In the early 1970s, a new kind of moviegoing experience began to evolve in American repertory theaters, beginning in New York and eventually growing into a nationwide phenomenon: the midnight movie. Yes, people were watching movies at midnight well before then, and we certainly watch them from the comfort of our homes late into the night even now, but this wasn’t just about the time of night. It was about the experience of seeing something you wouldn’t find during a prime theatrical matinee or evening slot. This was a place for movies that fell between the cracks, because they were too strange or too campy or too experimental. So they were sent out into the night, and there they found their audiences.
Though movie theaters have changed a lot since then, along with our own attitudes about going to the movies, the midnight movie remains a particular kind of genre of misfits. No single midnight movie is like any other one, and each presents a unique theatrical experience. Some are horrifying, others are hilarious; some are defined by audience participation and others by intense critical study. As legendary distributor, programmer, and midnight movie pioneer Ben Barenholtz once put it: “You can’t make a midnight movie; the audiences make a midnight movie.”
In celebration of those films that were made into late-night legends by their audiences, here are 15 essential midnight movies.
1. EL TOPO (1970)
El Topo, Alexandro Jodorowsky’s bizarre “acid Western” full of unforgettable imagery and love-it-or-hate-it storytelling, is generally accepted to be the first “midnight movie” as we now define it: a film curiosity that’s not for everyone, which you have to go out in the dead of night to discover. It got this reputation not out of some weird copyright loophole or from being hidden away for decades, but from one theater owner’s fascination with it. After he saw a special screening of the film, Ben Barenholtz asked if he could begin running El Topo at New York’s now-legendary Elgin Theater (now the Joyce Theater). Barenholtz showed the film at midnight on weekdays and at 1 a.m. on weekends, and people (including John Lennon, who was a fan) started showing up in droves to see what all the fuss was about.
"By the end of the first week, we were selling out every seat in the theater—600 seats—every night and it lasted more than a year," Barenholtz told The New York Times.
It was the sense of discovering the film, and of being in on something that other, perhaps more “normal,” theatergoers simply didn’t get, that helped drive the interest in El Topo, and continued to drive the midnight movie business for decades.
2. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is without question one of the most famous midnight movies in the world, not just because of the content of the film itself, but because of how the audience reacts to it. For more than 40 years now fans have arrived at midnight showings in costume, ready to shout at the screen, sing along, and use props. It’s a unique theatrical experience, and it’s one that initially grew out of boredom. The film’s famous midnight movie audience participation screenings began in places like the Waverly Theater in New York City in the mid-1970s. In 1977, Brian Thomson—the film's set designer—stopped by the theater to see what all the fuss was about.
“We thought it was pretty boring, and we thought if we yelled back [it would be more fun],” moviegoers told Thomson.
Another member of the Rocky Horror production team also stopped by the Waverly at some point during this period: Tim Curry, who was apparently kicked out of the theater at one point when staff believed him to be an “impostor.”
3. FREAKS (1932)
After releasing Dracula at Universal and helping to launch the talkie horror genre in 1931, director Tod Browning returned to Metro Goldwyn Mayer and started work on a pet project of his: a revenge tale about sideshow performers. Irving Thalberg, MGM’s head of production, hoped the film would be more horrifying than even Dracula, and Browning pushed the envelope as much as he could, including famously casting real deformed sideshow performers in the film. While not nearly as lurid to 2018 eyes as its reputation would have you believe, Freaks was savaged by critics and shunned by most audiences in 1932. Then, a 1962 Cannes Film Festival revival screening renewed interest in the film, and the counterculture of the 1960s helped drive it to the midnight movie circuit, where it became a cult classic in the 1970s and 1980s.
4. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
When Night of the Living Dead first arrived in the late 1960s, it immediately gained some degree of infamy not for being shown at midnight, but for being shown in the middle of the afternoon. The film’s initial release came before the MPAA rating system, and at the time horror films were often shown as matinees to attract young audiences, but Night of the Living Dead’s brutal content was seen as far too extreme for young children who could in those days simply walk up to the box office and buy a ticket for anything. Critics including Roger Ebert (who liked the film itself) warned theater owners to steer clear of allowing children to see the film, which only enhanced its reputation among thrill-seekers. Because a copyright notice was missing from the title card upon release, the film also fell into the public domain, which made it a staple of the midnight movie circuit. Throw in a couple of key long-term engagements at places like New York City's Walter Reade Theater, and an icon was born.
5. PINK FLAMINGOS (1972)
If Freaks is a film with a shocking reputation that perhaps doesn’t shock modern audiences as much as it did upon its release, then Pink Flamingos is a film that shocks just as much now as it did in 1972. John Waters’s self-proclaimed “exercise in poor taste,” which centers on a competition to determine the most disgusting person in the world, wasn’t just made to shock you. It was made to threaten, to dare, and to challenge, and it did so in what remains an almost impossibly fascinating way. Ben Barenholtz thought so, too. And after he hit big with midnight showings of El Topo, he chose Pink Flamingos to be its successor in the late night slot at the Elgin. More than 40 years later, even as more moviegoers are watching it at home, it remains a unique theatrical audience experience.
6. ERASERHEAD (1977)
David Lynch’s imaginative, disturbing, and intensely compelling feature film debut is one of the most fully realized arrivals of a filmmaking voice you’re ever likely to see. And while it likely never would have caught on with a mainstream audience, the midnight movie circuit made it a fast cult classic. Once again, we can thank Barenholtz for this, who by the late 1970s was the head of film distribution company Libra Films. After seeing Eraserhead’s premiere at the Filmex festival in Los Angeles, Barenholtz convinced L.A.’s Cinema Village to begin running it at midnight. After success in Los Angeles, Eraserhead began migrating to midnight shows in other major cities, including New York and San Francisco, and it caught on with moviegoers and famous filmmakers alike. Stanley Kubrick considered it one of his favorite films; George Lucas loved it so much that he asked Lynch to make the film that would become Return of the Jedi; and Mel Brooks admired the movie—and Lynch—to the point that he hired Lynch to direct his 1980 production of The Elephant Man.
7. THE WARRIORS (1979)
Walter Hill’s now-legendary action movie about a Coney Island gang trying to get through one hellish night in New York City after being framed for the murder of another gang leader first gained notoriety, ironically enough, for gang violence breaking out at early screenings. It caused a problem early on, but its reputation has only improved in the years since, and The Warriors found life beyond that initial theatrical run as a midnight and repertory cinema staple. Looking back on the film in 2014, Hill summed up his own views on why the film endured in an interview with Esquire:
“It's probably not as apparent now, as half of today's movies are fantastical, but I think the most unusual thing about the film was the fact that it didn't present the gang and gang structure as a social problem. It presented it as simply a fact, the way things are, and not necessarily negative. It presented them from their point of view. Up until then, I think all of the movies had been more like, 'Let's look at the situation and figure out why these people are not turning out to be doctors and lawyers and dentists.' This was a movie that accepted their values and essentially understood that a street gang was a defensive organization rather than an offensive one. It didn't preach to them about middle-class values. And I think that's what made the movie unique. When you look at the movie, it's more like a musical than some grimly realistic thing.”
8. THE EVIL DEAD (1981)
Made on a shoestring budget by director Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert, The Evil Dead is a film that built its cult status at least somewhat gradually. After arriving in theaters to box office success, the film started to gain a word-of-mouth reputation, and its cabin-in-the-woods horror vibe made it perfect midnight movie fodder from the beginning. This, coupled with the film’s reputation as a “video nasty” as the era of VHS rentals dawned—it was not legally available on video in the U.K. for nearly 20 years after its initial home release—helped inspire a kind of infamy that’s only bolstered by the film’s manic, often comic tone (something the sequel, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, would embrace fully). Then, the film was successful enough to get a sequel with a higher budget, Evil Dead II, that was essentially a comedy-horror remake of the first film, which drove fans back to the original once again. Even now, when the film has inspired three films (including one remake), a Starz TV series, comic books, and more, The Evil Dead stands as the original, and therefore an essential piece of horror viewing. It might be viewed at home more than the theater now, but that’s the kind of status films tend to hold onto.
9. THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT (1994)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show helped to establish an enduring foothold on the midnight movies circuit for films that relish camp, blur the lines of sexuality, and celebrate queerness, and by the time the 1990s rolled around Rocky Horror was joined by films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The story of two drag queens (Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce) and one trans woman (Terence Stamp) who head out across Australia on a battered tour bus to perform a drag show at a casino, the film is both an intimate portrayal of LGBTQ characters and a glitzy celebration of Australia, with a killer soundtrack headlined by ABBA and Gloria Gaynor to make everything extra entertaining. The film was a surprise worldwide hit, spawned a stage musical, and remains one of the most important landmarks in both LGBTQ and Australian cinema, but it’s also the perfect film to see at midnight so you can sing along to “I Will Survive” with everyone else in the theater.
10. THE HARDER THEY COME (1972)
The Harder They Come was the first major Jamaican feature film, and it was such an instant hit in its home country that star Jimmy Cliff could barely make his way to the theater where it premiered because of the crowds. In the United States, though, the film took a little longer to catch on. The crime drama about a young songwriter (Cliff) trying to find work was picked up for U.S. distribution by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and while it was not an instant box office success here, it began to gain traction on the repertory circuit. It became one of the film’s that followed El Topo in the Elgin Theater’s midnight slot, and it enjoyed similarly successful midnight runs around the country in the years that followed. What’s perhaps most interesting about the film though is that for all its cult status as a work of art on its own, its soundtrack was an even more influential release. An essential sampler of reggae sounds, The Harder They Come’s soundtrack album helped popularize the genre in America, to the point that film critic and essayist Danny Peary observed that many people bought and enjoyed the album without ever even seeing the movie.
11. THE ROOM (2003)
By far the most famous midnight movie of the 21st century so far, The Room is a film so bad that you can’t help but be compelled by it—whether you think it’s a secret masterpiece or you’re just dumbfounded for its entire runtime. It’s also a rare midnight movie that’s become a cult phenomenon with the direct participation of its creator: director, writer, and star Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau initially distributed The Room himself, for a two-week run at two theaters in Los Angeles. During that run, a screenwriter named Michael Rousselet wandered into a completely empty theater to see the film, and was so taken with its unique brand of disastrous intensity that he was calling friends to come see it with him again even before the credits rolled. Over the next three days, Rousselet claims he got “over 100 people” to see The Room, and many of them in turn emailed Wiseau to tell him how much they enjoyed it.
"That’s when I say, ‘Let’s just show The Room once a month, midnight screening,”’ Wiseau told Entertainment Weekly.
Since then, those midnight screenings have taken place nationwide, often with Wiseau in attendance, and have included audience participation that ranges from yelling at the screen to throwing plastic spoons. The film gained a new level of cult status in 2017 when James Franco released The Disaster Artist, a film dramatizing the making of The Room produced with Wiseau’s blessing and participation.
12. PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)
Plan 9 from Outer Space has the infamous distinction of being branded the “Worst Film of All Time” in Harry and Michael Medved’s book The Golden Turkey Awards, and audiences and critics alike have spent the nearly 40 years since the book’s 1980 publication finding ways to refute that reputation. Yes, Plan 9 From Outer Space is undoubtedly bad, but is it really “the worst”? Surely a film would have to be far more boring and unwatchable than Edward D. Wood Jr.’s legendary film about aliens resurrecting dead humans—among them Bela Lugosi, in his last film role (he was famously replaced in some shots by Wood’s wife’s chiropractor with a cape over his face)—with its endlessly quotable dialogue, repeated shots, and hilarious continuity shifts. Whether the film is really “the worst” or not, fans keep flocking to it, either to prove the film is better than its reputation or to simply be able to boast that they’ve seen it, and so the film has become a midnight movie staple, but also something more. With such an infamous distinction, Plan 9 From Outer Space was always bound to be the subject of greater scrutiny, and some critics have reappraised Wood’s film as far smarter and more subversive than the director himself was ever given credit for in his lifetime. Here’s Danny Peary on the importance of the scene in which the alien Eros (Dudley Manlove) brands humanity as stupid:
“Don’t let the fact that Eros is a maniac throw you off—at rare moments, he is as sound a visionary as is Preacher Casey in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Wood just had to make Eros crazy to camouflage his political message so that he wouldn’t have trouble with censors. I believe that in this one scene (in the spaceship), in this one godawful, terribly made, poor excuse for a picture, Edward D. Wood is more critical of America’s government and military strategy (that calls for an arms buildup and further nuclear experiments) than any other director dared to be.”
13. REEFER MADNESS (1936)
Originally released as a propaganda film titled Tell Your Children, meant to frighten parents and families with a depiction of the supposed dangers of marijuana, Reefer Madness began its life as a cult film soon after it was released, when legendary exploitation cinema figure Dwain Esper recut and retitled it. Esper’s effort had some success, but then the film went dormant until the early 1970s, when a man named Keith Stroup bought a print for less than $300. Stroup was the founder of a group called NORML (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws), and began showing his refurbished cut of Reefer Madness at pro-pot events to raise money for NORML’s lobbying efforts. It became a massive midnight movie hit thanks to its campiness, salacious themes, and the sense that the people who made it really had no idea what marijuana was or how it affected the user. So, a film meant to scare people away from pot became a midnight movie hit and a cult classic because of potheads.
14. ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
Bruce Lee’s first major American film (he died shortly before its U.S. release, so never saw its success) is revered as one of the greatest martial arts films ever made, and was a massive hit upon its release in the summer of 1973. As such, it doesn’t have the “so bad it’s good” or “so weird you have to see it” reputation of so many other essential midnight movies. It’s just a fantastic kung fu film that’s fun to see at midnight. What it does have, though, is a place as a key influencer of later 1970s exploitation cinema. When Enter the Dragon became a hit, distributors began recutting and redubbing all manner of martial arts films for American audiences, creating an influx of cheap Chopsocky and Chopsocky-esque films that often featured Bruce Lee clones with names like “Bruce Li” or “Bruce Le.” So we got a whole generation of a certain kind of midnight movie because of Enter the Dragon’s success, and even if you don’t like those films, you can still always go back to the original and Lee’s legendary “emotional content.”
15. HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (2001)
Though it does not have the same midnight movie reputation as many of the other entries on this list, and it exists at a time when many films can simply be enjoyed from the comfort of one’s couch, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is still a kind of spiritual successor to both Rocky Horror and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Like the former, it’s the kind of film that encourages costumes, quote-alongs, and sing-alongs (at one point during the musical number “Wig in a Box,” the film itself practically demands it), and like the latter, it’s an intimate, funny, and moving celebration of its LGBTQ characters. The film began its life as a musical, and has since had renewed, Tony Award-winning success on the stage, but creator John Cameron Mitchell’s screen version still resonates, and is still begging to be seen with an audience. If you’re a Hed-head, it’s hard to imagine a better feeling than going to this movie at midnight and, two hours later, belting out “Midnight Radio” with everyone else in the theater. If Hedwig and the Angry Inch isn’t already an essential midnight movie, then we should be fighting to make it one.
Cult Midnight Movies by Danny Peary (2014)
The Rocky Horror Double Feature Video Show
Cultographies: The Evil Dead by Kate Egan (2011)