We love a good underdog story. “Small-time theater owners, who could rent inexpensive pictures without having to pay distributors a percentage of the receipts, were able to flourish, which led to the growth of art houses, revival houses, and third-run grind houses. And this, in turn, made the midnight movie phenomenon possible,” explains critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in Midnight Movies. Today, repertory movie houses like Los Angeles’ New Beverly Cinema and New York City’s Film Forum are keeping the spirit of the midnight movies alive with screenings of cult classics and weird indies. We recently brought you a list of the best midnight movies of all time. Since then, we’ve been wondering what films will be the cult objects of tomorrow? What movies from this century will endure as midnight classics? And so we present the best midnight movie candidates of the 21st century. Some of these movies are already screening during the late-night hours, and a few have yet to have their moment in the flickering spotlight. We examine why they’re a great fit for midnighters. This list is hardly finite, so we’d love to read about your picks, below.
Based on the Japanese manga of the same, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy examines revenge (the futility of it) and redemption through elaborately choreographed violence. Fast-paced action, hyper stylized camerawork, and a grim, existential view (somber poetry, during its finest moments) — along with the film’s historical importance (the movie helped bring Korean cinema to an international audience) — Oldboy has a pulpy, grindhouse edge that feels tailor-made for midnight audiences.
In the midnight movies bible, the aptly titled Midnight Movies by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, the latter critic discusses the evolution of late-night cinema’s progenitors. “You can say that midnight movies succeeded rather than failed, in the sense that the major figures in this movement — Waters and his entourage, Lynch, and George Romero — have all made it into the mainstream,” Rosenbaum states in a 1990 afterword. “But it’s a kind of success that resembles failure on certain fronts; it’s like saying that socialism in this country succeeded rather than failed when it became part of the New Deal.” He goes on to discuss Lynch’s work through a postmodern lens — “the placing of everything between quotation marks” — stating: “Even when an original artist like Lynch appears, it’s not long before he starts quoting himself, using his work in a postmodernist way. Agent Cooper’s dream in Twin Peaks is like recycled, simplified Eraserhead. Lynch’s development parallels the go-for-broke ecological and economic philosophy of this country during the Reagan years. You burn up the ground under your feet and you basically use up whatever you’ve got.” Rosenbaum sees the evolution of Lynch and the director’s “transformation of unconscious camp into conscious camp” as “more [systematic,] with a certain calculation.” Hoberman states that Lynch has “strip-mined his motifs and obsessions.”
Both critics felt Lynch redeemed himself with 2001’s Mulholland Drive: “The movie boldly teeters on the brink of self-parody, reveling in its own excess and resisting narrative logic. This voluptuous phantasmagoria . . . is certainly Lynch’s strongest movie since Blue Velvet and maybe Eraserhead. The very things that failed him in the bad-boy rockabilly debacle of Lost Highway — the atmosphere of free-floating menace, pointless transmigration of souls, provocatively dropped plot stitches, gimcrack alternate universes — are here brilliantly rehabilitated,” Hoberman writes. “It likes its characters and avoids sentimentalizing or sneering at them (the sort of thing that limited Twin Peaks, at least in spots),” Rosenbaum writes.
Sincere emotion and deeply personal observations about Hollywood culture, set in Lynch’s surreal, visually arresting universe, make the case for a new kind of midnight movie — one that’s both a product and a critique of our barbed, irony-beholden pop culture.
A leading doctor in the field of conjoined twin surgery drugs and imprisons two American girls and a Japanese man in his basement to create his masterpiece — a human centipede. He does this by surgically attaching the group entrance to exit. It’s a shocking premise that’s too gruesome to be embraced by mainstream audiences, adding to its appeal for midnighters. But Tom Six’s work of body horror takes the Texas Chainsaw Massacre approach to terror — showing almost no blood and gore for the first 40 minutes, building anticipation and allowing our minds to fill things in that perhaps weren’t there. The Human Centipede also joins the ranks of Cannibal Holocaust and Nekromantik as films that became cultural endurance tests for cult film fans, adding to its storied history.
Home video and digital media have transformed the adoption of “midnight movies.” As Rosenbaum states in Midnight Movies: “You could argue that the absence of critics is valuable in the same way that the absence of critics initially helped midnight movies. With the audience left to itself, new kinds of communal responses become possible — even if the spectators are no longer in the same place.”
Donnie Darko was one of the first films to demonstrate this — initially a box office failure, now a cult phenomenon, director Richard Kelly spoke about his hopes for the film’s trajectory several years ago:
The first release just wasn’t meant to be. I feel like the film was meant to fail before it could succeed. It was meant to be this cult item before it could be more mainstream. There are always people who want Donnie Darko to be the cult film, the one they discovered. If there’s any way this film could ever cross over a bit more to the mainstream it would just allow me to continue to make these kinds of films. I think any time a counterculture piece of art infiltrates the mainstream, that’s a good thing.
