Nighthawks at the Cinema
How misfits lost the midnight movie
By Keith Phipps | Illustrations by David Aguado
It’s midnight in Hobart, Indiana, and the auditorium of the cozy, single-screen Art Theatre is echoing with the sounds of cartoon characters in the throes of passion. One orgasm follows another — first Marge Simpson then Bugs Bunny — as first-time attendees to the Art’s weekly screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show go through a variation on a ritual that’s taken place for nearly 40 years: the hazing of the "virgins." (Virgins under 18 get off the hook this particular night, due to the risqué nature of the initiation.) It’s not a packed house, but it’s lively as about 35 attendees, many of them regulars, file in and wait for the show to start, both on the screen and off.
The Art, built in 1941, is a lovely art deco venue with a mural-covered auditorium, but like many small-town theaters it has struggled in recent years. In 2012, it benefitted from a campaign designed to keep independent theaters alive by helping them to convert to digital projection. Since then, it’s stayed afloat with second-run offerings that focus on family-friendly fare. (I’m told that posters advertising Magic Mike XXL when I visit don’t represent the usual sort of film that plays there.) But each Saturday, the Art offers an added attraction: Help Me Mommy, which bills itself as Northwest Indiana’s Rocky Horror Picture Show Floorshow Cast, performs for an enthusiastic crowd as the 1975 Rocky Horror Picture Show plays behind them.
First released in September of 1975, Rocky Horror has never left theaters, and the film is more famous now than ever. But fame has also changed it, turning it from a fringe item to an institution famous enough to provide fodder for an episode of Glee and a possible TV remake for Fox. And as it’s grown in fame, the cult has appeared to lose some of its outsider fervor over the years, with weekly gatherings like this one becoming increasingly less common across the country.
You wouldn’t know that sitting in the Art Theatre in Hobart, though. Each week the cast and crowd goes through a ritual familiar to anyone who’s seen Rocky Horror at a midnight show: A pre-show featuring clips involving the Rocky Horror cast and other bits of weirdness. A "virgin auction" in which first-time attendees are subjected to good-natured, if obscene, initiation rituals. And then the show itself, in which the venerable movie plays out behind a live-action reenactment — known in Rocky fandom as a "shadow cast" — as its dialogue gets interrupted by a mix of crude, witty retorts from the audience, some nearly as old as the film itself.
That also makes them older than most of the attendees — who skew toward teens and 20-somethings. "I was always very socially awkward. Never felt like I fit in anywhere," a man who asks to be identified only as T.R. tells me in the Art Theatre lobby a few hours before the show. These are odd sentiments to hear from a handsome 31-year-old union plumber wearing a Captain America T-shirt, with a physique and unerring gaze to match, but there’s not a hint of insincerity to them. "I did sports, I did theater, I did a bunch of stuff and never fit in."
T.R. first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 2002 and soon joined The Pink Invaders, the Northwest Indiana Rocky cast that would eventually evolve into Help Me Mommy. "Rocky Horror was the first place I ever came to where it was just like, ‘Yeah, we’re all a bunch of weirdos and we’re all accepting of each other. You can come hang with us and we’re not going to make fun of you for it.’"
If the ranks of Rocky Horror fandom are thinner than at their height in the ’70s and ’80s, they still remain a self-replenishing resource, and Rocky Horror continues as an important rite of passage for misfits of all stripes, in Hobart and elsewhere. But the larger midnight movie tradition from which it emerged is changing, and facing an uncertain future.
Prior to the ’70s, midnight shows were the realm of the occasional horror release and exploitation distributors who used the slot to attract night owls to seedy fare. But the midnight movie as we know it — as a Friday- and Saturday-night staple featuring cult films — came into its own as the ’60s turned into the ’70s.
The ‘60s saw a flurry of activity in underground film as Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and others made movies way outside the Hollywood system, films that took avant-garde forms and featured content too extreme for the mainstream. That didn’t mean there wasn’t an audience for them, though. Warhol’s 1966 film Chelsea Girls played New York for months, for instance, and in the latter part of that year, Mike Getz of Los Angeles’ Cinema Theatre — after having success in Los Angeles playing experimental films at midnight — hit upon the notion of sending a package of films on the road under the name "Psychedelic Film Trips #1." They played at midnight across the country in theaters owned by Getz’s uncle Louis Sher, and they did well, making Getz something like the Johnny Appleseed of the midnight movie. As Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman put it in their invaluable 1983 book Midnight Movies:
"In thus popularizing the underground, Getz provided the spadework for the midnight-movie explosion of the 1970s. … [T]he underground invented a grass-roots alternative to 'straight' movies, television, and theater. The underground demonstrated that, in America anyway, anyone could make some sort of movie and get it shown somewhere. Accordingly, all manner of long-repressed sexual content burst scandalously upon the screen. There was even money to be made doing it."
