It all started in the 50’s
In the late 60s certain theaters in New York started showing Todd Browning’s ‘Freaks’. This 1932 MGM picture made under the reign of Irving Thalberg and banned for its surprising use of real circus freaks was, in the 60s, being re-discovered by a different kind of freak, ‘The Hippie’. With the success of this run the ‘Midnight Movie’ was born.
The ‘Midnight Movie’ does have it roots in a more “innocent” time though, the 1950’s, in what was called The Spook Show. The 50s is the time when the teenager was born. The term teenager didn’t really become a word used to describe young adults until the late 40s and by the mid 50s it was the de facto term as the 50s saw the rise of the baby boomer. Unlike previous generations boomers had spending money and were becoming an economic force. Movie attendance was at a low because of television, so movie theaters and independent filmmakers were starting to cater to the boomers. Theaters started booking midnight spook-shows or spook-a-thons to draw a crowd. These shows had magic acts, Burlesque and sometimes Rock-n-Roll bands, and of course a couple of horror movies.
If you’ve ever seen the Steve McQueen film The Blob, well that’s what the Blob was attacking, a midnight spook show. The Blob is a great way to see how people really dressed and lived back then, as it was a regional film and not a studio one, with extras and locations that are all real.
You can still find flyers and ephemera on eBay for these shows, I have a few. They look great framed and matted.
What happened in the 60s with ‘Freaks’ was that the fifties teens were now turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. These midnight screenings started on college campuses and migrated to the cinema.
Like a pestilent tumor New York’s Elgin Theater is where the Midnight Movie would spread. Underground filmmakers like John Waters and his film ‘Pink Flamingos’ and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mystical psychedelic western ‘El Topo’ would have there successful runs. ‘El Topo’ played midnights seven days a week for nearly a year! Money talks and word got out so other exhibitors jumped on bandwagon.
By the 70s Midnight Movies had swept the country. Just about every local theater started playing pictures that the mainstream couldn’t get and stoners could.
After 20th Century Fox released ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ To uninterested audiences, executives saw that ‘Pink Flamingos’ and 30s exploitation film ‘Reefer Madness’ were doing very well with midnight screenings so they decided to rerelease it at midnight and it became an instant hit. As Michael Weldon said in his review in his must have book ‘The Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film’, “If this is the first film you are looking up then you probably know more about it than I do.” My sentiments precisely, not much of a fan of that movie. During the rest of the decade more cult films would start playing midnights but in 1977 another film would go on to be a huge success a film with a strange creature that made strange noises and I’m not referring to R2-D2 but David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’.
‘Eraserhead’ was born out of Lynch’s fear of being a new father. Made on funds from AFI and shot in black and white over the course of several years. It is a bleak industrial surreal nightmare that is both horrifying and touching. It premiered at Filmex The went straight to midnights. Most critics hated it but the midnight crowd loved it! Eraserhead had a successful run at The Nuart in L.A. where it played for three years! Comedian Mel Brooks loved it so much he asked Lynch to direct a script he owned, The Elephant Man.
Through the remainder of the 70s and through to the mid 80s you could get some friends together and a few beers and other things and enjoy a late evening of cult cinema. By the 80s there were some standard films that constantly played horror films: Eraserhead, Dawn of The Dead, Pink Flamingo’s, Female Trouble, Concert Films: Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same, The Who The Kids Are Alright, Urgh! A Music War, Coming Of Age films: Franc Rodham’s Quadrophenia, Hal Ashby’s Harold & Maude, Animated films: Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz The Cat, Wizard’s, Ivan Reitman’s Heavy Metal. These were some great times for me as well as a lot of people, to this day people still fondly remember those times from boomers talking about dropping acid and seeing ‘Pink Flamingos‘, or Gen X’ers sneaking in beers and watching ‘Dawn of The Dead‘.
So what happened?
Video is what killed it. Unfortunately inviting friends over to watch some messed up movie isn’t the same when your parents are in the next room. Will the midnight movie ever return? That’s difficult to say. With cinema just a click away I don’t think that piece of Americana come back. Going to these pictures was almost a rite of passage. As much as I loathe Rocky Horror, one had to see it at least once to experience what it was like. Just like being grossed out by the gore in Dawn of The Dead with a large crowd of peers. This piece of Americana is now lost in time.
-Phillip López Jiménez
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