Friday, February 2, 2024

Notes on Film: So Long to the Midnight Movie

 by Anthony King

Too old for a midnight movie but not too old to remember what it was like.

Early prep for F This Movie Fest sent me down memory lane. But first, what I've been watching.
The latest release from Radiance Films is an odd little Italian thriller called Goodbye & Amen (1977) from director Damiano Damiani. It stars Americans Tony Musante and John Forsythe, the Englishman John Steiner, and the Italian beauty Claudia Cardinale. Musante is a CIA agent stationed in Rome leading a task force that is planning to overthrow an African government. Curiously, one of his team members is missing. Meanwhile, Steiner arrives at a hotel, reveals a small arsenal, and begins picking people off from the rooftop. Cardinale is in the hotel participating in an extramarital sexual rendezvous when Steiner breaks into their room. Musante's missing team member is revealed to have left his house in a huff and is now assumed to be the terrorist at the hotel. Along with the local police, Musante devises a plan to talk his friend out of this situation before it gets any worse. Steiner makes a list of demands, one of them being the U.S. Ambassador (Forsythe) come into the room to become one of the hostages. We've all seen Italian movies do their own interpretations of American movies, and while, on the surface, Goodbye & Amen is just that, I think Damiani (who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicola Badalucco) knew exactly what he was doing. Things seem a little off-kilter, or goofy even, and that's when the realization hits that this film is a satire, poking (or more like stabbing) fun at America and its obsession with violence and law enforcement agencies. It's very fun, but also, like many Italian exploitation films, it's a little scatterbrained. All the better, if you ask me.
For family movie night last week I thought it was time to introduce the boys to Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982). I hadn't seen the film in several years, and it was always one that scared the hell out of me as a child, so I had been reluctant to show it to my boys. While there were a couple jumps that got them, none of us found Poltergeist to be very scary, which was contradictory to my memory; even since the last time I watched it. That isn't to say Poltergeist still isn't great. It's a five-star movie for me, sans nostalgia. This time around I found myself tearing up several times at JoBeth Williams' performance. This is her movie, and everyone involved knew it, which is why she is top billed. What got the tears to actually overflow twice, though, was the brilliant and compassionate performance from Beatrice Straight. Dr. Lesh's connection with Diane is so believably strong she's able to pull the audience in for a gigantic cinematic hug. I love everybody in this film, but this was the first time I was emotionally bowled over by the two women. A funny side note: like me when I was child, Eben was a little disturbed by Zelda Rubenstein. “She's one of the scariest 90-year-olds I've ever seen.” He about shit when I told him she was 47 or 48 when they made this movie. But kiddo, I agree. She still kind of freaks me out in this movie.
I saw my very first Michael Mann movie when I was in middle school. We watched The Last of the Mohicans (1992) because we were learning about the Mohican tribe, and I remember being completely taken by the film. The story, the battle sequences, the colors, the way the camera brought us into the world it was filming. I bought the DVD in high school, watched the hell out of it, but hadn't seen it since. I don't think it's Mann's best movie (or even top tier), but dammit it's still a five-star movie for me. It's still one of the most beautiful films I've seen (even on that same DVD I bought 26 years ago. DDL's heartfelt plea to Madeleine Stowe (“Hot Stowe”) to “JUST STAY ALIVE! I WILL FIND YOU!” before slo-mo jumping down a waterfall is embarrassingly corny, but everything else in the movie makes up for it. By the way, Mann could very well be one of my favorite filmmakers. Of those I've seen, four are five-star movies (Heat, Collateral, Manhunter, Mohicans), three are four-and-a-half star movies (Thief, Miami Vice, The Insider), and one is a three-star (The Keep). I don't think any other filmmaker has that sort of ratio for me.
I'm getting into the spirit early and gearing up for this year's F This Movie Fest. We'll be celebrating the year of our Lord, 1994, and there are so many great movies that came out that year. I'll be cramming in as many '94s as possible during the month of February, but I kicked things off with Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave (1994). Technically this could be considered a rewatch, but I remember almost nothing about it. Ewan McGregor in one of his first film roles, Kerry Fox, and Christopher Eccleston are roommates looking for a fourth. They're pretentious, mean-spirited, and use the interview process as a way to talk down to potential flatmates. Eventually they come across a quiet man who seems like he could fit in nicely. That is, until he winds up dead in his room. After discovering the body, the three friends come across a suitcase full of money found in the deceased's room. They decide to bury the body and hold onto the money until they can agree what to do. Greed and paranoia creep in and overtake the friends, on top of original owners of the case full of money. In typical Boyle fashion, things get trippy and weird and tense and darkly comical. This could easily be considered a cult movie, perfect for a midnight screening. Which is how I first saw it, bringing us to the discussion at hand.

We have an old one-screen theater in town that had recently (in the past few years) been purchased and refurbished into a nice little indie arthouse. Before that, though, The Dundee was the most disgusting theater I'd ever been to. It may have even rivaled those movie houses that lined 42nd Street in New York City back before the word “gentrified” became part of everyday vernacular. The Dundee first opened in 1925 and for decades would play first-run movies. Usually wide releases. In the '60s it was rebranded as an arthouse, playing stuff like 8 ½ (1963). In the '70s it went back to the mainstream, focusing on family fare, before rebranding yet again in the '80s as an arthouse. In the '90s the upkeep seemed to be too much for its current owners so it started a downward turn. The auditorium had sticky floors lined with busted chairs with protruding springs containing tetanus for some lucky bastard At midnight on a Friday or Saturday night the place would almost instantly fill up with cigaret and pot smoke as the crowd would fill every disgusting, broken seat for whatever cult movie was on the docket. You'd hear the inevitable clink of a bottle of booze tipping over, and you quickly learned that was your sign to lift your legs lest you want a shoe full of Colt .45 as the bottle came rolling down the floor under your seat. The projections were always terrible, never framed correctly, and it was the worst way to watch a movie. But as a curious teenager, this was my introduction to cult movies.
It was at The Dundee that I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) with a cast of fully costumed characters leading the crowd in action. I saw Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (1992) for the first time at The Dundee. This was where I saw Shallow Grave for the first time. I saw dozens of midnight movies at The Dundee, but there's a problem. I can't remember anything else besides those three. I don't know if it was the contact high received every single time you went to The Dundee or the fact that it was always so late I was deliriously tired every time I walked out into the early morning air. I know for a fact that at least one entire summer we went to The Dundee every single weekend. But, poof, no memories remain.
When we got an Alamo Drafthouse I went to dozens of Late Shows – midnight movies that started at 10pm. Blue Velvet (1986), Drive (2011), My Bloody Valentine (1981, where I sat next to my elementary choir teacher), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), Suspiria, Mulholland Drive (2001), Don't Look Now (1973), Sleepaway Camp (1983), a double of The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) and The House on Sorority Row (1983), Hardware (1990), and a particularly memorable triple of Carpenter's apocalypse trilogy of The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987), and In the Mouth of Madness (1994). But folks, I can't even do the Late Shows any more. I'm old and sad and can barely keep my eyes open till 11pm. When I hear about 24-hour screenings, overnight marathons, and midnight movies, I get sleepy just thinking about it. Sure, I miss going to those late night showings because the crowds are always fun. Walking out of a movie theater to see that fog has settled across the land and your drive home through empty streets could be reminiscent of the movie you may have just watched is fun. But they're just memories for me now. Some aren't even memories, they're just fog.

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