Many of us are drawn to a dark, extravagant and often bizarre cinematic experiences. We find ourselves captivated by obscure settings, riddled plots and the prodigious characters that shape the films of John Waters, David Lynch and Jonas Mekas. While some of these films have made it into the mainstream, they are still targeted at a very specific and small audience, as not everyone is capable of sitting through the pace and eeriness of cult films like Eraserhead and Pink Flamingos. You might go as far as to say, that these films are still reserved for a counterculture, even in this day, seeing as they mainly speak to cinema fanatics who deliberately search for cinematic goodies away from the Hollywood variety.
Back in the 1970s, strangely clad characters would take to the streets of London, Paris and New York just before midnight, en route to catch a late night screening of their favorite movies. These were the type of films that were deemed flops by the movie industry and distribution companies, yet they managed to generate a following of devoted fans who would frequent midnight screenings to get several doses of their treasured characters and favored scenes. Take The Rocky Horror Picture Show for example; following its theatrical success as The Rocky Horror Show, director Jim Sharman and writer Richard O’Brien joined forces with Tim Curry to shoot the film version at Bray Studios and Elstree Studios in England. When it first opened at the United Artists Westwood in L.A., it attracted a great crowd; however, it was failing miserably everywhere else. Thanks to Tim Deegan, an executive at 20th Century Fox, the movie got a midnight slot at the Waverly Theatre in Greenwich Village, just after April Fools’ Day 1976, and within weeks Rocky Horror Fever really took off. Not only would people arrive in Transylvanian costumes, the audience would actually participate in the “Time Warp” and talk back to the characters onscreen.
Which was the first real midnight movie is debatable, but we would probably go with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, which was pushed by Ben Barenholtz, renowned for having supported Eraserhead and managing The Village Theatre between 1966 and 1968. He suggested that in slotting these films during the ghostly hours of the night, the audience was granted a sense of “self-discovery.” This suggests that during a time when abstract, artistic films often caused for outrage and ridicule, people were looking for a personal cinematic experience, one that included like-minded freaks but wasn’t prone to overly analytical or mainstream thinking. The philosophy behind the midnight movies slowly fizzled by the time the ’80s came around, but that doesn’t mean that there were fewer films circulating that would never make it to mainstream theaters. We may have easier access to them thanks to the Internet and are now more prepared to embrace the likes of cult cinema, but the viewing experience can be a lonely one. What we need is to join together once again, in a show of complete and utter freakishness, to celebrate the continuing beauty of creative cinema. Here are some examples of stupendous modern films with midnight movie circuit potential!
1. Hedwig and The Angry Inch (2001)
This troubled yet lovable “slip of a girly boy” is the best thing that happened to us since Frank N. Furter. In this film, John Cameron Mitchell not only proved himself as a bona fide rocker with a killer set of legs, he also got to show off his writing and directing skills. The success of Hedwig and The Angry Inch prompted him to further explore his talents with Shortbus (2006) and Rabbit Hole (2010).
The film tells the story of Hansel Schmidt (Cameron Mitchell) who grew up in communist East Germany. Young Hansel is fascinated with rock music and already seems to be very in tune with his sexuality. This self-awareness is enhanced when he meets Luther Robinson (Maurice Dean Wint), an American soldier who wins Hansel’s heart with licorice drops and jelly rolls. Hansel needs some sugar in his bowl! Hansel and Luther get married, but in order for Hansel to be able to leave the country, he needs to undergo an official sex change. Hansel takes on his mother’s name, Hedwig, and agrees to the operation. However, Hedwig wakes up to find that something went wrong during the operation, and she is now left with a one-inch mound of flesh between her legs—the infamous “Angry Inch.”
The romance between Hedwig and Luther does not last, and soon Luther leaves her for another man. To deal with her pain, Hedwig forms a rock band with some Korean Hausfraus, before meeting Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), a fair-skinned, innocent-looking young boy whom she believes to be her soul mate. Tommy, whose Christian background stops him from pursuing the affair any further, leaves Hedwig—but not before she christens him with his stage name Tommy Gnosis. When he goes off to become a famous rock star, Hedwig is appalled to find he is performing the songs she had written for him. Fueled with hurt and humiliation, Hedwig and The Angry Inch—now consisting of Eastern European musicians—follow Tommy’s tour in order to preach their predicament to the masses. Only Hedwig and his angry inches don’t have the means for a big tour, so they take to playing cheap Chinese and seafood restaurants.
