My fellow movie freaks and I were spoiled in the 1970s and 1980s by two venues to see films that, for the most part, don’t exist anymore: Drive-in theaters and midnight movies.
It was common enough for us to go to the drive-in and see a movie or two –or a movie and a half, if the second feature was mediocre – and decide to pack up, drive back into town and go to a midnight movie. Yes, it was possible we might go see the Roger Corman pick-up Screamers (“They’re men turned inside out! And worse … they’re still alive” was the ad pitch) and then leave the drive-in to go see Rocky Horror Picture Show or Dawn of the Dead at a midnight show.
In the days of streaming and on-demand, it’s wonderfully easy to see almost any movie, anytime you want. As a movie fan, I wouldn’t trade this time for those days. I wouldn’t choose to go back to those days, even though – unrelated but not entirely – I miss the young person’s feeling of being bulletproof.
And anyway, nostalgia can be an awful thing, especially when it’s accompanied by its traveling companion, “Boy, things were better back then”, because anyone who was closeted or stifled or targeted or otherwise oppressed decades ago can tell you, no, things were not better back then. Having said that, I wish I could go back to the days of midnight shows. Er … the nights of midnight shows.
Origins of the midnight movie?
One thing to keep in mind is that back in the day and even now, movies aren’t midnight movies just because you can find a midnight or near-midnight screening of them. The latest Marvel movie can probably be viewed at midnight at a theater near you, but it’s not a midnight movie. It’s easy to conflate cult movies and midnight movies and most people do. It’s a little easier to consider them one and the same than it is to define all drive-in releases as cult movies. On the big venn diagram of movies, there’s a lot of overlap between cult movies and midnight movies.
Historians of the midnight movie can’t agree on the first midnight movie and I can’t quite point my finger at one either. Just like there are midnight showings of general-release movies in the present day, there were midnight showings of movies, especially Universal horror movies and other genre films, going back to the 1940s and perhaps even earlier. You could reason that these screenings were just the 1940s equivalents of today’s Spider-Man movie, albeit with a midnight screening since the movies unspooled at the same theater earlier in the day.
In a slightly off-kilter way, I think you could argue that the on-screen portions of “ghost shows” or “spook shows” were the earliest midnight movies. If you’ve never heard of ghost shows or spook shows, an explanation: They were traveling live-and-in-person performances, usually by a magician and usually with a horror theme that included a monster – a guy in a rubber mask – coming off the stage and moving up and down the aisles. This live-action horror show was followed by a blackout, in which all the lights would be turned off and “ghosts” painted with phosphorescent paint would be flown over the heads of the audience. Finally, usually around midnight, an old horror movie or two would be screened.
Some books that document the midnight movies phenomenon cite George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead as an early midnight movie, while others suggest Alejandro Jodorowsky’s experimental 1970 spaghetti western El Topo.
There’s no midnight movie as famous as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, released in 1975 in a few cities with some notoriety and a measure of success. But after* Rocky Horro* was a hit with college audiences, who embraced the film’s campy nature and opportunity to sing, dance and emulate a rainstorm with squirt guns, 20th Century Fox pitched the movie to theater companies for midnight release. Theater managers quickly figured out that a handful of movies, including Rocky Horror and Reefer Madness, could draw moviegoers to the theater in the otherwise dead hours after most of the matinee and evening showings were done.
I don’t have anything to back up this supposition, but I bet that in many areas, the multi-screen multiplex also boosted midnight movies. You might already be showing Star Wars at midnight, after 12 hours of earlier screenings, but if you had to staff the theater anyway, why not screen a midnight movie on some of your other five or nine or 12 screens? Why not screen multiple midnight movies? Why not screen movies that had all the essential elements of a midnight movie? But wait – what were those elements?
The Building Blocks of Midnight Movies
Midnight movies could be hard to find. Some of the most naturally-occurring midnight movies were elusive. This was before the days of home video, of course, and the only way to see many movies was in a revival house or at a science fiction convention. In the late 1970s/early 1980s, I programmed the movie and TV sequence at a couple of Star Trek and science fiction conventions. I had to work through the local university, where most of our events were being held, to find 16-millimeter prints of classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still. I still sweat a little thinking about making sure the prints of the movies were kept in good condition and safely returned.
