Before the time of midnight screenings for the newest summer blockbuster, the idea of seeing a film after dark had an entirely different meaning. Midnight cinema became popular in the late 1960s. Not to say there weren’t midnight films before, but the term was officially coined in 1968 with the release of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
What made a movie a midnight movie is simple. It’s a film that theaters refused to show during matinee or evening time slots. Midnight movies were films shown only at midnight and were generally shown in the town in which the film was shot, or in major markets such as New York City and Los Angeles. These films were shunned by mainstream theaters and were shown in smaller art-house theaters and independently owned theaters exclusively.
The landscape of cinema changed in the late 50s and early 60s with the collapse of the Motion Picture Production Code. The Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was put into effect in 1934 and was officially abandoned in 1968.
The code was a way for studios to censor and limit what an artist was able to show in his or her film. The list of rules and regulations is absurd by today’s standards, but at the time, the code was responsible for limiting the artistic integrity of many filmmakers and visionaries.
In the early 1930s, before the code was put into effect, a handful of films that were made shocked audiences, and contributed to The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) decided to create the code.
Films such as Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks and Erle C. Kenton’s 1932 film The Island of Lost Souls expanded audience awareness as to what was possible with film narrative, and cemented the idea that with cinema, anything is possible and nothing is off limits. However, with the induction of the code, this type of filmmaking was just about impossible for almost 30 years.
By the 1950s, films were becoming darker in content and more sexualized in tone, and the studios began ignoring the code and pushing the boundaries of subject matter and visualization of once taboo subjects. Once studios started to release films without the code approval, filmmakers and screenwriters took on more deviant projects and began portraying darker aspects of the human experience.
Eventually however, the tone of some films became so sexualized, dark, odd, and flat out bizarre, that audience members and studios were unsure where these films belonged categorically. This era of filmmaking and the mentality of the artists behind these films, were responsible for the birth of midnight cinema. Films that were extremely intense, or too weird for 6:00pm but still possessed a quality of integrity and a fresh feel were limited to only being shown at midnight.
The following films on the list may be well known and popular today, but at the time they were some of the moat groundbreaking and shunned films of the independent cinema world. Many of these filmmakers were also new to the scene, and these were the first feature films of some of today’s most respected and predominant filmmakers.
The following three films were omitted from the list due to subject matter and explicit content. However, all three of these films were also very successful midnight films: Deep Throat (1972), Behind The Green Door (1972) and Reefer Madness (1936).
15. Targets (1968)
Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 thriller sparked wide controversy upon its release. Had the film been produced a year prior, the controversy probably would have been minimal, but because of the films timing of the film’s release, it was mainly recieved with mixed reactions.
Bogdanovich was one of the frontrunners for the “New Hollywood” movement that occurred in the 1970’s when a group of young and brash new filmmakers began taking over the studios. Targets paved the way for Bogdanovich and launched him into Hollywood fame.
Targets follows a young, clean cut, white male named Bobby who is obsessed with guns. Bobby is a Vietnam veteran who lives with his wife and her parents in Los Angeles. Bobby decides he has had enough of his simple life so, taking matters into his own hands, shoots and kills his wife, his mother in law, and a delivery boy.
Bobby leaves a note confessing his crimes, and then continues on a shooting spree across the city until he is taken down. Bobby uses a sniper rifle to shoot drivers on a highway from atop a refinery tank, then eventually escapes to a drive-in theater where he shoots citizens from behind the movie screen. The film also features the always magnificent Boris Karloff in one of his final roles, and was produced by b-movie icon Roger Corman, who helped launch Bogdanovich’s career.
The film was inspired by the spree-killer Charles Whitman, who shot and killed 16 people and wounded another 32 from a tower at the University of Texas in 1966. Whitman, like Bobby in the film, was also a former veteran, young, white, and clean cut.
The Whitman murders were still fresh in the minds of the public, and people didn’t feel as safe in their own hometowns. The film was further inspired by the spree-killer Michael Andrew Clark, who in 1965 opened fire on moving vehicles on highway 101 in Southern California.
The film’s surrounding controversy didn’t stem from its inspirations however, its visceral impacts had more to do with current events in 1968. Only a few months prior to the film’s release, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated via gunshot. The death of John F. Kennedy shocked the world a few year years earlier in 1963, and the war in Vietnam was still in full swing, which divided many citizens in the US.
The film was released by Paramount and saw little box office success initially. Viewers were shocked by the films themes and narrative, and didn’t respond positively to the film at first. Once Targets hit the midnight circuit, it found a niche audience and cult following which only helped propel Peter Bogdanovich’s career.
The film by today’s standards may not seem very violent or shocking, however, at the time, the subject matter was very much apart of the zeitgeist in America. Targets is far from Bogdanovich’s masterpiece, but it is still a film worth noting, and seeing.
