A-List: Midnight Movies

By Sean Collier

November 10, 2008

What a kinky threesome.

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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.

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.

El Topo

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.

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