Monday, October 26, 2009


The editor of Screem devoted the most recent issue to "Films That Scarred Us for Life." Contributors' examples included the usual suspects (The Exorcist [1973], Jaws [1975]), as well as several surprises (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang [1968], The Day of the Locust [1974]). The first movie I remember that frightened me half out of my wits was Dan Curtis' House of Dark Shadows, the producer/director's 1970 revision of his cult soap opera (1966-1971). I was so unhinged, to be perfectly frank, that my mother and grandmother had to remove my screeching five-year-old self from the theatre screening the picture. I still vividly recall trying to settle down in the lobby, and it was not until the summer of 1976 that I saw the full film--minus the usual television edits and interruptions--on the CBS Late Movie. The scene that most traumatized me was the moment in House when Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) ages a century-and-a-half after being overdosed with the anti-vampirism vaccine the lovelorn Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) inflicts upon him in a jealous fit. (The undead one's fallen hard for Collinwood governess Maggie Evans [Kathryn Leigh Scott], whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his lost love Josette.) The image of this alarmingly ancient creature--like lots of children, I thought the elderly were ugly enough to raise haints in a graveyard--strangling the spiteful doctor, then biting his beloved Maggie, was too much for my nerves, which were becoming progressively raw as the film unfolded. I had never found the ABC series to be so intense, and, of course, it wasn't. MGM's feature release upped the violence ante considerably and emphasized Barnabas' romantically ruthless villainy, while writers Sam Hall and Gordon Russell drastically compressed several months' worth of their original storyline. Events, in truth, hurtle past at breakneck speed, occasionally to the point of incomprehension, but, quite happily, the picture never fails to thrill me, even if it no longer provokes a screaming spell.

Cretinous handyman Willie Loomis (John Karlen), convinced that the legendary Collins jewels are hidden in the family mausoleum, unwittingly liberates the slumbering vampire from his hundred-and-fifty year confinement. Barnabas, posing as an obscure English cousin in those pre-googling Seventies, spends his time restoring the "Old House" on the Collins estate and courting Maggie, when he's not vampirizing the rest of the cast. Dr. Hoffman, who's researching the Collins family, realizes that Barnabas is undead when he casts no reflection in her compact mirror, and struggles to reverse his curse before giving him the business after learning the object of his affections. His handsome visage rejuvenated by a sanguinary feast, Barnabas plans to wed the entranced Maggie in the family's abandoned chapel, but her artist boyfriend Jeff Clark (Roger Davis) intervenes with a crossbow at the altar, accidentally shooting Loomis in the back. Loomis, who also adores Maggie, manages to stake Barnabas before he expires, and Clark finishes the job. You can't keep a good vampire down, however, and Barnabas turns into a bat after the credits.

Test audiences complained of the film's pacing, so Curtis removed approximately twelve minutes of footage--material which, unfortunately, appears to be forever lost. (The 1971 sequel, Night of Dark Shadows, suffered a similar fate, losing an astonishing thirty-seven minutes.) The opening sequence, in which the titles distractingly appear over a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing, excised a scene in which Maggie's charge, the bratty David Collins (David Henesey), pretends to have hanged himself in order to shock his governess. This action, coupled with the unwillingness of the boy's father Roger (Louis Edmonds) to locate the little monster, motivates Maggie to leave Collinwood for good. The studio feared that impressionable youngsters would either be distressed by, or attempt to duplicate, the child's prank, but the scene's removal obscures Maggie's reason for packing. (Barnabas, of course, convinces her to stay.) A conversation between Maggie and Jeff in the Collinwood greenhouse was also eliminated, causing further confusion. In the theatrical release, Barnabas tells Loomis that he's "done something for" Jeff, but the audience has no idea that Barnabas has recommended his rival to a local gallery so that the artist won't interfere with his plans for the governess. Finally, a sequence of Dr. Hoffman's associate, Professor Stokes (Thayer David), learning from Loomis that Barnabas is indeed undead was deleted, blunting the impact of the Van Helsing stand-in's later confrontation with the vampire at the Old House. (Stokes abruptly, almost randomly, sprouts fangs near the picture's climax, as does Roger Collins, while Roger's sister Elizabeth [Joan Bennett] retreats into a fugue state and disappears; ideally, House should have been two hours, not ninety-six minutes, long.)

