Starting in the 1950s, television stations around the nation began airing midnight movies as cheap programming alternatives. These were usually low-budget affairs, and the guys at Mystery Science Theater 3000 would’ve been thrilled with all the sci-fi and horror flicks being broadcast in these late-night slots.
KABC in Los Angeles was a trendsetter in this area, especially with their decision to hire Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira) as a host. Years later, her popularity as a midnight movie hostess would be eclipsed by the buxom Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (Cassandra Peterson). This would lead to other midnight movie programs such as Up All Night, Off Beat Cinema, TCM Underground, and Macabre Theatre (the latter hosted by Butch Patrick of The Munsters).
Two decades after midnight movies began appearing on television, the concept started gaining steam at theaters. New York City was a natural center for this cinematic development, as many theatre owners sought to establish a hardcore cult audience for their late-night showings. Fans would come back week after week to see the same film with their friends, often dressing up as their favorite characters and mimicking the action on the screen.
While the trend has trailed off a bit in recent years (especially on television), midnight movies are still alive and well. On any given night, listen closely enough and you may be able to hear the strains of “Time Warp” drifting out from a city near you.
- El Topo (1970) – Credited with starting the whole midnight movies phenomenon, El Topo is a Spanish “acid Western” about a gunfighter who seeks enlightenment while having sex with dwarves, taking on four gun masters, and forgetting to make his young son wear clothes. A thoroughly bizarre tale of redemption courtesy of director Alejandro Jodorowsky (who also stars in the title role).
- The Harder They Come (1972) – Reggae singer Jimmy Cliff stars as Ivanhoe Martin, an aspiring singer looking for a hit record in Kingston, Jamaica. But when the music business turns out to be too cutthroat for his liking, Ivanhoe resorts to a life of dealing marijuana to make his fortune. The top-notch soundtrack features Cliff and Desmond Dekker.
- The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – The king of the midnight movies, this ‘70s musical from writer Richard O’Brien stars Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick as a pair of young lovers who stumble across a castle after a flat tire leaves them stranded in a November downpour. Inside, they meet a bizarre cast of characters who all claim to be “Transylvanians.” But none are more bizarre than their leader, a cross-dressing mad scientist by the name of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). Boasting the longest theatrical release in the history of cinema, screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show are routinely filled with audience members in costume who know the words to every song (and aren’t afraid to sing them out loud). If you’re looking for an authentic midnight movie experience, track down a screening of this classic.
- The Evil Dead (1981) – Sam Raimi started his filmmaking career with this tale of big-chinned Bruce Campbell heading up to a cabin in the woods and knocking heads with a host of supernatural horrors. Packed with slapstick and dark comedy, it would be followed six years later by the superior Evil Dead II.
- Night of the Living Dead (1968) – The film that kicked off the whole craze for zombie movies, this George A. Romero horror classic is packed with shambling undead, terrified survivors, and more social commentary than you can shake a stick at.
- Harold and Maude (1971) – Oscar winner Ruth Gordon stars as Maude, an elderly woman determined to live life to its fullest. Harold (Bud Cort) is the young man with an obsession for death and a growing love for Maude. A dark rom-com that proves love is truly blind.
- Liquid Sky (1983) – Filled with lethal sex, aliens, rape, and drug-obsessed fashionistas, this New Wave tale from director Slava Tsukerman played for three consecutive years in New York, Washington D.C., and Boston. Any group of viewers will probably be divided right down the middle, but it’s still a must-see for fans of the unusual and avant garde.
- Pink Flamingos (1972) – One of the most notorious films from shockmeister John Waters, Pink Flamingos stars drag queen Divine as “the filthiest person alive.” When rivals dispute her claim to the title, she pulls out every stop to exact her revenge. Filled with chicken-crushing sex, poop eating, and anal lip syncing, Pink Flamingos remains one of the raunchiest and most entertaining films to ever grace a midnight movie showing.
- The Warriors (1979) – Walter Hill directed this action-packed tale of the Warriors, an assembly of Brooklyn toughs who attend a meeting of New York area gangs and wind up framed for the murder of the city’s underworld leader. With a bounty on their heads and the other gangs in pursuit, the Warriors must fight tooth-and-nail to make it back to the safety of Coney Island. Starring Michael Beck, James Remar, David Patrick Kelly, and Deborah Van Valkenburgh. “Warriors, come out and play!”
- The Room (2003) – Known as the “Citizen Kane of bad movies,” this Tommy Wiseau film (he wrote, produced, directed, and stars) features a love triangle, bizarre performances, and one of the most messed-up scripts you’ll ever encounter. Check out a few clips on YouTube, and you’ll be hooked by Wiseau’s not-of-this-Earth acting. He slyly claims it’s meant to be a comedy, but members of his cast have disputed this claim. Whatever the case, you won’t be able to stop laughing.
Whether you’re looking for midnight movies with lasting appeal or historical significance, the 10 films listed above should meet your needs. While there’s no substitute for catching them at the local multiplex, rest assured that you can also view them courtesy of online rental services such as Netflix, Blockbuster, and GreenCine.