While most of the songs are actually performed live during their little restaurant gigs, various songs accompany artistic interludes throughout the film. Some of them are flashbacks providing a better idea of Hedwig’s background, while others are animated sequences, often focusing on images and sketches we see throughout the movie, such as Hedwig’s tattoo. Either way, with songs like “The Origin of Love,” “Wig in a Box” and “Angry Inch,” we can totally imagine Hedwig fanatics going wild in small, atmospheric and gritty theaters, just around midnight.
2. Enemy (2013)
If you walked out of the cinema after having watched Enemy feeling confused and haunted by images of creepy-crawly spiders, don’t worry—it happened to the best of us. Director Dennis Villeneuve hasn’t been very forthcoming in terms of his theory surrounding this film, other than that “Sometimes you have compulsions that you can’t control coming from the subconscious … they are the dictator inside ourselves.” Okay, so that really cleared it up for us.
Enemy is based on the novel The Double by the Portuguese writer José de Sousa Saramago. While the general storyline of the film has remained true to the original, Enemy delves a lot deeper into the teachings of the main protagonist, Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is a history professor, and his lectures about totalitarian states. Without reading between the lines and focusing on details within the film’s imagery, one may think that the sole focal point is the loss of individuality through the discovery of a doppelgänger. But then, what do spiders have to do with doppelgängers?
Meet Adam, the history professor who seems to have no hobbies other than drinking wine, teaching and having sex with his girlfriend. When one day a colleague recommends the movie Where There’s A Will There’s A Way, it changes Adam’s life drastically. In it, he notices an actor in a small role who looks exactly like him. He tracks the actor down and starts stalking him, growing more and more obsessed with his mysterious doppelgänger. The film and the characters may not be overly dramatic, but the scenery and, above all, the colors used, harbor a strange sense of intensity reminiscent of the Lynchian color-code. When Adam finally meets his double, Anthony, they realize that they are in fact identical—right down to a scar they both sport on their chests and stomach area—but their personalities couldn’t be more different.
They agree to play a dangerous game by switching lives, and the outcome of their switcheroo couldn’t have been more tragic. We may have an understanding of what is going on with the characters, but we are still unsure about the spiders that frequent seemingly random scenes throughout the movie. If you look closely, you will discover various details that resemble a spider’s intricate webbing: the streetcar wires for example, and the cracked windshield we see nearing the end of the movie. The movie poster shows a giant spider, a la Louise Bourgeois’ Maman, towering over the city. This suggests that the city has fallen victim to a totalitarian web that has “censored any means of individual expression,” only Adam is not yet aware of it.
With its eerily calm tone and a visual storyline bursting with detail, Enemy is exactly the kind of movie you should watch in the wee hours of the night—just make sure the bed-spiders don’t bite!
3. Gummo (1997)
“Proof that kids should not play with cameras”—that’s how a CNN critic described Harmony Korine’s directional debut Gummo. Fair enough—it’s definitely not something for an audience seeking beauty and exaggerated environments. This is a film made for the hidden public: The night-owls, those in want of life’s grittier details, those who feel intrigued by the obscure. If you have ever flipped through Larry Clark’s photo-series Tulsa, it is likely that one of two things happened: Either you felt nauseated and disgusted by the man behind the camera or you felt inspired to ponder the fine line between addiction and deluded romance. It might help to think of Gummo as the white-trash version of the Tulsa series—only in motion picture, and based in Xenia, Ohio.
The film opens up to random footage of the 1974 “Super Outbreak,” a F5 tornado which wiped out at least half of the city, a place the Shawnee Indians dubbed “the place of the devil wind.” The song “My Little Rooster” by Almeda Riddle playing in the background gives us an immediate sense of the film’s overall surroundings. A seemingly young, hoarse narrator takes us through the events of the tornado and recalls his own personal experience of it: “I saw a girl fly through the sky, and I looked up her skirt. Her skull was smashed. And some kids died.” Between images of natural devastation, we get a taste of Xenia’s surviving inhabitants, and it feels almost as though the narrator is trying to emphasize and excuse their post-apocalyptic survival tactics. A teenaged “Bunny Boy” (Jacob Sewell), wearing nothing but a pair of shabby shorts, tennis shoes and pink bunny ears whiles away his time pissing and spitting on cars from an overpass. Yet another teenager, Tummler (Nick Sutton), is seen dragging off a cat and drowning it.