14. Barbarella (1968)
Roger Vadim’s sexually charged, adult themed, comic strip sci-fi comedy is a bizarre yet highly influential piece. The film is rich with imagery and created a unique world for viewers, particularly in 1968. The film stars Jane Fonda, who was married to the director at the time of the film’s making. Barbarella was a major flop upon its release and has since been edited, re-released, had a change in title, and has become a very successful cult film.
The film follows Barbarella who is asked by the President of Earth to track down a guy named Durand Durand, the man who invented the Positronic Ray. The President of Earth fears the weapon will fall into the wrong hands. Barbarella must find Durand Durand and see that weapon is not used for destruction. In the process, she is kidnapped (more than once) and meets various men across the galaxy with whom she trades sexual favors for in return for their assistance.
When the film was released, it was very misunderstood and did not attract moviegoers. Audiences viewed it as too “cheesy”, and childish. The film is full of nudity however, which in 1968 wasn’t very common, because the Production Code had just recently been lifted.
The film didn’t see success until 1977, when it was re-edited as a PG rated children’s film. They also changed the name of the film to Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy. The re-edited version had removed much of the sexualized themes, as well as all of the films nudity. When the film was re-released for the home market, the original film regained new life via the midnight circuit.
A film as campy as Barbarella had little chance of finding mainstream success during its initial theatrical run. However, Paramount Pictures and Roger Vadim felt they had a hit on their hands, and the movie was destined to become a cult film.
Despite its lack of success initially, the film is now considered to be very influential and helped define comic book films. The film brought attention to the original source material, made Jane Fonda one of the biggest sex symbols of the 1960s, helped bring the world more female comic book leads, and has been copied visually in multiple sci-fi films.
While the film was almost universally shunned upon its release, it still managed to find a niche audience and break through as an influential b movie. Although the PG version introduced most of its audience to the film, the original cut is without question the definitive version. The movie was intended to be a sexually driven sci-fi comedy, without the R rated scenes, it’s not a cult film, it’s just a kid’s film. Barbarella is pure tongue-in-cheek gold and one of the great camp films from the 60s.
13. Pink Floyd – The Wall (1982)
Alan Parker’s The Wall is the visual adaptation of the 1979 Pink Floyd album of the same name. Originally intended to be a concert film to accompany the album with animation sequences throughout, Parker convinced the band to make a narrative film instead. The film features many psychedelic and surrealists live action and animation scenes. The film also contains very little dialogue and utilizes Pink Floyd’s music as the narrative to drive the plot.
The Wall follows the exploits of a rock star named Pink as he descends into madness and attempts to construct a wall to distance himself from the world around him. The film opens with Pink as a young child and follows him through his marriage, when his alter ego overtakes his mind completely.
Pink’s depression and drug abuse cause him to fantasize about being a Nazi leader who performs in front of his followers. The film is said to be loosely based on the life of Syd Barret, Pink Floyd’s former guitarist who distanced himself from the band and fought mental illness for a majority of his life.
The Wall is both visually striking and metaphorically driven. A majority of the themes and ideas behind the film are contained within the lyrics written by Pink Floyd’s bassist Roger Waters, who also wrote the screenplay. As mentioned, the film is part live action and part animation and Gerald Scarfe’s animated sequences, make up a majority of the famous scenes in the film. Scarfe was a political cartoonist for The New Yorker and his style and imagery suited the film perfectly. Pink Floyd and Alan Parker gave Scarfe creative control over the animation sequences and he directed all of those scenes.
The film was released on a very limited run (one theater) in 1982 in the US, and managed to make over $60,000 on its opening weekend. A few months later the film expanded to a wider release and made over 20 million on its initial run.
While The Wall is not an obscure and low budget as some of the other films on this list, it still made its broadest impact on the late night circuit during the 80’s and 90’s. Younger fans discovering Pink Floyd for the first time were able to listen to the album and experience the film years after its 1982 release.
It is safe to say that The Wall is one of the best rock films ever made. A highly ambitious project at the time, Roger Waters and David Gilmour’s double disc album had never sounded better than in a theater.
As long as people are discovering the band for the first time, The Wall will always have a place in the midnight circuit. It is a film that becomes more relevant with time. War, suffering, and depression are prevalent throughout, so its hard to argue against the notion that The Wall is more relevant today than ever before.
12. The Evil Dead (1981)
On October 15th, 1981 a young director and first time actor changed the landscape of horror films forever. On this night in Detroit, Michigan, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell premiered The Evil Dead. While the film was not an initial success, it is widely considered as one of the most succesful cult films of all time and one of the most influential horror films ever.