MGM released this film and its sequel on videocassette in 1990, following with a double feature laserdisc three years later (all are out-of-print), but the pictures have yet to debut on DVD. The original series is available on disc, as is its 1991 NBC resurrection. Fullscreen transfers of both 1.85:1 features, sporting the same ludicrously unconvincing day-for-night shots found in theatrical prints, appear from time to time on Turner Classic Movies. Warner Brothers has announced plans to revamp Dark Shadows for the big screen with director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp, so perhaps House and Night will eventually return, like Barnabas, from their home video limbo.

I hereby apologize to all those patrons, including my family, whose enjoyment of House of Dark Shadows I spoiled nearly four decades ago.


Gross, Darren. "Closed Rooms in the House of Dark Shadows" and "Illuminating Night of Dark Shadows," Video Watchdog No. 40 (1997).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Alas, the lost pleasures of midnight, that witching hour when androgyne and undead walked the earth. The age seems as distant to us now as the silent cinema was then. There was a palpable sense of community, of shared secrets which only a subculture could comprehend and appreciate. Home video altered everything, and the delights we experienced in the darkness of the Bijou are these days relegated to the sanctity and solitude of our living rooms--ironically, the very place where many midnight cults began, absorbing--and, in extreme instances, emulating--the archetypal images beamed like spells through cathode rays. Those fantasias all had their mysteries to disclose, and, in the classic compendium Midnight Movies (Harper & Row, 1983 [338 pages]; revised edition Da Capo, 1991 [348 pages]), J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum tell us how the message(s) ran.

"If the origins of art are to be found in religion," the authors argue, "the movies are surely the universal secular faith of the twentieth century." Theatres are cathedrals, reinforcing the wisdom of sociologist Edgar Morin's dictum that "no one who frequents the dark auditoriums is really an atheist"--a word, incidentally, that Alain de Benoist identifies, in his magisterial On Being a Pagan, as being "practically meaningless" in the world of antiquity. Movie palaces were and remain polytheistic temples, for the gods and goddesses of the silver screen will never tolerate the totalitarianism of a lone desert deity. Divinity in the Bijou is diverse, and diversity is divine.

Hoberman and Rosenbaum identify France's Cinema MacMahon, with its enormous lobby photos of the "Four Aces" (Fritz Lang, Joseph Losey, Otto Preminger, and Raoul Walsh), as the first theatre to harness the energy of cultism. Late shows were mounted at the Cinematheque Francaise and the Styx, which specialized in horror films, as well as at London's Electric Cinema and the Paris Pullman. In the United States, exhibitors programmed spook spectaculars and New Year's Eve revels. On the smaller screen, broadcasters needed to fill late-night air time, and motion pictures--particularly the killing kind--were an obvious solution. Human beings, hard-wired as we are for worship, require constant nourishment in our faith. How we hungered for the wee-hours appearances of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and all the other stars who seemed to come alive, like satellites and vampires, only at night. The counterculture vultures who subverted the Sixties were famished for visions that told them where they came from, what they were, and where they were going. Enter the underground. Andy Warhol was there in silver hair, as were George Romero's flesh eaters and John Waters' "filthiest people alive."

The authors dissect these artists chapter by chapter, beginning with the seminal efforts of such dark angels as Drella and his collaborator Paul Morrissey, as well as Kenneth Anger, Ken Jacobs, and Jack Smith. New York's Bleecker Street premiered Smith's Flaming Creatures (1963) and other freak-outs, but filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas claimed that the theatre's managers were worried that the "low quality of the underground" was tarnishing the Bleecker's reputation. His defiant response was a manifesto celebrating the "Baudelairean Cinemas" of the new auteurs ("a world of flowers of evil, of illuminations, of torn and tortured flesh") and their marginal appeal: "There is now a cinema for the few, too terrible and too 'decadent' for an 'average' man in any organized culture." Epater la bourgeoisie!

Mexican mage Alexandro Jodorowsky "[asked] of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs." His self-styled "quest for sainthood" El Topo (1970) reversed the polarity of the New Western, cross-pollinating Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah with Panic Movement perpetrator Fernando Arrabal and rascal guru G.I. Gurdjieff. Jodorowsky, his ego inflating to heroically mammoth proportions, maintained that "'there was no difference between filming and reality," and expressed his "'hope [that] one day there will come Confucius, Mohammed, Buddha and Christ to see me. And we will sit at a table, taking tea and eating some brownies.'" John Lennon was so affected by the picture that he convinced his manager Allen Klein's Abkco Films to procure what would become the pivotal midnight headtrip. Ben Barenholtz was suitably impressed to book the movie for his Elgin Theatre, where El Topo played for six-and-a-half months, enrapturing pothead audiences but dividing critics. Vincent Canby belittled Jodorowsky as "an intellectual William Randolph Hearst," while Peter Schjeldahl proclaimed El Topo "a monumental work of filmic art."