The moment had arrived, in other words, for the underground to go overground, and a few key titles pushed it there. George Romero’s groundbreaking zombie film Night of the Living Dead found a second life, appropriately enough, at midnight. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s violent western fantasia El Topo played for appreciative, often stoned crowds. So did early John Waters outrages like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks found new life in midnight revival screenings, and 1973’s The Harder They Come helped popularize reggae outside Jamaica. In some respects, the films had little in common. The blackly comic sensibility at the heart of Waters’ films shares little with the outré stylishness of El Topo. Yet an anti-authoritarian streak runs through all of them, one that resonated with counterculture audiences as one decade gave way to the next.
Not everyone saw this as an entirely healthy development. In a November 1971 New Yorker piece titled "El Poto – Head Comics," Pauline Kael likened the crowds turning out for El Topo and "head" films like it to a "Black Mass," criticized its extreme violence, and called it out for pretension and incoherence. "Jodorowsky employs anything that can give the audience a charge even if the charges are drawn from different systems of thought that are — as thought — incompatible." "Head movies don’t have to be works of art," she concludes, "they just have to be sensational."
Yet even if the charges stuck, the popularity of El Topo and other midnight fixtures confirmed that there were viewers hungry for images and ideas they’d never see in respectable hours — and the communities that formed around them. In the heady buzz of a packed midnight house, these films reassured their audiences that because they were outsiders didn’t mean they were alone.
The midnight landscape started to shift in the 1980s with the rise of home video, and as with every movie-related technological advance, something was lost as something else was gained. It’s no coincidence that the golden age of midnight movies started to fade as VHS ascended, but it also allowed their weirdness to spread. Growing up in a tiny Ohio suburb, I doubt I would have had access to most of those films if not for a well-stocked video store, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
And as the films that once occupied it began to disperse, the midnight slot started to go mainstream. Warner Bros. capitalized on the anticipation around Tim Burton’s 1989 version of Batman by playing it at midnight on June 23rd, its opening day. The following year, Disney went even further, devising an elaborate, troubled promotion by which moviegoers could buy "I Was There First" Dick Tracy T-shirts that would double as admission to midnight screenings.
Over the next two decades, midnight screenings of mainstream films became commonplace, particularly in the years after the debut of Star Wars — Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which attracted considerable press for the long lines of fans waiting to see the earliest possible screening. Midnight premieres of films in the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Twilight franchises followed — franchises with rabid, passionate fan bases and subcultures. But so did midnight screenings of virtually every movie released: feel the need to see The Proposal the very minute the clock strikes 12:01 on Friday? Now you can.
Now midnight has become just another spot on the schedule in many theaters, with even the see-it-first element dropping out as more and more films started hitting theaters on the Thursday evening before their official release. Does a slot once reserved for the weird and the unexpected have the same meaning when you can see The Proposal or the remake of The Karate Kid at the same time?
As technology has changed, theaters have met even more challenges in attracting midnight audiences. At Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, assistant general manager Buck Le Pard points to increased competition from Netflix as a particular problem."You want to do something, you’re hanging out with your friends," Le Pard says, "like let’s go see a movie, and then it just became let’s see what’s on Netflix." Music Box has experimented with "eventizing" midnight screenings, partnering with the website Consequence Of Sound and finding success with a midnight showing of Blue Velvet preceded by a celebration of all things David Lynch, complete with actors dressed as famous Lynch characters. The theater’s midnight selection also leans heavily on nostalgic offerings from the ’80s and ’90s, though sometimes it’s hard to figure out what films fall into the sweet spot. A recent run dedicated to ’90s blockbusters got off to a good start with Jurassic Park then faltered with Independence Day, Mission: Impossible, and Speed.
The distribution wing of Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Drafthouse Films, has the rare distinction of surfacing new, or at least newly discovered midnight movies: gems like the gloriously amateurish ’80s action film Miami Connection (set and filmed in Orlando) and Roar, a bizarre nature adventure film produced by and starring Tippi Hedren. Yet as fun as those movies are, there’s a notable shortage of new cult classics finding their audience at midnight.
