Tod Browning’s 1932 film was one of the first canonized midnight movies and is a prime example of the kind of movie that gets adopted by cult film fans: stories about outsiders, featuring taboo subjects and apparent exploitative elements. Starring real-life carnival sideshow performers with real deformities, Freaks was a cabinet of curiosities for the average moviegoer.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Jim Sharman’s 1975 musical hardly needs an introduction. Shortly after its release, Rocky Horror was adopted by audiences at late-night screenings, who attended shows dressed as the film’s outrageous characters (Tim Curry at his most fabulous) and talked back to the screen, interacting with all the campy goings-on. Theaters took note of the response to Rocky Horror‘s sweet transvestites from Transsexual, Transylvania and encouraged midnight attendance by offering prizes and freebies. If you haven’t hurled insults during a Rocky Horror screening in a while, now is the time to revisit the movie in theaters: it turns 40 this year.
David Lynch’s first feature-length film opened to 25 people back in 1977, but the movie gained in popularity through midnight screenings. There was an aura of mystery around Eraserhead‘s production that was very attractive to audiences — something Lynch has maintained with almost every film he’s released since then. Lynch’s experimental approach brought art-film aficionados and cult-movie weirdos together in one movie house.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 acid-Western El Topo is considered one of the progenitors of the midnight movie, thanks to its surreal visuals and bizarre characters (including people with real deformities). Before finding American distribution, the show was a regular hit with midnight audiences looking for a late-night head trip. Beatles manager Allen Klein purchased the movie (at the encouragement of John Lennon), helping El Topo find a larger audience — and the film continues to play the midnight circuit at theaters like Manhattan’s IFC Center.
Pink Flamingos is the gateway to John Waters’ cult aesthetic and pro-trash style, offering audiences the right kind of camp and quotables for midnight madness. The 1972 film got people talking. Cult film freaks looking for the next big thing wanted to watch the great Divine eat dog feces — and live to tell all their friends about it the next day.
Night of the Living Dead
George A. Romero’s nihilistic 1968 zombie opus made re-watching movies a ritual — its fan base rabid and its influence vast. In Romero’s movie, the zombies win — which delighted midnight moviegoers. Night of the Living Dead became the key to many successful horror and cult films.
The Telephone Book
“A major, though forgotten, work from New York’s underground film scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s, Nelson Lyon’s The Telephone Book tells the story of Alice, a sex-obsessed hippie who falls in love with the world’s greatest obscene phone caller and embarks on a quest to find him,” writes cult film distributor Vinegar Syndrome. The company helped restore the movie, making a strong case for the preservation of porn and exploitation cinema as art.
Black Devil Doll From Hell
Chester Novell Turner directed only two films, but found cult status amongst VHS acolytes with this insane, essential movie about a perverted ventriloquist’s dummy. The movie succeeded on midnight screens in large part due to the fans’ love, but also a myth that the director had been tragically killed. Read about the fascinating history of Black Devil Doll from Hell in the New York Times.
A movie brought to light by fans who embraced it as a camp classic and saw the film’s hokey alarmism as hysterical.
Arthur Penn’s 1969 film was embraced by audiences who wryly acknowledged the wistful passing of the counterculture in its own time. A midnight venue felt right.
Walter Hill’s rowdy 1979 cult hit mythologized New York City as a great melting pot of violence and mayhem in a way only previously imagined in comic books.
The Evil Dead
The cult of Bruce Campbell is a force to be reckoned with. Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror-comedy contained enough gross-out humor to fill theater seats. Midnighters looking for a little action with their terror found a home in Evil Dead.
A film about drugs, the perils and experience of them? A film about expanding your consciousness? Of course Ken Russell’s 1980 science fiction-tinged film became a midnight trip-movie classic.
Pink Floyd The Wall
The 1982 musical movie became a focal point for the album, giving the fans something to rally around — encapsulating feelings of alienation, which midnight movie freaks can relate to.
Gerald Potterton’s 1981 adult animated movie became a great showcase for underground comic artists. It revels in stoner-friendly fantasies of empowerment — and gave audiences T & A, ray guns, and swords.
A film for those who felt doomed to be misunderstood and one that empathizes with the outcasts, Easy Rider got a lot of fist pumps at midnight screenings from marijuana-cloaked misfits.
