Midnight Movies: From the Margins to the Mainstream

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am

Midnight Movies: From the Margins to the Mainstream

Featuring: Alejandro Jodorowsky, George A. Romero, John Waters, David Lynch

Director: Stuart Samuels

The film: Making its debut at the Cannes Film Festival two years ago, the DVD release of Stuart Samuels' documentary on 'midnight movies' - low-budget, idiosyncratic films that packed cinemas in the US in the early 1970s - is timed to ride a wave of interest rekindled by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's sexploitative double-bill Death Proof and Planet Terror. Far from just a cash-in, Samuels' insightful piece explores midnight movies by examining the sociological and commercial underpinnings that gave rise to the genre.

At the start of the documentary it's said the midnight movies - which basically trade in bizarre mysticism (Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo), over-the-top violence and vulgarisms (El Topo again, plus George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead and John Waters' Pink Flamingos), garish camp (Jim Sharman's The Rocky Horror Picture Show) or simply unmitigated weirdness (Eraserhead by David Lynch, right) - are 'the opening wedge in the birth of irony'. Samuels, however, contests that simplification of the genre by emphasising what went before and during the craze: political and business issues are as central as the popularity of the midnight movie to a listless generation's desire for cathartic entertainment.

Romero, for example, describes how he came to make Night of the Living Dead because the countercultural movements in the 1960s 'failed', and the 1970s ushered in an even bloodier chapter of the Vietnam war and an era of paranoia under Richard Nixon.

While the Woodstock spirit died at the hands of the Hell's Angels at Altamont and flower power withered, the energy of the 1960s was internalised - thus, the desire by filmmakers and film-goers to channel their frustrations through transgressive content - or as Waters (left) says in the documentary, his efforts to 'make bad taste 1 per cent more respectable' - and the way these ritual-like screenings of cult films became a sign of collective defiance from a lost generation.

With new interviews from the six filmmakers and also the cinema-owners who opened their venues for those movies back then, Samuels' piece is armed with all the elements necessary to understand the genre and also its repercussions in mainstream cinema. As suggested by the title, capitalist doctrines inevitably assimilated midnight movies into the mainstream - the gore in Jaws, cultivation of the cult mentality with the Star Wars films, all the way to Tarantino's irony-is-king vehicles such as Kill Bill.

The advent of video killed off midnight movies in the 80s: being able to watch a film at home proved too much of a distraction.

The extras: Extended interviews from the six filmmakers are invaluable, and so is inclusion of the electronic version of Samuels' book on the genre. But best of all are the two films that anchored the movement: Night of the Living Dead and Reefer Madness, the anti-marijuana public service film which became part of counter-cultural folklore for its bizarre representations of dope smoking.

The verdict: An intriguing chapter in filmmaking.