Midnight WATCH Once, late-night showings of offbeat movies full of camp and gore cast a counterculture spell over an audience of young rebels. But is that magic gone for good?

July 18, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

In midnight movies, it's common for people to come back from the dead. But it may not be quite as easy to resurrect the midnight movie itself.

The Charles Theatre is taking a stab at it. Along with 30 other theaters nationwide, the Charles is screening the 1980 horror flick "The Beyond," hoping to appeal to niche, night-owl audiences and resuscitate enthusiasm for the type of offbeat midnight films that flourished from the early '70s through the mid-'80s.

Creepy and campy, "The Beyond," directed by Lucio Fulci, features tongue-eating tarantulas, decaying corpses and bone-chillingly bad acting. The three-week run of Friday and Saturday midnight showings at the Charles began July 10.

The film opened in its first markets June 12 and adds a handful of new venues every week. Since then, the movie has earned about $65,000 nationally -- nearly $22,000 in the first weekend and $9,000-$12,000 each subsequent weekend -- says John Vanco, vice president of the film's distributor, Cowboy Booking International. "It's been holding really well," he says.

Despite the film's success, film aficionados and industry experts maintain that a full-scale revival of the midnight movie phenomenon -- epitomized by the gender-bending standard-bearer "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," released in 1975 -- is unlikely.

"There's no such thing as a midnight movie phenomenon anymore," says Baltimore filmmaker John Waters. "Video wrecked it. Everyone has their own midnight movie parties any time they want it."

Waters' early films, such as 1972's "Pink Flamingos," are classic examples of late-night counterculture staples.

Among other midnight-movie standards are the dystopian vision David Lynch's "Eraserhead" (1978), gore-fests such as "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) and straight (and not so straight) camp, like "Rocky Horror."

Mutants, transvestites, dripping demons and tripping teens all have had their place. Pretty much the only commonality in these films is an undeniable anti-mainstream quality.

"It has to be a certain kind of film that presents sex and violence in a new way and gets on my generation's nerves," Waters says.

The first film to be released exclusively at midnight was "El Topo," a surreal, dark western from 1971. It brought in enthusiastic crowds at the Elgin Theater in New York City and proved to be enough of a counterculture smash to instigate a trend.

Quirky movies that tanked in mainstream release, such as "Night of the Living Dead," "Repo Man" (1984) and, more recently, "Showgirls" and "Gummo," found enthusiastic audiences when moved to exclusive midnight showings.

"They worked, because people sensed intuitively it was something they had to see," says Elliott Lavine, programmer for the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco. The theater used to have many midnight shows but hasn't had much success with them in the past five or six years.

Creative rebellion

When midnight movies reigned, several elements fell together to ensure their success.

"The audiences were the most insane. The insane audiences created this demand," Waters says. Today, "it's harder to get people to go to a midnight movie because they're not on drugs."

And when midnight movies first became popular, circa 1970, American cinema itself was undergoing a creative rebellion that added to the stoned masses' delight, says J. Hoberman, film critic for the Village Voice and author of "Midnight Movies."

"There was this situation where movies would open at midnight and develop substantial followings," he says.

But by the mid-'80s, theaters that ran weekly midnight shows sensed a definite drop in interest. The UC Cinema in Berkeley, Calif., has been running "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" for 22 years.

And while it still draws about 200 nightcrawlers for "Rocky" every Saturday night, it's far less than the more than a thousand a week the film once drew, says Mark Toscano, the theater's chief of staff.

The underground, unplanned aesthetic of the original midnight movie was part of the subversive charm.

"It would've been the kiss of death to market something as a midnight movie," Hoberman says.

But "The Beyond" is being marketed as a midnight movie. Lavine opted out of buying "The Beyond" for the Roxie. "Now it seems a little mechanical; part of a marketing strategy."

Waters agrees: "You can't make a midnight movie on purpose," he says. "It becomes one because the audience wants it to be one."

Still, '90s audiences, who aren't familiar with the original midnight scene, are attracted by its trendy retro aspect. But it's mostly a novelty demand.

In the case of "Rocky Horror," Toscano says, "It seems like since it's already passed from generation to generation, it's definitely diminished. In the new generation, some embraced it, and others went to look for something new."

A midnight movie's true cult success is based on its staying power, its ability to pull in the same devotedly warped crowd week after week.

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