The practice of showing films at midnight dates back to the 1930s, and reserving that timeslot for B-movies (at best) dates back almost that far. This was never a particularly difficult decision on the part of theater owners; obviously, the kind of people who want a film at midnight are going to be a bit different from the kind of people who want one after dinner. The practice continued as something of a cinematic afterthought, briefly peaking in the 1950s thanks to the colorful, campy horror flicks of Hammer Films; still, the midnight movie wouldn't become an institution until 1970.
A-List: Midnight Movies
By Sean Collier
November 10, 2008
That year, famed NY alternative cinema The Elgin Theater began midnight showings of Alejandro Jodorowsky's indescribable Mexican western El Topo. The film, which defies logic when viewed sober and seems to organize the entire universe while viewed under an altered state, attracted bizarre hordes to the Elgin week in and week out, until none other than John Lennon was entranced by the film and arranged for a proper release. El Topo's midnight run at the Elgin was brief, but a movement was underway.
Almost 40 years later, the practice has changed and splintered. Films are no longer made famous via midnight showings; rather, late-night crowds prolong classics and cult favorites. Many theaters routinely throw older films on their schedules, with little rhyme or reason; further diluting things are the midnight debuts of blockbusters and event films, which have more to do with box office concerns than cultural placement.
Still, there's a unique aesthetic to showing a movie in the middle of the night. The crowd, likely tired, wasted, or both, is more casual and involved. The screening becomes more of a unique event rather than an everyday occurrence. And somehow, old film stock just looks a little bit nicer in the early hours of the morning.
With the hope that many of you found time for a Rocky Horror screening this past Halloween, The-A List presents the best midnight movies.
It's not that Jodorowsky's surreal pseudo-spaghetti epic doesn't make a lick of sense. It's that it so insistently makes so little sense, by about halfway through, it has managed to create its own bizarre logic. Early in the film, you will question why the bandits need the help of iguanas to rape the monks. An hour in, it will make perfect sense that El Topo will bury his foe in a pile of dead rabbits. And by the time those rabbits spontaneously combust, you'll swear you saw it coming. The original midnight movie is still perfect for screenings, but worth a look at home as well.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
If El Topo is the Moses of midnight, Dr. Frank N. Furter is our lord and savior. Much attention and analysis has gone in the direction of Rocky Horror's bizarre cult following, unlike anything in cinematic history. Yet, despite a thousand attempts to analyze why fans have dressed up in the same costumes and shouted the same things at the screen every week for 33 years, the true magic of the film is that there's no explaining it. There's no reason why we still go to see Rocky and will forever, and there's no explaining why we decided to start turning around and performing the damn thing ourselves; it's the nonsense of Rocky Horror that makes it immortal. To focus purely on the cult following, however, is to ignore Rocky's big time box office records. Not only is it the top-grossing film never to play on 1,000 screens (currently estimated very conservatively at around $140 million,) it's easily the longest-running film of all time, in limited release continuously for over three decades.
Utterly stupid, frequently offensive, and gorier than Eli Roth's career output, Pieces may well be the Plan 9 of slasher flicks. Marketed as a cheap Texas Chainsaw knockoff, the blissfully simple plot follows a maniac on a path of poorly shot vengeance across an unnamed college campus. Clothes are removed, limbs go with them, bad actresses emote, at one point a kung-fu professor attacks our protagonist because of bad chop suey. Under absolutely no circumstances should even one frame of Pieces be viewed alone, but I don't think I've ever heard a theater laugh harder than they did at a midnight showing of this utter train wreck of a film. Only a couple prints of this still exist, so bug your local arthouse to track one down.
Pink Floyd's The Wall
Dark Side of the Moon aficionados be damned; listen to The Wall from beginning to end and try to deny that it's Pink Floyd's finest hour. The overly lionized British rockers had to have been out of their heads when conceiving this blend of narrative, animation, and highfalutin music video, but the result is legitimately impressive: an impressionistic, haunting film that more than lives up to the album. While myself and everyone I knew as a teenager loved hiding in our bedrooms and watching The Wall on a loop, it's best viewed in the theater, where the music gets oppressive and the film can really wash over you.
The Dark Crystal
Unlike the vastly more imaginative Labyrinth, Jim Henson's kiddie puppet opus doesn't stand on its own too well 20 years later. If we're being honest with ourselves, it's slow, the story is dull, and the protagonist is pretty damned annoying, when you get right down to it. However, mix in a Mystery Science Theater like audience and get a few drinks in everybody, and The Dark Crystal is suddenly a great time. There were plenty of '80s kid flicks like this, but most of them were just too ridiculous to even make fun of (Return to Oz, anyone?) At a good midnight showing of Dark Crystal, though, you'll make fun of every frame but still feel all warm and fuzzy at the end. That's some trick.
Pink Flamingos was part of the original slate of midnight movies, but if I'm leaving the house at 11:30, I'd rather be headed to a showing of Crybaby. Often overlooked even by Johnny Depp obsessives, John Waters' musical follow-up to Hairspray is irresistible fun, driven by a smirking cast and a better '50s send-up than John Travolta could ever provide. Iggy Pop, vastly underutilized as an actor, helps things along, and the catchy, vaguely Rocky Horror-esque musical numbers are irresistible. It's a shame that Hairspray took off on Broadway while the Cry-Baby stage show flopped; John Waters' forgotten musical is a shamefully underappreciated movie.