The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a stage version of which will be performed at UM this month (see Theater), is probably the only movie that cannot be discussed without mentioning its fans. Fans make midnight movies, and midnight screenings are not intended for people who merely like to go to movies—they’re for people who like to see a movie and make a total experience out of it. This week, with Missoula’s Rocky Horror devotees donning their raincoats and black bustiers, we take a look at four (way too few, we know) midnight classics that still whip fans into a lather.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Nothing says “word-of-mouth” like a movie that makes its audience barf in the aisles. That’s exactly what happened in the fall of 1974, when unwitting moviegoers settled into their seats in San Francisco’s Empire Theatre to watch the Walter Matthau thriller The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three—and a sneak preview of something called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Financed with profits from Deep Throat, banned—sometimes twice—in a number of countries, and depicting a quintet of young travelers turned into sausage by a family of psychopaths, Tobe Hooper’s slasher opus has always been shrouded in controversy—a good sign of midnight moviedom. A devoted underground following eventually brought the film a measure of respectability; for example, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has a print in its permanent film collection.
Even with three decades and countless gorier films in the interval, the sheer depth of ick in this surprisingly well-made movie is still something to behold. Now you can behold it again for the first time on a spanking new DVD release. Betcha didn’t know: The voice-over at the beginning of the movie was supplied by future Night Court actor John Laroquette.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988)
Canada’s contribution to the midnight movie, and no less controversial than many others (though literally on a provincial level) for having offended a sizeable chunk of the local population. In this case, Manitoba’s touchy Western Icelandic minority, who saw nothing funny about a melodramatic comedy based on the smallpox epidemic that practically wiped out their ancestors in the 1870s. Director Guy Maddin’s debut feature might be an acquired taste, but like all his films, it’s indispensable viewing for fans of ’20s cinema—it looks like it was produced at the very dawn of the sound film.
At first, it was rough going for the film to even find an audience in Canada. Rejected by the programming committee of the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival, it was pure luck that producer Greg Klymkiw’s protests on behalf of the film eventually found the ear of New York cult film impresario Ben Barenholtz. Barenholtz, whose golden touch had earlier made David Lynch’s Eraserhead a perennial midnight movie favorite, found a suitable home for Maddin’s film at Greenwich Village’s famous Quad Cinema, where it played for two years. Tales from the Gimli Hospital is available on video and DVD.
Reefer Madness (1936)
Hey, why does this theater smell like burning rope? A lot of people apparently still labor under the misapprehension that Reefer Madness is risible government propaganda, but the truth is actually testament of another kind to the staying power of ulterior motives.
Back in the ’30s when the film was made, the movie industry had just recently (and reluctantly) adopted the Motion Picture Production Code—better known as the Hays Code—which forbade all sorts of movie behavior, ranging from “suggestive postures or gestures” to “the use of liquor in American life.” In short, it vigorously prohibited anything in a movie that would “lower the moral standards of those who see it.”
But instead of stamping out filth in the movies, the Hays Code merely legitimized more of it than ever in films, like Reefer Madness, exhibited under the false pretense of public welfare. It’s an intriguing chapter in American movie history, and Reefer Madness is just one of dozens of drugsploitation movies produced at the time. First revived as a pot-rally fundraiser (NORML founder Keith Stroup purchased a print from the Library of Congress film archives for $297), the film has since taken on a life of its own as a midnight movie favorite. Betcha didn’t know: Reefer Madness became the first big hit for a then-fledgling distributor called New Line Cinema.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
In the same way that a rock ’n’ roll movie needs time to ferment in its own juices before it can be considered a classic, a filmmaker can’t just up and create a midnight-movie classic. The winning recipe seems to call for just the right balance of vision, ineptitude, enthusiasm and poverty-driven resourcefulness on the production side, but at a certain point, fate (or something like it) has to take over.
Horror aficionados discovered first-time director George Romero’s zombie flick (curiously, the word “zombie” is never used in the movie) playing on the bottom of the bill at boondocks drive-ins and run-down theaters on New York’s 42nd Street. Once critics picked up on the street-level buzz, their enthusiastic reviews helped move the film onto the midnight movie circuit, where it has remained ever since—for well over 30 years.
A few good jolts aside, it’s hard to imagine a time when audiences found the movie genuinely frightening. Nowadays moviegoers are more likely to laugh at the mordant wit leaking through Romero’s pessimistic “allegory” of friends and families turning on each other. “The zombies are us,” Romero has said of his movie, completed in 30 shooting days over a seven-month period in 1968. “We create them so we can kill them off, justifying ourselves. It’s a kind of penance, self-exorcism.” Avoid the colorized version when renting. Betcha didn’t know: Duane Jones (Ben) is generally considered to be the first African-American lead in a horror movie.