At the smoke of midnight

FILM They started with a film deemed too heavy for a usual showing. But as Karen Kissane reports, midnight screenings took on a life of their own.

IT WAS, IS, AND EVER WILL BE a seriously weird film. El Topo is a mystical, spaghetti-western, coming-of-age movie with references to Taoism, Sufism, Tarot, Nietzsche and Zen Buddhism, a hero who is both a killer and a saint – and bucketloads of gore.
Its violence is grotesque in form and Biblical in volume: whole towns are massacred, a room swings with hanging men, animals are butchered and people are raped, tortured and castrated. Perhaps the most arresting of the film’s surreal images is that of a genuinely legless man riding on the back of a genuinely armless one.
Ben Barenholtz first saw El Topo (The Mole) screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1970. Half the audience walked out, but he was fascinated. He was the owner of New York’s Elgin Theatre and he decided to screen previews of the film at midnight because “it was too heavy to be shown in any other way”. There was almost no advertising but the film soon took off among counter-culture cognoscenti (former Beatle John Lennon saw it three times). Part of its attraction, cinema historians later concluded, was due to management’s resigned tolerance of marijuana consumption in the balcony.
Barenholtz did not know it then but he had just played midwife to the birth of what would become an avant-garde ritual of the 1970s: the midnight movie.
Between 1970 and 1977, a handful of films – mostly low-budget and recent, some revivals of old movies, but all deviant or shocking in some way – shattered social and sexual taboos. They became the blockbusters of the witching hour, with queues stretching around city blocks and big theatres filling to capacity.
The Melbourne International Film Festival recently screened a 2005 documentary on the phenomenon by writer and director Stuart Samuels titled Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream. From this week, ACMI Cinemas will run late-night showings of several of the key works: El Topo, the gruesome horror Night of the Living Dead, the champion gross-out Pink Flamingos, David Lynch’s dream-like Eraserhead, the reggae outlaw movie The Harder They Come, and the madly camp, cannibalistic and sexually omnivorous Rocky Horror Picture Show, with its sweet transvestite Transylvania-a-a-a-an.
They are not for the faint-hearted. One of the investors in the low-budget Night of the Living Dead was a meatpacker. He arrived on set with sacks of animal intestines for the filming of human-flesh-eating scenes. In Pink Flamingos, the “heroine”, the flame-haired transvestite Divine, is the queen of filth until her title is challenged by the delivery of a gift-boxed turd from a pair of rivals. Divine reclaims her title in an epilogue to the movie that involves a fluffy poodle and coprophilia (head for your dictionary, dear reader, as the definition does not sit well in a family newspaper). Suffice to say the film was compared to an exploded septic tank.
Flamingos director John Waters saw viewer repugnance as a professional triumph. “To me, bad taste is what it’s all about,” he said in one interview. “If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.” Critics analysed Waters, a lapsed Catholic, as a director who depicted humanity with a mixture of amused tolerance and metaphysical disgust.
Some cult movies of the ’70s were historical artefacts. Reefer Madness, a black-and-white “documentary” from 1936, with a melodramatic tale of murder, madness and suicide caused by the demon weed cannabis, was viewed for its unintended humour, usually through a sardonic haze of reefer smoke. Audiences could get high just breathing the air in the cinema, one theatre director told Stuart Samuels.
Freaks is an even earlier movie (1932), by director Tod Browning, who used real people with disabilities to play the sideshow freaks of the title. They included conjoined twins, a limbless man known as the Human Torso, and people with pathologically undersized brains who were referred to in the film as “pinheads”. Browning’s treatment of them was sympathetic – the moral of his tale is that beauty is only skin deep, and it is the “normal” characters in his film who are wicked. But his cast was so shocking to filmgoers of the time that Freaks was banned in Britain for 30 years.
According to Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman, who wrote the classic book Midnight Movies, transgressing taboos was only one of the two essential ingredients for a cult film. The other, they argued, was that the film should offer “immediately relevant social metaphors”. In real life, the maker of the bloody El Topo had been present for the aftermath of a mass shooting by Mexican police that killed dozens of university students. The director of Night of the Living Dead told Samuels he had tried to imitate the grainy horror of nightly TV news reports of the carnage in the Vietnam war. Rocky Horror played with the changing sexual politics of the ’70s. To the cultist, these films were deep and important.
In Melbourne, at least part of their attraction was prosaic, according to Cinema Nova director John Rouse. He was a media student when midnight movies were running in Melbourne, which was then a very tame town: “In the context of the late ’70s, there was nothing else to do. There was no late-night TV, pubs closed at 10, we didn’t have video stores. Melbourne came to a screeching halt at 11.30 pm.”
Later, Rouse went on to run the Valhalla Cinema. For years the Valhalla’s cult-program posters hung on the back of the dunny door in every self-respecting inner-city student house in Melbourne. He says the Valhalla can claim the credit for turning the droll musical The Blues Brothers – the Sound of Music of cult movies, one that parents can happily watch with their children – into an international midnight-movie phenomenon.
Like Rocky Horror, The Blues Brothers had initially failed on general release and was written off as “one of the all-time box-office flops”. Rouse and his colleagues thought it was fun and that it was bigger than the response to it suggested. They took a punt and programmed it every Friday night for six months.
It ran for years. Regulars started to arrive dressed as characters in the show and acting out scenes as they were played on screen, “including small, minor bureaucratic figures, just so they could have their own tiny moment in the sun when their character came on. People from the military and police loved it; they would rappel down from the balcony. It was a complete party.” Its Melbourne success led producers to rethink, and the film was re-released around the world. “We invented the Blues Brothers phenomenon,” Rouse says.
He says Melbourne was slower to catch on to the audience theatricality that became such an entrenched part of the Rocky Horror experience. It was not until the 1980s movie Fame, with a scene in which characters dressed up and acted out roles at a Rocky screening, that Melbourne cinema-goers “got it”.
For ACMI’s screening of Rocky, curator Lisa Pieroni has organised an original participant in the Melbourne parties to co-ordinate the live aspects of the performance. “I’ve asked the cleaners if they can cope with rice (for the wedding scene) and water pistols (for the rainstorm),” she laughs.
How influential were midnight movies? Geoff Mayer, associate professor of film studies at La Trobe University, believes they did not affect the making of mainstream movies but did help develop a greater sophistication in audiences: “People are more knowing now. People are more literate with regard to form. But we have still got only a small audience here who look forward to more innovative films that will be in your face and formally challenging.”
But Pieroni believes midnight movies have changed mainstream entertainment more generally. “Isn’t it something that is part of the Big Brother thing? When they televise turkey-slapping, people are up in arms about it but they also enjoy it to the nth degree. You can still see why these films appealed to people; we enjoy being shocked and intrigued and having the boundaries pushed.”
Freaky Fridays Spotlight: Midnight Movies, will start from 18 August at 10 pm at ACMI Cinemas, Federation Square,
The book Midnight Movies, by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, is published by De Capo Press.

First published in The Age 12 August 2006.