For more in-depth reading on the history of the film’s status as a cult object, read Scott Tobias’ The New Cult Canon: Donnie Darko.
“The only midnight movies that seem to get any cultural traction these days are wildly miscalculated ineptfests like The Room (“You’re tearing me apart!”) or Birdemic,” laments critic Matt Singer. “So something as ambitiously bizarre as Panos Cosmatos’s ’70s-style sci-fi mind-fuck may feel like a premeditated bid for insta-cultdom, but more important, it’s a welcome attempt to bring back the days of El Topo and Eraserhead, when night owls embraced directors who wanted to screw with viewers’ heads, not just the ones who screwed up their chances for auteristic posterity.” A wide criticism of Panos Cosmatos’ 2010 film Beyond the Black Rainbow was its heavy genre pastiche, but as critic Simon Abrams wrote for Slant: “Borrowing equally from THX 1138 and Dark Star, writer-director Panos Cosmatos only initially appears to be a fanboy with a camera. Soon thereafter, the avant-garde aesthetic that defines Beyond the Black Rainbow, which infrequently appropriates the look and iconography of Luis Buñuel and Kenneth Anger, takes over.” The head film lives on.
In 1996, Wes Craven’s Scream gave new life to horror cinema’s clichés and conventions, examining the genre through a postmodern lens. Ti West’s 2009 film The House of the Devil did it his way, transforming horror’s predictable tropes. Before the film even opened in theaters, marketing materials and trailers revealed a retro aesthetic that mimicked the best-of ‘70s and ’80s genre cinema. Once audiences got past the film’s throwback opening credit sequences and costuming, West’s innovation took over. With such juicy source material, it would have been easy to overstuff his film with a hallmark of vintage delights. But West is more reserved. His slow and steady approach builds anticipation like few films from another era do, shifting the audience’s familiarity with the genre ever so slightly. From lingering shots inside a house that comes alive at night to Jocelin Donahue’s commanding performance as the movie’s heroine, The House of the Devil appeals to contemporary audiences’ nostalgia-hungry style, but is sharper and more precise than its grimy veneer would have you believe.
A quintessential poète maudit who became a cult figure with his first major film, 1984’s Boy Meets Girl, Leos Carax’s enigmatic reputation is inherently appealing to midnight movie audiences. His daring sensibilities and surreal visual vocabulary are at turns playful and profound in Holy Motors — simultaneously a love letter to cinema and an elegy. The film is smart enough for late-night philosophists and “avoids pretentiousness on the puckishness of its humor, the sheer voltage of its imagination, and by a diffuse, macrocosmic sadness at all the roles we assume in life.”
Eli Roth’s Hostel was the movie that gave rise to the awful term “torture porn,” which will continue to prove a point of fascination for some midnight moviegoers. Like his buddy Tarantino, Roth is a genre fanboy from way back and has a firm grip on what audiences want to see. Although his commentary on American ignorance and hedonism in the 2005 film is shrouded by gore, it’s there — and it’s essential in keeping horror fans coming back for more. Of course, there really is nothing wrong with a little fictional bloodshed for catharsis’ sake, too.
Variety wasn’t totally keen on Jim Jarmusch’s tale of world-weary vamps who live in idyllic seclusion, tucked away in a Detroit Victorian and prowling the labyrinth streets of Tangier by night. But the trade nailed Only Lovers Left Alive‘s midnight appeal with this line: “It still feels like an in-joke intended only for select acolytes, who will probably love it with an undying passion.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw adds, “Only Lovers Left Alive is an indulgent, eccentric midnight movie with a great deal of muso musing about vinyl and guitars and cool retro stuff.” Smart, funny, sexy, and starring a great cast (all hail Tilda Swinton’s speech about the fleeting nature of life and dancing), Only Lovers Left Alive doesn’t take itself too seriously — and it’s utterly fucking cool.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch was an Off-Broadway musical before it became a 2001 film and has since been revived for the Broadway stage, winning a Tony just last year. Neil Patrick Harris drew legions of fans to the stage for his performance as the East German transgender musician. Just this month, creator John Cameron Mitchell returned to the role of Hedwig. The production’s glam style, addictive music, emotional story, and gender politics (keeping the narrative relevant since its 1998 debut) carried into the 2001 film adaptation (also directed by Mitchell). As new audiences are introduced to Hedwig on the stage, they’ll surely seek out the musical in all its forms — including the movie. Hedwig offers the Rocky Horror midnight movie experience: fans know the songs by heart and can’t help but sing along.
We hit peak zombie-ness some time ago, but Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is directed by a genre film lover who enjoys indulging his audience’s sweet spots, but doesn’t play to cheap gags. Wright knows his audience is sharp enough to keep up with his smart (and silly) style. Fans also appreciate Wright’s outsider savvy. There aren’t many directors who would give up the chance to direct a big-money Marvel movie, citing creative differences.