Have I mentioned I love watching movie related documentaries? You should already know this as I’ve reviewed more than a few already. Well today’s film is no different, it’s the 2005 documentary Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream. The major problem I seemed to have with this documentary, and it is a problem if you see too many movies and read too many books, is that it really didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t known already. It’s a great beginner’s doc into the world of midnight/cult movies but it doesn’t open up to explore the grander themes it begins with.
The term “midnight movie” generally refers to films playing at midnight during the late 1960s-late 1970s. These movies were shown in small, dive theaters, had small budgets, no names, and according to John Waters “had to be funny and/or shocking…something you hadn’t seen before.” Midnight Movies focuses on a few films that went on to inspire the world of midnight cinema, cult canon, and the like including El Topo, Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, The Harder They Come, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Eraserhead.
In terms of documentary there are a few amount of talking heads that produce a wide variety of opinions throughout the movie’s 86 minute runtime. You have the directors who made these works including the aforementioned Waters, George Romero, and David Lynch, and the people influenced by these films like critics and the guy who created the Rocky Horror Picture Show Society. The film moves at a brisk clip introducing the movies, the political and cultural climate at the time, and what the movie did to influence the world of cinema as a whole. The audiences for these movies were looking for something unique and, in the beginning, something they could get high to. The movie explores in great depth the role of the youth market for these movies and how older movies eventually came to enter the cult canon through the college crowd; seen in the case of Freaks and Reefer Madness. Seeing these movies allowed the new slate of midnight directors to realize they “could make movies with your friends.”
The films discussed in the movie all generally have the same story. The directors had no money, there were problems filming, and they had their friends and other local places help them in creating the finished product. Sure there’s some interesting stuff during these moments like George Romero mentioning that horror films allow politics to be discussed, and how the film totally bashes the 1960s coming out at the height of the violence in ’68 but if you’re like me and have seen these movies or read a lot about them, then none of this is too far removed from watching an abbreviated DVD commentary. I’ve seen Rocky Horror and Eraserhead and knew about their troubles coming to the screen. In the discussion on Night of the Living Dead I easily able to zone out as much of the discussion I had read in Shock Value, a book I reviewed recently on this very blog. Again, this is all new information for the beginner but if you love these movies already its old hat.
What’s fun is seeing scenes from these movies and what you learn about the directors and people talking about them. There’s a lengthy discussion on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, the first big midnight movie, where the director tries to discuss the meaning of his work but with the scenes they showed I just felt more confused.
I loved seeing Richard O’Brien discuss Rocky Horror the best. I LOVE Rocky Horror but have never seen Richard O’Brien out of the Riff-Raff makeup and costume so I was shocked to see what he looked like as a normal guy! Rocky Horror Picture Show brings back the notion of theatricality in entertainment according to the documentary. The movie looks at the role of the midnight show and how people would dress up in costume, created their own script, etc. The midnight show of Rocky Horror continues to this day (although sadly I haven’t seen one yet).
The documentary closes on David Lynch’s Eraserhead, a movie that creeps me out to this very day. According to the interview subjects Lynch’s film is “one of the last great midnight movies” which I’d have to agree with. The release of Eraserhead signals the move to big-budget cult movies like Star Wars and Jaws. What worked so well about the movies during the “midnight movie” era was that they were crafted outside the studio system; no subject was taboo.
That’s another flaw of the documentary. They make a big deal in the beginning about how these movies have influenced 80s slasher films and other movies but the film ends with just stating the audience for these types of movies is changed. There’s no in-depth discussion on the larger influences but I’m sure that’s due to the constraints of the runtime.
Midnight Movies is a quick documentary for those who don’t know anything about cult films but for the more serious viewer it’s a lot of repetition.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.