The phenomenon of the cinematic “midnight movie” emerged, not surprisingly, out of local television. Facilitated by a new agreement under a Screen Actors Guild residuals payment plan, stations in the 1950s United States began the practice of lacing late-night programming with inexpensive genre films. When it proved successful with audiences, stations expanded on the concept by introducing in-character hosts to open the films and interweave playful commentary. The most notable of this era is Vampira (Maila Nurmi), a character whose inspiration developed out of the the New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams and later appeared in cult films and Addams’ own Addams Family.
Though midnight screenings of independent movies at theaters were quite common during these years, it wasn’t until roughly 1970 that the true “midnight movie” appeared. Some dispute rages on as to the honorable site of its first location, but most agree that the Elgin Theater (now the Joyce Theater) of New York City’s Chelsea district was the most successful in seizing the idea. As it spread to movie-houses across the country, one film has been credited with the achievement of creating a more mainstream cult outlet for midnight programming: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970).
I first saw El Topo a year ago as part of the midnight programming for Brookline’s own Coolidge Corner Theater. As I am neither a film buff nor a night owl, the significance of the experience didn’t hit me as much as it did for Mark Anastasio, a current Coolidge employee, who went to a similar screening 5 years ago and immediately fell in love with the theater. Since joining the staff, Anastasio rose to the role of Program Coordinator and is now fortuitously tasked with, as it's listed under his bio on the website, "the duties of programming, promoting and pulling off the Coolidge’s @fter Midnight" film series. It’s a role he takes seriously, as the series is one of the last of its kind in the area.
In the late 1970s, the commercial viability of the midnight movie circuit began to decline, with many arthouses reverting to their former functions. The VCR and expansion of cable television sent more to their deaths. Even now, as a result of the online accessibility of streaming films, we have local and beloved movie houses failing commercially and threatening an end to midnight showings. The former AMC Loews Harvard Square, the multiplex movie theater that closed its doors on July 8th, was once also notable for midnight screenings, showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) over 1,500 times from when the show first moved 28 years ago from the Exeter Street Theater in Boston to Cambridge. Luckily on August 4th, the screenings were saved and moved again—this time back to Boston—to the AMC Loews Boston Common. Though these midnight screenings often include live performance and continue a decades-long tradition, they lack the kind of diverse programming that Anastasio and the Coolidge have worked hard to retain.
Anastasio’s public role is, based on the occasion, a perfect hybrid of programmer, host, and stand-up. Each week he takes to the microphone to introduce the film he has organized, aiming to excite the crowd and inform them of upcoming shows, never failing to imbue his own feelings of adoration for these cult classics. If you’re lucky, you can find him filling his hosting duty in-character, much like this past Labor Day weekend when the Coolidge screened Jaws (1975) and he introduced as a make-shift Quint. If he’s lucky, that costume is also armed with a Narragansett beer.
When I was encouraged by Anastasio this past weekend to come see Santa Sangre (1989), another Jodorowsky film and @fter Midnight selection, my first reaction wasn’t of excitement. As much as I liked El Topo, I knew nothing of its history when first seeing it and had trouble looking past the overwrought allegory and scattered scenes. It is undeniably avant-garde and the spiritual philosophies woven through feel dated. I did, however, know enough about the Chilean filmmaker to remember that Santa Sangre is considered by many to be Jodorowsky’s masterpiece and was made after a long break from film-making. (He spent over 2 years working on a failed film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, planned to be over 10 hours in length and starring Salvador Dalí. Then in 1980 he released the children’s fable Tusk, a film which he later disowned.)
Santa Sangre was, to be sure, masterful. Set in the crowded streets of Mexico City, the phantasmagorical melodrama is about Fenix, a serial killer and former circus performer under the malevolent spell of his mother who had her arms cut off after catching Fenix’s father having an affair. After spending years in a mental institution, Fenix is rescued by his mother and they soon develop a cabaret act that returns them to their performing roots. Their relationship and performances evolve into some of the most visually striking scenes I’ve seen on film, as his arms serve as her phantom limbs, complete with long, red painted nails, obeying her commands even when detached. The movie loses a bit of pace as it delves into the clearly borrowed Oedipal themes of Psycho, but also seems to cement is as a true cult film.
Attending the screening on Saturday night, I half-hoped that Anastasio would relish in the hosting duties and adopt garb worthy of such an opulent nightmare. I was happy though when he instead approached the mic to announce the film in an understated fashion, only taking time to herald the visionary nature of what we were about to watch and, smiling, mention the thriving midnight culture in which we were about to view it.
The Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA is one of New England's most successful independent, not-for-profit cinemas. It celebrates the experience of cinema by presenting international, documentary, animated, and independent film selections and series. Their @fter Midnight Film series offers cult programming every Friday and Saturday night at midnight. Check their website for upcoming screenings.