Long, long ago, in the age before the videocassette and enormous theater chains, a strange cultural phenomenon once existed: the midnight movie. Movies that either couldn't get a regular run or had gotten one and bombed were often exhibited at midnight in independent theaters to audiences craving a different experience. Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman explore this all-but-extinct cinematic experience in Midnight Movies.
Midnight Movies begins with an exploration of the beginning of the midnight phenomenon, harkening back to the 40's and 50's cult and exploitation films which gave rise to the art films of the 1960's. Films from Jack Smith, Luis Bunel, Hershell Gordon Lewis, and Andy Warhol are discussed. Many of these films, while unimportant on their own, pushed boundaries and proved that a small commercial market existed for off-beat cinema. Midnight Movies then moves on to explore the impact on film and audiences of four midnight offerings: Alexandro Jodorowsky's El Topo, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, John Waters' Pink Flamingos, and David Lynch's Eraserhead.
Jodorowsky's El Topo was perhaps the first major midnight movie, playing for weeks at midnight in various New York venues. El Topo begins as a western, although the film gets more surreal and philosophical as each reel is spun. The film chronicles the story of a gunfighter who must kill four master sharpshooters to prove his love for a girl he snatches from one of his victims. As strange as it is oddly religious, El Topo was a sensation that attracted a superstar audience for this Mexican import.
Far from Mexico--in the exotic locales of western Pennsylvania--the next midnight sensation was under construction. George Romero, while working for an ad agency, began shooting Night of the Living Dead. The entire film cost $114,000, most of which was deferred until after distribution, and grossed millions, making Night of the Living Dead the most profitable film ever released until The Blair Witch Project. Romero was influenced by B-movies and sci-fi/horror comics of the 50's, but denies that Night of the Living Dead was ever made to make the many social points later attributed to it by critics. However, the film lives on as a landmark horror film.
If critics endlessly debated the social gravity of Night of the Living Dead, they didn't waste much breath on the work of John Waters. Dedicated to bad taste, Waters' Pink Flamingos comes in for the next examination. A film about two families competing for the title of "filthiest family in the world," Pink Flamingos has something to disgust or offend nearly everyone: crossdressing, kidnapping, adult babies, gratuitous violence, homosexuality, illicit baby farms, and porn, just to name a few. Waters' work, which has clearly evolved over the years, was loved by midnight audiences for its outrageousness and lack of pretension.
Whatever pretension Waters lacked was more than made up by the book's final director and film, David Lynch's Eraserhead. Eraserhead is the nonnarrative story of Henry, who wanders through a postmodern industrial wasteland. Henry is contacted by an old girlfriend, Mary, who claims to have given birth to Henry's child. The baby, if it can be scientifically called that, is a complete grotesquerie, which Mary abandons to Henry's care while Henry daydreams about a woman who lives in his apartment's radiator. Eraserhead really can't be adequately explained, it can only be experienced. Like the far more commercial Altered States, it is a nihilistic journey probably best taken with some chemical substance. Its billing as a "nightmare vision of the future" was right on target, at least for Lynch's future: Lynch continues to get paid by big studios in the bleak hope he'll make another Elephant Man, when he really just makes very slick versions of Eraserhead.
If you're a film junkie, this book is really a must-read. Hoberman and Rosenbaum do an excellent job of discussing the making of each film, the personalities involved, and the cultural climate into which each film was released. Although the opening sections concerning underground film in the 40's and 50's were a bit long, in my opinion, the reader gets a great story not merely of how these films were made and distributed, but how audiences and fans experienced these midnight movies.