In this week’s Criticwire Survey, I asked critics to name the ultimate midnight movie. Their responses were uniformly excellent, and ran the gamut from obvious classics like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “El Topo” to aspirational choices like “Starship Troopers” and “Wild Zero.” Their answers reinforced the notion that the term “midnight movie” is incredibly flexible. There isn’t just one kind of movie that’s fun to watch late at night. So many genres, styles, and tones lend themselves to midnight screenings. But how many exactly? This seemed like something worth settling in quasi-definitive fashion.
Glancing at the survey responses and my own DVD and Blu-ray collection, I jotted down a preliminary list of as many kinds of midnight movies as I could think of. Then I cross-referenced my choices with the definitive text on this subject: “Midnight Movies” by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum. One chapter in Hoberman and Rosenbaum’s book is organized as a sort of de facto list of midnight movie subgenres including rock, drugs, drag, camp, and agit-prop. I mixed their list with my own, condensing some categories and splitting others, until I settled on this final batch of ten different kinds of midnight movies. So far I haven’t been able to find a true midnight flick that doesn’t fit in here somewhere. But I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong.
1. Mindfuck Movies
Sample Texts: “Eraserhead,” “Donnie Darko”
Late Night Appeal: Stay up late and your mind starts playing tricks on you: you hear strange noises, see weird things, you nod off in the middle of doing something else. Mindfuck movies essentially externalize that phenomenon and turn it into a shared experience. When you watch “Eraserhead” late at night you’re participating in a sort of mass hallucination, and no one in the room believes their eyes.
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2. Movies That Simulate Drug Taking
Sample Texts: “Easy Rider,” “Altered States”
Late Night Appeal: Drug simulations operate in a similar way to mindfuck movies, warping our perception of both fantasy and reality, but they also provide a textual explanation for deranged stimulus: narcotic substances. Though it’s not one of the definitive midnight movies, Ken Russell’s “Altered States” is probably the most definitive title for a midnight movie in history.
3. Movies That Encourage Drug Taking
Sample Texts: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Half Baked”
Late Night Appeal: Simple: these movies, which can be about drug users but don’t necessarily have to be, tacitly encourage getting high and spacing out to weird stuff. Let’s not investigate it too deeply, lest we overanalyze it and kill the magic, like looking at the ingredient list on a package or Oreos.
4. So Bad It’s Good
Sample Texts: “The Room,” “Plan 9 From Outer Space”
Late Night Appeal: Midnight movies are the domain of misfits and outcasts — the sort of people who have nothing better to do with their lives than stay up until 3:00 AM watching “Showgirls” — and there are no greater misfits and outcasts in the world of cinema than directors who followed their passion so blindly that they remained totally oblivious to the fact that they were producing an epically bad film. The folks who go to midnight movies understand and embrace that sort of attitude and passion. That and, as social media proves during any major awards show, it’s really fun to celebrate ineptitude, regardless of the time of day.
5. Quotable Comedies
Sample Texts: “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”
Late Night Appeal: In “Midnight Movies,” Hoberman and Rosenbaum locate the origins of midnight movies in the phenomenon of cultism and the idea of turning cinema into a sort of religion, with the midnight movie equating roughly to the midnight mass. If that’s true then the quotable comedy is the Lord’s Prayer: the reading that everyone knows the words to, whose power is strengthened by the fact that it is so widely understood and shared, and then spoken aloud in unison.
6. Nostalgia Acts
Sample Texts: “The Breakfast Club,” “Ghostbusters”
Late Night Appeal: Nostalgia acts needn’t necessarily be quotable comedies but they perform the same ritualistic function. As Hoberman and Rosenbaum note, repetition lends a ritual power. Retreating to a classic from our childhood is an invocation of ritual, one that opens a portal to a past life so we can re-experience something we’d done decades earlier.
7. Extreme Gore
Sample Texts: “Night of the Living Dead,” “Cannibal Holocaust”
Late Night Appeal: There is a slightly illicit quality to the midnight movie experience — like you’re waiting at any moment for your mother to walk into the theater and tell you it’s way past your bedtime — that adds a small but important component to the entertainment value. That’s why truly transgressive horror movies that feel wrong and maybe even illegal play so well at midnight. Suddenly it seems like the cops are going to bust in instead of your mom.
8. Shock Tactics
Sample Texts: “Pink Flamingos,” “Freaks”
Late Night Appeal: See above, while recognizing that not all clandestine activities need involve violence: sex, bodily disfigurement, or coprophilia all qualify as acceptable taboo-busting activities suitable for late night consumption, repulsion, or fetishization.
9. Rock and Roll Spectacle
Sample Texts: “Pink Floyd the Wall,” “Tommy”
Late Night Appeal: We go to the movies together; we experience them alone. Even if you go to the theater with a hundred friends, the movie itself becomes an individual experience. That is, of course, unless we’re going to a midnight movie, where singing along, shouting at the screen, getting drunk, taking drugs, all make you a part of a community. As a result, midnight movies are the closest cinemas get to a rock concert, which probably explains why so many concert films and musicals that barely made a dent at the box office during normal business hours later became midnight movie staples.
10. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”
Sample Texts: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”
Late Night Appeal: As I fleshed out these ten categories, I quickly realized that “Rocky Horror” fit into all of them simultaneously. “Rocky” is a rock and roll spectacle with shock tactics, a so-bad-it’s-good mindfuck created as a piece of nostalgia that now also works as self-nostalgia. In “Midnight Movies,” Hoberman and Rosenbaum co-opt Umberto Eco’s quote about “Casablanca” being not just a movie but “the movies” and apply it to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” — it’s such a weird blend of genres and styles that it feels like every movie that has ever or could ever be made, crammed into 100 minutes. As midnight movies go, it is in a class by itself; ever imitated, never duplicated. It stands alone, with toast in its hair.