Prints of movies like that, Reefer Madness, Marx Brothers films and old serials were around in plenty of time for the era of midnight movies. And I’m sure the owners of those prints were more at ease with putting their films in the hands of established movie theaters than some anxious college student from a Star Trek club.
But we can only imagine what it took to get a print of Dark Star, the bizarre and funny 1974 science fiction spoof that marked the directorial debut of John Carpenter and an early screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, who would soon write Alien. The movie’s original distributor, Bryanston Distributing Company, went bankrupt despite having been the studio that released Deep Throat and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Despite the financial turn of events, Dark Star became a midnight movie staple about a cranky space crew bedeviled by an alien that looked like a beach ball.
Belly laughs were king. Could you be a midnight movie if you weren’t crudely funny? Sure, it was possible. But particularly in the wake of sketch comedy from the Groundlings and Second City (and later the SCTV show and Saturday Night Live), a no-holds-barred montage of comedy sketches was brilliant midnight movie material.
The Kentucky Fried Movie was the comedy sketch midnight movie of our dreams. Produced in 1977 and directed by John Landis, who would go on to direct Animal House, The Kentucky Fried Movie had it all: crass humor, nudity – all female, to my recollection, there’s a shock – and one of the best movie parodies ever, a spoof of Enter the Dragon. The scene introducing the prisoners (“Put this man in cell number one and give him a drink!”) is a classic.
When Kentucky Fried Movie wasn’t available, midnight moviegoers could count on some other, dumber and cruder fare. Loose Shoes is a sketch comedy film that made the rounds of midnight movies. Made in 1977 and distributed in 1980, the movie no doubt owed many ticket sales to members of the cast whose careers were blowing up, like Bill Murray and Howard Hesseman. Sketches like one for Invasion of the Penis Snatchers were true to form for the film, the title of which was based on a racist slur by Earl Butz, then-President Gerald Ford’s agriculture secretary. The Groove Tube, from 1974, hit the midnight circuit after one of its players, Chevy Chase, became known.
Edginess and other-ness: A big part of why people went to midnight movies, aside from the chance to see boobs and hear people say penis, was for stories that danced on the edge – and sometimes went over the edge.
Eraserhead is the best example of these and David Lynch’s 1977 film wears its nightmarish qualities as proudly as a Miss America sash. Did I appreciate the chance to see Eraserhead at a midnight movie? Oh, god, yes. Have I watched it again in the decades since. No. No I have not.
It’s possible to pretend to carry edginess, but the best midnight movies didn’t have to pretend. Phantom of the Paradise, from Brian DePalma in 1974, showed us how horrible both the record industry and the fate of the Phantom of the Opera could be. Rocky Horror has an edge that has kept some people away to this day – look at all the sexiness, Martha! – but people who gave it a try know that it is the most amiable edgy movie ever.
The master of amiable edginess was, of course, John Waters, and his films, including Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, made all of us nervous in 1981 with Polyester, a comic soap opera starring Divine. Polyester was released in Odorama, a call-back to old 3-D movies. But instead of seeing the action in three dimensions, viewers got a scratch-and-sniff card and followed on-screen prompts that told them when to, well, scratch and sniff. We were all afraid we’d scratch the spot that smelled like poop. I’ve still got some of those cards in storage somewhere, and sometime when I watch the movie again I’ll break them out and experience the aromas of gasoline, roses and flatulence.
Going to a midnight movie felt like something exclusive and, in a way, illicit. The experience also made us feel as if we were the savviest movie fans in our town. We knew enough to roll up at the time people were leaving the theater and heading home to settle in with Johnny Carson or a late-night music video show. While this sounds like something I should discuss in counseling, it was probably the last time I felt like part of the “in crowd”, but that’s okay. No better company at midnight than the beachball aliens and the Penis Snatchers.
Somehow, in the pre-internet age, when most legitimate news sources declined to report on these movies, we all found these films and found each other.