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Midnight Movies
From The Margin to the Mainstream

Midnight Movies: From The Margin to the Mainstream
2005 / Color & B&W / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 86 min. / Street Date November 13, 2007 / 19.98
Starring George Romero, Alejandro Jodorowsky, John Waters, Perry Henzell, David Lynch, Richard O'Brien, Roger Ebert, J. Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Lou Adler, Tim Curry
Cinematography Richard Fox
Original Music Eric Cadesky, Nick Dyer
Written, Produced and Directed by Stuart Samuels

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Midnight Movies: From The Margin to the Mainstream is an entertaining cable documentary about the midnight movie phenomenon that began around 1970. The show focuses on six big titles that defined the craze, interviewing filmmakers and exhibitors that discovered a new audience in after-hours cult screenings. The exhibitors' stories are fascinating in themselves, even for fans familiar with the movies covered.

Midnight Movies is really about an alternate exhibition pattern that made certain fringe films into cult hits, launching careers and starting trends. As almost everyone has said before, cult films are made by the audience and can't be preplanned. Oddball pictures had already played small film houses for months and even years; I remember hearing that Philippe de Broca's King of Hearts screened in a few college towns that way. This show sticks strictly to the midnight movie phenomenon, starting with Alejandro Jodorowski's eclectic, psychedelic western El Topo. Just as an experiment, the owner of a Manhattan theater started showing it at midnight, and his audiences quickly ballooned in size. Big critics took notice, and the movie took off. A midnight hit is apparently a fragile animal, as was demonstrated when John Lennon and Yoko Ono contracted to move El Topo to a larger theater. Business dropped off and the picture died in just a few days.

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead had already been out a couple of years when it hit the Midnight circuit in a big way. Like El Topo, the genre-bending zombie picture offered transgressive content: violence, nudity and sex. It wasn't nearly as subversive / offensive as Jodorowski's gross-out epic, but Living Dead had a quality with immediate appeal to theater owners. Due to a legal mix-up, the film was perceived to have fallen into the public domain. Anyone who could get his hands on a print could show it without a rental fee.

The other titles each carry a unique story. John Waters' campy exercise in extreme bad taste Multiple Maniacs was turned down but his next color production Pink Flamingos became a monster hit on the midnight circuit. Waters ascended to national fame. Now his films are being remade and adapted as Broadway musicals!

Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come is Jamaica's first homegrown production, a reggae crime hybrid with spaghetti western overtones. Jimmy Cliff's singer reinvents himself as an outlaw after watching Django mow down bad guys on a movie screen. Henzell took the film to the 1972 Filmex festival in Hollywood, where Roger Corman bought it for New World. Marketed as a 'Superfly' - type picture, it died a quick death before reaching cult status on Midnight screens. Cliff's soundtrack got serious radio play, giving reggae music a big boost.

David Lynch is another talent born on midnight screens. His micro-budgeted Eraserhead was considered too 'out there' even at its Filmex premiere, but quickly grew to legendary status. At venues like West Los Angeles' Nuart, it played literally for years on Friday and Saturday nights. Lynch made a fast leap from obscure AFI Fellow to world-class filmmaker, shooting The Elephant Man in England with a stellar cast.

Lastly comes the king of the midnight movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which added audience participation to the mix. College kids turned the midnight hour into a freak show, dressing as the characters, chanting the dialogue and dancing on stage with the movie. The videotape clips of this ritual behavior are really funny.

Midnight Movies covers Rocky Horror from its beginnings as a small stage show to success in Hollywood and London. Both Tim Curry and film producer Larry Adler are interviewed. The movie was a dud on its initial release and effectively killed off ongoing stage productions. When the midnight madness began, Rocky Horror took on a life of its own.

George Romero jokes his way through his interview but the other directors offer thoughtful insights about their unusual experiences in the cult film world. Always upfront about his work, John Waters is grateful for the opportunity that came his way, completely out of the blue. David Lynch is also pleased to reflect on what a miracle it was for his film to get the attention that it did. Jodorowski plays the counterculture genius game while writer and actor Richard O'Brien marvels at Rocky Horror's nine lives on stage and screen. The entrepreneur New York exhibitors that started the phenomenon chart the unexpected success of the pictures. Critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum weigh in on the meaning of it all: the consensus is that what the taboo subject matter of these pictures is now mainstream movie fare. Roger Ebert remembers his scathing 1968 review of Night of the Living Dead, one of his first film notices. It was written after attending a matinee inappropriately open to small (and traumatized) children. Ebert was as surprised as anyone when the zombie picture took off into the cult stratosphere.

Starz Home Entertainment's Midnight Movies: From The Margin to the Mainstream is a handsome enhanced widescreen cable production. It starts with a flourish of graphic animation but soon settles down to an informative pace. The show is illustrated with many film clips, most of which are top quality with full music tracks licensed as well. No disc extras are included. I remember several titles that had successful Los Angeles midnight runs -- Harold and Maude, Forbidden Zone -- and would be curious to see a list of others I've forgotten.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Midnight Movies rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 7, 2007

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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