Plan 9 From Outer Space
Ed Wood’s odd retro artifact throws Bela Lugosi (a posthumous billing), Vampira, and Lyle Talbot in a blender, and makes it work. Wood had a massive filmmaker’s ego, but lacked the talent of his idols. Still, this madman of movies, who possessed a certain kind of genius, drew midnight fans to see one of “the worst movie ever made,” and won them over with his B-movie charm.
An endurance test for even the bravest of horror fans, Cannibal Holocaust‘s midnight allure centered on its reputation as one of the banned and censored video nasties, featuring real animal deaths and shocks galore. It was a rumored real-life snuff film, which found director Ruggero Deodato arrested on obscenity charges — also adding to its midnight appeal.
2001: A Space Odyssey
2001 is a trip movie, but it’s also a movie that seems to offer something different every time you see it — at least until we all venture to space or become gods, and the unexplained becomes obvious. This makes 2001 ripe for repeat midnight viewings.
Fritz the Cat
Ralph Bakshi’s 1972 film makes fun of everyone — from pseudo-counterculture rebels to members of the establishment. The adult animation contains the same gross sexuality and tension of Robert Crumb’s early comic strips, which is a midnight movie draw in itself — but the film’s satirical elements were also a big hit. The X rating helped, too.
Meet the Feebles
A pervy Sesame Street — eccentric, exploitive, and surreal — Peter Jackson’s second film is a loud and proud button-pusher that appeals to fans of low humor and high satire.
A heady time capsule that doesn’t get enough credit for its odd comedy and is favored for its fashion and narrative about the appropriation of culture, Liquid Sky was a chance for midnight audiences to embrace the semiotics of punk — but wash it off the next day.
An example of just how wild Hong Kong movie moguls the Shaw brothers could be, Boxer’s Omen is about a spiritual journey that also features bat-demons, technicolor blood and vomit, and makeup effects that any horror die-hard would love. A great head-scratcher, Boxer’s Omen is an eternal midnight favorite for Asian cinema fans.
Dirty fun and an important entry in blaxploitation cinema, Shaft‘s macho charm and pulpy action — starring a hero who people still root for — stands above the usual trappings and cheesy stereotypes.
You don’t have to be a fan of silent film to appreciate Nosferatu, which is an instant ticker-seller thanks to our current familiarity with Dracula. The expressionist classic’s dated qualities only add to its surreality and continuing mystique. Movies simply aren’t made this way anymore — and audiences love to bask in its magic during the midnight hour.
Flesh for Frankenstein
Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Joe Dallesandro, Udo Kier — a recipe for a sexy, funny, rude midnight classic.
I Spit on Your Grave
The outrage is real. I Spit on Your Grave‘s creators wanted to incense viewers, while also titillating them with the film’s crimes. Made during a state a censorship limbo, the 1978 rape-and-revenge movie promoted a place of empowerment, but drew horror audiences for its gross and conflicted violence and thrills.
Gender-bending shocks, unsettling black comedy, and a Mick Jagger-fronted manifesto for the fluidity of sexuality.
A Pink Floyd soundtrack helped draw midnighters, but Michelangelo Antonioni’s film is also high on the feels, practically exploding with frustration. Complementary images of disaffected youth and the film’s famous climax made Zabriskie Point a must-see. Anarchic, poetic, and silly all at once.
Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS
Since the ’70s, the kinky Ilsa film series has carried a great taboo — which is rare in the era of Internet pornography. Effectively sexy, terrifying, and crude, Ilsa explores and embraces its titillating concept — and it became a cathartic experience for viewers willing to give in to evil for 96 minutes, only because they knew it would be destroyed in the end.
You either love Showgirls for its bizarre melodrama, sleazy humor, and dolphin-inspired sex scene, or you hate it. Paul Verhoeven’s seriously strange film about a stripper who makes it big draws midnight crowds who know that cocaine is passé and don’t feel guilty for laughing when the scantily clad heroine is asked point-blank if it feels weird “not having anybody cum on [her].”