Unfortunately, Jodorowsky's subsequent release, 1973's The Holy Mountain (a work superior, I submit, to his preceding effort), was outshone at Cannes by Marco Ferreri's notorious La Grande Bouffe, and failed to duplicate El Topo's financial success. It had, however, an impressive sixteen-month run at Manhattan's Waverly. Jodorowsky, nonetheless, was never again able to pack so many seekers into theatres, and his following features--among them, the memorably gruesome Santa Sangre (1989)--faired poorly at the box office. Another film, 1980's Tusk, was barely even released, but the artist took everything in stride: "What I am doing is making my masterwork, which is my soul."

Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) marked a well-acknowledged turning point in horror cinema. "Until the Supreme Court establishes clearcut guidelines for the pornography of violence," Variety complained in that year's October 16 number, "Night...will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example." The Sixties were coming apart at the seams, and Romero's Image Ten troupe were documenting the decade's self-destruction. Indeed, Hoberman and Rosenbaum opine that the picture's title "could have been a beatnik poet's metaphor for the 'CBS Evening News'" in what was supposedly "the most violent year in [U.S.] history since the end of the Civil War." Romero's zombies remain potent symbols of a disintegrating society, though the director's conception of his ghouls has evolved significantly over the years, culminating in the post-9/11 (re)visions of Land of the Dead (2005) and his "fictuality" reboot, Diary of the Dead (2007).

Romero's first few follow-ups to Night--There's Always Vanilla (1971), Jack's Wife (1972), and The Crazies (1973)--made little critical or commercial impact, and masqueraded under various titles (e.g,. The Affair, Season of the Witch, and Code Name: Trixie). The Pride of Pittsburgh fared better with 1976's vampire character study Martin, which ran for forty-three weekends at the Waverly (where it faced stiff competition from David Lynch's Eraserhead). Romero hit paydirt again with Dawn of the Dead (1978), which shifted the Anubian siege from farmhouse to shopping mall. (Dawn, incidentally, was my first midnight movie experience, and it occurred--most appropriately--in a now-demolished mall.) Night has endured two remakes, while Dawn and Day of the Dead (1985) have weathered one each. The inevitable Crazies reworking is scheduled for winter release.

Waters' "prison and...pleasure dome were American suburbia." The Pope of Trash's Pink Flamingos (1972), with its infamous coprophagic climax, threw down the transgressive gauntlet. The director's remark that "if someone vomits watching one of my films, it's like a standing ovation," may be wishful thinking, but there's no doubt that Waters touched a nerve in the damaged American psyche. The authors examine his stock players (Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Edith Massey--several of whom spawned their own cults) and chronicle his celluloid misadventures from Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964) to Polyester (1980). Flamingos, of course, towers over Waters' oeuvre, flopping at midnight at New York's Orpheum, but playing for five nights a week for fifty-eight weeks at the Elgin, as well as forty-five weeks at the New Yorker. Inescapably, an element of danger crept into these screenings. "The audience was very bad," Barenholtz bemoaned. "[Flamingos] started getting Jersey and Brooklyn crowds, especially these gangs coming in and saying, 'Let's see the fag eat shit,' and throwing things at the screen.'" Waters went relatively mainstream with 1988's Hairspray, which became a Broadway musical and was itself filmed in 2007. The Court TV narrator is currently threatening a sequel.

Barenholtz also booked Lynch's hallucinatory urban horror Eraserhead (1977) at the Cinema Village where, after a slow start, the picture scrambled brains for a year. The film additionally had significant runs at San Francisco's Waverly (ninety-nine weeks) and Los Angeles' NuArt (over three-and-a-half years). Rosenbaum points out that Night and Eraserhead are rooted in "the fortress mentality of the fifties, an attitude becoming more prevalent again today" in our balkanised culture. Hoberman identifies Lynch's film and Derek Jarman's Jubilee (1978) as "the only midnight movie[s] which [have] really addressed" the Seventies, and, in an intriguing footnote, the authors connect the industrial nightmare to New York's seminal punk bands--particularly Richard Hell and the Voidoids' anomic anthem, "(I Belong to the) Blank Generation," which they contend constitutes "a striking analogue to" the film. Eraserhead's mutant infant--whose special effects secrets Lynch, like a good magician, has never disclosed--reflects the double anxieties of delivery and abortion, and the film chillingly charts the dubious destiny of a decaying world.