Tummler is considered as “downright evil,” and with his twisted mind “he’s got what it takes to be a legend.” Together with Solomon (Jacob Reynolds), he spends his days in search of cats to kill and sell to the local grocer to be butchered. They use their earnings on the local, mentally handicapped prostitute who is being pimped out by her brother. When we are introduced to two moon-child sisters, with albino white hair and eyebrows, and their beloved house cat, we already sense disaster lurking. When the sisters are not busy taping their nipples and moistening their lips for the camera, they show great concern for their kitty, which has just escaped a violent death with a shotgun, thanks to Solomon insisting on it being a house cat. But Solomon and Tummler are not the only kids in town trying to make a buck; Jarrod (Daniel Martin) is in the same business, only he has taken a quieter approach to killing the cats: he uses poison.
The film continues to introduce strange characters like two skinhead brothers who are said to have killed their parents, and vile images such as Solomon eating his dinner in a bathtub filled with murky brown water. We even get to experience Harmony Korine himself in action as an intoxicated man lusting after a non-enthused gay dwarf. Search the Internet for reviews of Gummo and you will see that, much like many predecessors of the Midnight Movie circuit, this film is widely misunderstood; however, ask renowned directors such as Werner Herzog about Korine’s work, and he will tell you he’s “My Hero.” Any film approved by the likes of Herzog can immediately be entered into the cult category.
4. Dog Days (2001)
There are certain days in life where all the shit we’re feeling is intensified; this could be the effect of alcohol, drugs, sickness, depression or, as is the case in Dog Days (original title: Hundstage), heat. Directed by Austrian director and producer Ulrich Seidl, this film explores the heightened perception of life’s miseries on Vienna’s hottest days of the year. Merging worldly dysfunctionalities with a sense of humor and stoicism only the Austrians are capable of, this film slaloms between tears of laughter and emotional pain. There is only one guarantee for this movie: You will walk out feeling depressed but laughingly so. The characters chosen for the schizophrenically humorous side of Dog Days, offer an immaculate portrayal of Austrian suburbia and dry, to-the-point dialogue.
Dog Days is split into six seemingly separate stories that are connected in subtle ways. The first story introduces Klaudia (Franziska Weisz) and her masochistic tendencies that keep bringing her back to her abusive boyfriend, Mario (René Wanko). After a night at the disco where Klaudia attracts the attention of various men, Mario dumps her on the highway after having beaten her in a fit of jealousy. The cycle repeats itself again the next day. The second story is about Anna (Maria Hofstätter), who spends her days catching rides with strange people she approaches at her local supermarket. She has no apparent destination in mind, but is simply intrigued by the stories of others. She bombards her chosen chauffeurs with intimate questions, completely free of any form of tact. Some react aggressively to her quirky interrogations, whereas others opt to treat her like a child who repeatedly asks “Why.”
Another brilliant character is introduced in the fourth story; Walter (Erich Finsches) is a lonely, anal widow who has found a new hobby to keep him busy through retirement. He weighs every single product bought from the supermarket to check whether the stated weight is accurate. Whenever he finds tins or food packages to be inaccurately weighed, he demands his money back. His housekeeper also keeps him entertained and, on his wedding anniversary, agrees to cook him a Schweinsbraten wearing his deceased wife’s dress. The last story concentrates on a separated married couple who still live in the same house after the death of their young daughter. They both have very different ways of coping with their grief. While the woman tries to lose herself by frequenting the Swinger Club of the local shopping district, the man goes through his daily vacuum activities. There’s a real sense of loathing between the two of them, which is intensified when the woman openly fools around with a masseuse in front of her husband. After threatening the masseuse and scaring him out of the house, the couple seems to reconnect whilst sitting on their daughter’s swing set.
When asked why he does not explore the happy moments of life in his films, Ulrich Seidl answered: “What’s there to say about happiness? Life isn’t about happiness; it’s more about the search for happiness and the disappointment about happiness never or seldom being reached. Maybe that’s why our everyday life is embossed by people promising happiness. Everywhere—right down to our most intimate areas—people promising happiness are at work. And just look at the people on the streets. Apparently lots of happy people.”
And this, ladies and gentleman, is obviously the type of philosophy we only feel comfortable contemplating when the lights have gone out all around us, and we have nothing left to do but succumb to our personal dog days.