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Director Russ Meyer was fascinated with aggressive, buxom women who could trash talk with the best of them, but still manage to be soft and sweet (to get what they wanted). Faster, Pussycat! is one of the greatest achievements in sexploitation cinema, in that it expressed sexuality through violence to sneak by the censors. The grrrl power is on the superficial side, but has inspired women, regardless, to do whatever the hell they please. A great film to cheer for in a crowded, excited theater.
Still a forbidden cult object, in part because it’s too disgusting to be widely circulated, Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik is smart, provocative, and a midnight-movie endurance test. Come for the corpse-fucking, stay for the unexpected sincerity and humor.
The cinematic trend of dystopian science fiction started with movies like Mad Max. The film’s strength and cult appeal is in its twisted archetypes and suggestive power. A midnighter for those craving a dose of imagination with their tough guys.
The Last House on the Left
A film reeling against the Vietnam/Nixon outrage in an exploitation package, Last House is a grisly and aggressive movie that became another midnight movie endurance test thanks to its raw themes and graphic scenes.
A truly unique hybrid film in that we see the work of William S. Burroughs through David Cronenberg’s aesthetic and how Burroughs’ cut-up sensibility informed the maestro of body horror’s work. A paranoid classic for the red-eye crowd.
Manga at midnight that dazzles, but has a visceral edge.
The Toxic Avenger
A product of Troma’s early days, when the company was still settling into its own skin, the film’s monster hero has become a symbol of independent cinema. The Toxic Avenger is marketable enough for an average midnight crowd, but the film (and the company) has its own fan base, making late-show screenings a truly communal experience.
One of the canonical psychotronic films that spoofs straight culture’s fears and doesn’t care to be strictly faithful to the movies it’s riffing on. Strange enough for the discerning viewer.
A pot comedy set in space — lean on the sci-fi extras and, well, plot — Dark Star‘s uneven tone didn’t make it a blockbuster during its time, but John Carpenter fans elevated its midnight status over the years.
Valley of the Dolls
The product of a major studio trying to put its finger on the pulse of a younger generation but not quite sure what excites them, Valley of the Dolls tries to exploit its own audience — and fails hilariously. This was also one of Sharon Tate’s last movies, adding to the surrounding curiosity.
This is the kind of movie you want to see with a midnight audience, though you might have trouble hearing the threadbare dialogue over the laughter. Gloriously tone-deaf and totally mind-boggling, Troll 2 is worthy of midnight movie worship and has gusto to spare.
A deconstruction of the kinds of films it presents itself as, Mondo Cane (one of many Italian exploitation oddities that used the word “mondo” in its title) mocks the documentary form and aims to shock and showcase its seedy, pseudo-ethnographic findings.
Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast is considered the first splatter film, but it’s also one of the first movies to revel in its own exploitation — and it made a decent amount of money doing so. Amateurish enough for the underground crowd, queasily funny enough for everyone else at midnight, Blood Feast boasted more publicity stunts than a Hollywood ingenue (and sent you home with your own vomit bag).
The Harder They Come
An enduring rude-boy narrative with a likable protagonist (Jimmy Cliff), The Harder They Come was an influential film that helped spread the gospel of reggae to audiences far and wide.
Director Stuart Gordon and writer Dennis Paoli gave late-night horror audiences what they craved: something surreal, something grotesque, and something sincere (it’s clear these guys are fond of the genre). Before Hot Topic was selling Lovecraftian goods to mall zombies, fans of the author were at the theater to see Gordon’s film for their midnight fix.
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages
A silent fantasy about the history of black magic and superstition that indulges viewers’ visions of devil worship and witchcraft in evocative, dramatized scenes that were heavily censored and exploited.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!
A loving spoof of B-movies that squeals with glee right from the title, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! is good-natured, goofy, and goes great with a tub of butter-drenched popcorn at midnight.
Perhaps Alex Cox’s most accessible film, Repo Man takes down Reagan-era consumerism by championing a reluctant punk hero who tries to get ahead — but only because he doesn’t know what else to do with his life.
The Wicker Man
Midnight audiences love a raunchy musical — and Robin Hardy’s 1973 film has the right tunes and more. Wicker Man is a folk ballad, a whodunnit, and a horror film, wrapped in a story where the counterculture prevails over the conservative interloper. The film’s pagan themes drew curious audiences who were shocked by its conclusion, realizing they had been rooting for the wrong person the whole time.