Lynch's Oscar-winning sophomore feature, The Elephant Man (1980), performed admirably at the ticket booth--scoring singularly well with inner-city audiences--even as efforts to resurrect Eraserhead at theatres screening the John Merrick biopic were unsuccessful. The director belly-flopped with Dune (1984), but returned to popular myth-making with Blue Velvet (1986), the Twin Peaks teleseries and film (1990-1992), and the magnificent Mulholland Dr. (2001). The authors ascertain "a modified pop Hinduism" in Lynch's work--he's also a prominent transcendental meditation advocate--and, of all the artists profiled in their volume, the Missoula, Montana Eagle Scout comes closest to approximating the spiritual surrealism of Senor Jodorowsky.

Admittedly, no survey of midnight cinema is complete without an analysis of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The gender-bending musical really took off at the Waverly, where disciple Louis Farese, Jr.'s so-called "counterpoint dialogue" (in the hallowed tradition of the Glass Teat's horror movie hosts) was picked up by his coreligionists, and soon spectators began arriving for the picture dressed as cast members. Toronto's Roxy preceded their late-night screenings with cartoons (Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle), while the Neptune accompanied Charle Chaplin shorts with the tight harmonies of the BeeGees. Frank-n-Furter personator Tim Curry's erotic energy galvanized viewers, and Hoberman and Rosenbaum proclaim him "the very embodiment of Andre Breton's polemical desire to 'change my sex as I change my shirt.'" Homosexual audiences flocked to the film, especially on Saturdays at San Diego's Strand. A newspaper article on the midnight spectacle attracted the attention of what cultist/ethnographer Margery Walker Pearce described as "hard-hat types" (not, apparently, of the Village People variety), who arrived at the theater shouting obscenities and "threatening to 'kill the faggots.'" Ultimately, the lads fell in line, and Richard O'Brien's and Jim Sharman's glam slam miraculously continues to unite very discrete groups.

Other chapters survey Punk Cinema (Beth B. and Amos Poe), Camp (Mommie Dearest [1981]), Gore (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974]), Drugs (Reefer Madness [1940]), and Agit-Prop (Tod Browning's infamous Freaks, of which Hoberman amusingly observes that "the most militant counterculture film was made in 1932"). An especial delight is the book's conclusion, in which the authors discuss the then-state of the late-night nation. Midnight movies aren't so much born as (to borrow an old tagline) kicked out of Hell, but different films reflect the concerns of different socio-economic orders. Dawn's audience, for example, is distinctly--though not exclusively--proletarian, whereas El Topo's eminence "was predicated on the existence of the kind of marginal leisure class that wouldn't think twice about going to see a midnight flick in the middle of the week."

Hoberman and Rosenbaum offer their choices for great unsung midnight movies, and impressive ones they are: Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished Ivan the Terrible trilogy (1944-58), "which intermittently comes across as the greatest Flash Gordon serial ever made." Other possibilities include such "epic, environmental" experiments as Warhol's twenty-five hour **** (1968--screened only once, at the New Cinema Playhouse) and Jacques Rivette's Out 1 (1971; a mere twelve hours and forty minutes). Rosenbaum nominates Frank Tashlin's "prophetic avant-garde masterpiece" Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), and Hoberman suggests "a two-hour combination of Busby Berkeley's greatest hits."

Rosenbaum deplores such canonical splatter platters as Blood Feast (1963) and Basket Case (1982) ("neither of which I would have seen if we hadn't been doing this book"), but Hoberman wonders if gore cultists "[identify] with a lumpen, vengeful, rebellious element in popular taste," and laments that films "have turned out to be...a 'passing amusement.'" This is especially evident in the new millennium, an age whose youth prefer the virtual violence of video and computer games to traditional artistic experiences. Perhaps, in the final analysis, films aren't interactive enough, despite the call and response of the midnight mentality. As the authors note in their 1991 afterword, the enchanted era was ending by the time of the book's first edition "and we were speaking about a historical phenomenon." The mainstream sucked in the surreal, leading to a double-edged victory: Rosenbaum remarks "that midnight movies succeeded rather than failed" as their creators went Hollywood, "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." Today's audiences, at any rate, crave more immediate sensations, and pushing a button or manipulating a joystick are, for them, less passive than watching a film or reading a book. The sons of night, and maids who love the moon, have, I fear, for evermore exchanged the midnight flower for the eye of vulgar light.