties.
The other major factor in their appeal lay with their social value. Midnight movie fans often ran into each other at the shows, with the most famed example being Rocky Horror, and many became friends and acquaintances outside of the shows as well. I used to be a regular at the Northwood Hills Dawn of the Dead audience participation shows, where seemingly half of Dallas' wiseacres and comedy club denizens competed to manufacture the most disgusting and/or funniest comments possible about the actions on the screen. (I've written about the joys of Dawn audience participation shows elsewhere, but let's just say that among the racist, sexist, and completely disgusting comments made by viewers who didn't mean a word of it, the tamest comment came when a character pulled a bottle of beer out of a refrigerator and the audience screamed YOU MEAN I SPENT THE WHOLE DAY SHOOTING ZOMBIES, AND ALL YOU'VE GOT IS LIGHT BEER? And they say the 1980s were boring.) Audience participation shows usually were slow to build up, partly because of theater managers who assumed that anyone talking back to the screen was planning to blow up the theater and partly due to patrons who didn't get the whole experience. (One of the last screenings of Rocky Horror I ever attended was graced with a yuppie that kept whining at the crowd Could you shut up, please? I want to watch the movie... it's my birthday, and I've never seen it before...)
What became a midnight show and what didn't was an unquantifiable variable, and plenty of films that were supposed to become big hits ended up as detritus on the floor of the concession stand. The most famous was Shock Treatment, the pretty much unacknowledged sequel to Rocky Horror that saw release in 1982. The film itself isn't as bad as its reputation implies (in particular, it features comedian Rik Mayall some two years before he became famous for playing his pseudo-anarchist character Rick in the comedy series The Young Ones), but it simply couldn't compare to the original. The worst aspect was that it was released predominately as a midnight show, and viewers who hadn't seen Rocky Horror without a crowd spitting out commentary were shoved into a sequel that hadn't had enough time to build up an audience routine yet. You have to remember that a contemporary audience had nearly ten years to hone the dialogue at that time, and expecting Shock Treatment to survive that much reputation and anticipation was folly.
Another, more insidious plot was the deliberate effort to make certain movies into midnight shows, but the audience almost always caught on. Back in 1980, after the release of Mommy Dearest, newspaper articles mentioned an alleged trend in audiences acting out scenes during screenings, and some predicted that Mommy Dearest would replace Rocky Horror as the er..., um..., queen of midnight movies. This, of course, was rubbish: the alleged revelers were plants hired by an exec to give that dud some badly needed word of mouth exposure, and Mommy Dearest collapsed as a midnight show as rapidly as Creature and Return of the Living Dead did. The audience may have embraced bad taste as tightly as a John Waters heroine, but it wasn't stupid.
So what killed the midnight show? Well, video and cable were two of the main culprits. Today, the overabundance of publicity causes more and more studios to wait months before releasing a flop movie (or even a hit) to video or cable (witness the fact that John Carpenter's Vampires sat around for nearly a year before finally appearing on HBO this month), but the idea in the Eighties was to get them out to cable and video as fast as they could go. This usually meant that studios and theaters weren't willing to give a film some time to find an audience, and many figured that if the midnight shows failed during opening week, there wasn't much point in keeping them going. Remember, Rocky Horror bounced around in various forms for years before it caught on as a midnight show: a few may remember when it was released as a double feature with The Phantom of the Paradise in the mid-Seventies. Terry Gilliam's Brazil would have made a perfect midnight movie had it been released ten years earlier, but Universal (its distributor in the US) rushed it to video even before it had finished its standard theatrical run. Six months after its theatrical run, it was all over cable, and what's the point of paying $4 per midnight showing when it's running four times a day on Showtime?