The Evil Dead follows a group of college students who take a spring break vacation in a small cabin in the middle of the woods. Only a few hours after arriving, they find The Necronomicon, also known as, “The Book of the Dead.”
Along with the book, the group also finds a tape recording of a previous visitor who was attempting to decipher the demonic and cryptic messages contained within. Eventually they decide to play the tape, which releases an evil spirit that possesses the students, as well as the woods itself.
While the plot for The Evil Dead may seem cliché by today’s standards, at the time it was a revelation. This film is the original “cabin in the woods” movie and brought splatter horror to a wider audience than perhaps any other film in the history of cinema. The production for the film was a nightmare for both cast and crew. Nearly everyone involved with the making of The Evil Dead were highly inexperienced and had no formal filmmaking experience.
The film was shot on location in the woods outside Morristown, Tennessee. Conditions on set were notoriously bad, the cabin used for filming didn’t have heat or plumbing, and weather conditions were freezing throughout most of the production. Although production was a true disaster, the film was produced for a fairly small budget (estimated around $200,000) and was an achievement in cheap, homemade special effects.
Upon the films release, it was given an X rating, which limited it to only a handful of theaters across the country. Raimi was thrilled when the film was given the dreaded X rating because he felt the rating only heightened the films credibility as a legitimate schlock piece. Although most of the films on this list weren’t showered with praise initially, The Evil Dead was lucky to have been backed by legendary producer Irvin Shapiro, who also produced Night of the Living Dead.
Shapiro received the film from Raimi and felt he had something special and unique. With Shapiro as a backer, the film was shown at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and eventually went on to be distributed by New Line Cinema in 1983. The film was widely written about in horror magazines and author Stephen King highly praised the film. Upon release it only showed in 15 theaters across the country.
Eventually, The Evil Dead made its mark on the midnight circuit and brought hoards of hungry horror fans to the theaters who craved the dark, demented, and disgustingly gory masterpiece that this film truly is. It is considered to be of the greatest splatter films of all time and is one of the quintessential 1980’s horror films. If there was ever a film meant for midnight, The Evil Dead is that film.
11. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s masterful and gorgeous 2001: A Space Odyssey is arguable the greatest sci-fi film ever made. One of the most influential films of all time 2001: A Space Odyssey cemented Kubrick as one of the world’s premier filmmakers and showcased the endless possibilities of cinema as an art form.
The film is separated into four segments, the first taking place at the beginning of life. The film begins with a tribe of ape-like men who are driven out of their watering hole by a competing tribe. The Following morning the tribe awakens to find a giant black monolith in their midst.
The tribe loses control in the presence of the monolith and, while doing so, they discover the use of weapons. They return to the watering hole and use a bone to beat the leader of the other tribe to death. The second segment occurs millions of years later in outer space. Dr. Heywood Floyd is orbiting earth awaiting arrival at an outpost to discuss the recent discovery of another monolith.
The third segment takes place eighteen months after Floyd and his crew discover the second monolith. In this segment, a group of scientist and pilots on are a mission to Jupiter. Their ship is operated by a supercomputer, HAL 9000. HAL can communicate verbally with the crew and is supposed to be free of error.
During the mission, HAL turns on the crew and is subsequently powered down by Dr. David Bowman before everyone on the mission is killed as a result of HAL’s intentional errors. The final act of the film involves Dr. Bowman as he searches for another monolith. As he approaches another monoloith, Bowman is sucked into a vortex and sent into an alternate universe. Upon seeing the monolith he is transformed into a fetus like creature and sent floating through space.
Put it simply, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a complex film. While it utilizes limited dialogue to carry the narrative, the visuals and imagery are flawless, especially for the time. The fact this film was released in 1968 is a marvel. It introduced audiences to many new and experimental techniques in the special effects, which still hold up today.
The film was met with mixed reactions when originally released. Some felt that it was a true masterpiece, and a grand achievement in filmmaking while others felt the film was boring, abstract, and unwatchable. One aspect that was universally acclaimed however was in fact the film’s visuals. During its initial run, the film was met with moderate success, but was not the hit Kubrick thought it should have been.
Once the film was re-released into theaters in 1974, it was far more successful as audiences began to realize just how special the film was. Throughout the 70s and 80s, 2001: A Space Odyssey was a regular option for midnight screenings. The success, cult status, and its eventual reputation as the definitive science fiction film were a result of of the later theatrical runs. In the midnight circuit, it generated a lot of buzz that the film had failed to achieve in 1968.
While none of the other films on this list are as acclaimed, or polished as 2001: A Space Odyssey, this film is still a major midnight movie. The film is one of the most successful cult films of all time and is still screened at midnight showings across the country today. For those lucky enough to have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey on a big screen, there is really nothing like it. It is Kubrick’s crowning achievement, and one of the absolute greatest pieces of modern filmmaking.