The midnight tradition has always had a corner dedicated to films that fall under the so-bad-they’re-good heading. (It was midnight screenings, after all, that gave Reefer Madness its second life.) But these days, if a new film has any hope of joining the ranks of midnight regulars, it most likely falls under this heading. Films like Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010) and The Room (2004) have attracted cults dedicated to their incompetence, which is compelling for reasons their creators could never have imagined. Irony has always been one mode for midnight appreciation; it’s now threatening to become the dominant one.
The rare exceptions are those films that get a second chance thanks to midnight audiences. A combination of home video and midnight screenings made The Big Lebowksi into the cult object it is today. Donnie Darko and Wet Hot American Summer both did meager-to-embarrassing business on their first release only to be rediscovered by appreciative, after-dark crowds. Considered a commercial disappointment on its 2010 release, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World has since become a midnight staple. "I didn’t expect it," Wright told me in an email exchange about the film:
"...But I had somewhat designed the movie to be the type of film that would have blown my head off as a teenager. So when it quickly started building up a passionate following even on its initial release, that connection back to the films that inspired me came full circle. I like movies that reward repeat viewings and it’s a very dense movie so people come back again and also drag their newbie friends too. When the movie underperformed on its opening weekend, the head of marketing at Universal, Michael Moses, sent me an email that simply said ‘Years, not days.’ I think he too knew that it could be a sleeper."
"Give it another 20 years," Wright concludes, "and we might be in the black." If that second life offers cold comfort to studio bookkeepers, it at least assures filmmakers like Wright — and Donnie Darko’s Richard Kelly, and Wet Hot American Summer’s David Wain — that their work is finding the audience that missed it the first time around, however belatedly and in the late-night hours.
The fall and rise of Scott Pilgrim illustrates how difficult it is to predict the success, immediate or eventual, of any film — in prime time or midnight. A few titles, like the self-consciously cult-y 2008 musical Repo: The Genetic Opera have made deliberate attempts to stake their claim in the midnight market, with varying degrees of success.
Which brings us back to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and back to Hobart, Indiana. While other key films from the golden age of midnight movies still get brought out for the occasional showing, most are solely home-video fixtures. Rocky Horror remains a theatrical draw even after appearing on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, being broadcast on cable networks from VH1 to Logo, and Glee. If a proposed TV remake ever happens, it will almost certainly survive that, too. Why? The harder I’ve looked for a simple answer, the more that answer has eluded me. Alexander Degman, a member of the Help Me Mommy cast, even confessed to me he didn’t like the movie. "I like everything else." Degman says of the film itself, "Whether it’s good or bad or indifferent, it’s people putting dedication into something. It’s people having a passion for something and just getting people to do something else other than sitting in front of the computer playing video games all night long."
The midnight slot has become a different sort of space
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is, in some ways, the safest form of rebellion, in Hobart or elsewhere. "We have a big audience of teenagers," cast member Sarah Denton (who shares a last name with the hometown of Rocky Horror’s heroes) tells me, "and I like to think that we’re more of a safe place than anything. Because it’s a Saturday night, it’s a bunch of teenagers; they could be going to parties, out drinking, out doing drugs, but we’re not doing that here." Instead, they’re watching and interacting with a movie, one formed from glam rock, bondage gear, and the cheap, lasting stuff of B-movie fantasies and dirty rock and roll. It’s a movie that takes a buttoned-up couple from Denton, Ohio and drops them into a fantastic, dangerous, arousing world they didn’t even know was within their reach. And if two kids from Denton can find it, then maybe anyone can.
Yet if Rocky Horror seems in little danger of fading away, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see its likes again. The midnight slot has become a different sort of space in the years since its 1970s heyday, and watching movies a different sort of experience. For better or worse, some of the conditions that helped draw in midnight crowds — namely a passive tolerance of drugs, alcohol, and rowdiness — are hard to find these days. And midnights aren’t the only route by which films now find their cults. Leos Carax’s Holy Motors — a film very much in the tradition of golden-age midnight movies, may have only played in a handful of theaters for a few weeks, but now I can rent it in a click and watch it on my laptop, at Starbucks in the middle of the day. I can even link out to its amazing "Entracte," on YouTube, a rousing musical showstopper that shifts the film into another gear as it moves toward its second act. You can watch it alone, if you like. But it will never quite be the same as its natural setting: in the dark, away from the rest of the world, after midnight.