Another factor that helped kill the midnight show was flat-out greed. As theater chains slowly strangled the independently owned theaters around the country, the midnight shows were relegated to second-run theaters, which were normally intended to be tax writeoffs for the chains. Some went crazy, such as when some exec at AMC in 1986 decreed that all of the theaters in Dallas were to run Rocky Horror at midnight, and what was a packed-house crowd for one or two theaters became a handful of watchers at seven or eight screens, surrounded by know-nothings who came to see what the big deal was about and came away unimpressed. (The same thing happened to discos and comedy clubs, thus explaining the death of Studio 54 and the decline of the Improv.) Others cut back entirely: one dollar theater in Dallas started making so much money from showings of Rocky Horror that the chain cancelled all screenings, as the theater wasn't supposed to be making money in the first place. Still others subscribed to a Hell, they won't know the difference mentality and booked any number of cheap films that had little or no midnight show value, and then dismissed midnight shows with a Well, we ran 'Ritchie Rich' as a midnight show, and nobody paid to see it, so nobody wants to see midnight movies. This, combined with the usual MBA attitude of refusing to take any chances on anything unless it involved spending someone else's money, meant that any midnight show was going to have to be a huge success right off the bat before anyone else would try to run a second one. Today, the only theaters willing to take that sort of chance are generally art theaters, and how many towns have their own art theater?
Finally, for all of the noise about the golden age of the midnight show, most of the stalwarts are getting on in years. Back in 1975, Rocky Horror was absolutely outrageous; today, its drag queen attitude is quaint. Twenty years of improved makeup effects have left Dawn of the Dead behind (and Day of the Dead fell prey to the video push of the mid-Eighties), as they did with Phantasm and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Pink Flamingos still has an impressive ability to shock, as demonstrated in its 25th anniversary rerelease in 1997, but one or two complaints by bluenoses are usually enough to stop a screening dead. Most of the big rock and roll films, such as The Song Remains the Same and Pink Floyd the Wall, are now VH1 property, with about as much relevance for the typical teenager today as the Teapot Dome Scandal. Finally, some of the movies were so bad that they required excessive drug use to tolerate them: when Heavy Metal finally came out on video in 1996, the only people who cared were the folks too young to have seen it in a theater, and those too stoned to remember anything about it while it was running. And some just faded: does anyone even remember The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai?
As fond as some of us are about midnight shows, the final sign that they were deceased as a cinematic form was when Comedy Central started running Rocky Horror as a regular feature, and Cinemax started running Dawn of the Dead. Without a crowd of rowdies, they lose most of their impact, and newcomers have even less of an idea of what the fuss was all about. And maybe it's for the best: film noir didn't last forever, and neither did the midnight show circuit. It sure would be fun to go back to those days, though, and I'm just waiting for a Kevin Smith or Richard Linklater to make a film about that strange and sordid time.
And on the subject of obscure or neglected periods of film history, this column's book recommendation goes out to the definitive edition of Forgotten Horrors, written by George E. Turner and Michael H. Price, and published by Midnight Marquee Press ($US20, ISBN 1-887664-20-3). As can be told, Forgotten Horrors details any number of films from the end of the silent era to the end of the Depression that slipped into obscurity. The original edition was responsible for reigniting interest in such classics as White Zombie and The Vampire Bat, as well as serials such as The Phantom Empire, but this new edition goes into more detail on any number of interesting or strange treats that may or may not be available on video. The book contains information on any number of Western serials (I was never much of a John Wayne fan, but I was amazed at the number of serials Wayne made in the 1930s), quite a few strange films repackaged into other formats (for instance, the long-lost Maniac), films that started ongoing cinematic clichés (never realized that the end of Armageddon, with Bruce Willis bushwhacking Ben Affleck and sacrificing himself, actually first appeared in a film called The Lost Zeppelin, now didja?), and bygone hits now almost completely unknown (anyone remember Ingagi, a bad gorilla flick that was one of the biggest films of 1930?). Many are intriguing on title alone (Murder by Television is not, as can be assumed, a description of the UPN lineup this fall), and others, such as Deluge, would probably find an audience today. Turner and Price managed to bring forth both a great book, with all sorts of information on the early films of Ginger Rogers and Bela Lugosi (anyone wanting to see him play a hero should catch The Return of Chandu), and it's a fascinating view of the Poverty Row movie studios of that period, where the small players in Hollywood tried to keep things cheap and sometimes managed to create art in the process. Anyone who assumes that nobody can make a science fiction film for less than $80 million should pick up this book, watch as many of the movies listed as possible, and learn from them.
Paul T. Riddell is a Michigan-born, Texas-raised essayist and columnist who was too young for punk, too old for hiphop, and too pretentious for Goth. Previous glibberings on this subject and others are directed to his website, The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness at http://www.hpoo.com.
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