Dread by Dawn: How Midnight Movies Became a Cultural Phenomenon, According to Joe Bob Briggs

Midnight movies go way back, and legendary drive-in critic Joe Bob Briggs helps shed light on their evolution over time.
Midnight movies go way back, and legendary drive-in critic Joe Bob Briggs helps shed light on their evolution over time. / Courtesy of Joe Bob Briggs (main image); Tetra Images, Getty Images / Shutterstock, Maxx-Studio / Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

It’s a situation most film buffs have found themselves in at one time or another: You’re sitting at home, scrolling through the same streaming services you’ve always used, and the same old movies keep popping up at the top of your menu. 

But you want something different—something weirder and more provocative than the most recent true-crime documentary or Marvel Cinematic Universe release. Even though you’re not quite sure what it is you’re looking for, you’re tired of watching movies according to what the algorithms want to show you. You want the sort of films that are so one-of-a-kind, they could only look good under the cover of darkness. 

If it were up to Joe Bob Briggs, legendary film critic and host of The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs, you’d be tuning into his live special this Friday, October 21, at 9 p.m. EST on Shudder. “It’s called Joe-Bob's Haunted Halloween Hangout,” Briggs tells Mental Floss. “It’s our celebration of the biggest holiday of the year on Shudder.” 

While the films he plans to show during the upcoming double-feature are still being kept under wraps (as is tradition), the annual event is a chance for cult movie seekers to scratch a particular kind of itch: During last year’s show, Briggs hosted special guest filmmaker David Gordon Green and screened one of the Halloween Ends director’s favorite flicks, the 1984 exploitation-thriller, Angel. “Normally, you wouldn’t think of that as a Halloween movie,” Briggs says with a laugh. “But we did do that.”

This time around, he’ll be joined by special guest Cassandra Peterson, better known to horror lovers as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. “We do this [show] every year, and we try to top ourselves every year,” Briggs says. 

But what do you do post-Halloween when you’re in the mood for a late-night flick that’s off the beaten algorithm (besides catch up on old episodes of The Last Drive-In)? To help, we chatted with Briggs about everything from the evolution of midnight movies over time to his picks for the most essential to watch, plus what to do if you want to keep discovering more. 

Celluloid Madness: From Drive-Ins to Midnight Movies

At A Drive-In Theater
If you wanted to see "naughty movies" back in the '50s and '60s, the drive-in was your best bet. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

While midnight movie screenings are essentially a rite of passage now for modern-day film lovers, that wasn’t always the case. Prior to the late ‘60s, if you wanted to see a flick that had all the trappings of a future cult classic, your best bet was to head to the local drive-in

“Drive-in movies started as mom-and-pop operations,” Briggs explains. “They didn’t have the clout of the major studios, so they couldn’t get those big-budget movies in the ‘50s.”

Instead, according to Briggs, drive-in operators relied on “naughty movies” like those made by Roger Corman and American International Pictures to fill their lots. Focused on controversial themes like juvenile delinquency, sex, and rock n’ roll, these “wild youth-type” drive-in flicks were culturally taboo and ignored by mainstream critics, but they filled a certain void, too. 

“They were the movies that your mother didn’t want you to see,” Briggs says. “It’s movies for people who hate high-brow movies and hate critics.” And because the major studios wouldn’t make films like this in the first place, it helped the drive-in earn a reputation among working-class audiences as the place to go for crowd-pleasing cinema across all the genres—with, Briggs notes, one very important caveat: “[It was] the naughty side of the genre.”

Midnight movies were somewhat different, both in terms of how they developed and who they often appealed to. According to Briggs, the midnight movie experience only really got popular in the late ‘60s as an outgrowth of the hippie revolution. “In the early days of the midnight movie, it was kind of part of the drug culture, or at least, part of the counterculture,” he explains, citing underground flicks like Reefer Madness (1936)—which was rediscovered in the ‘70s, and which Briggs credits as the “first really successful midnight movie”—and El Topo (1970) as early examples. “[Reefer Madness] was hysterical, and it was still hysterical if you watched it when you were high,” he says.  

Scene from the Movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show
"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" helped put midnight movies on the map. / George Rinhart/GettyImages

But as the popularity of midnight movies grew throughout the 1970s thanks to films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Eraserhead (1977), audience tastes grew and changed as well. “​​In general, the midnight movie had to be extremely quirky. It had to be so weird that it was almost one-of-a-kind. And it had to be a movie that was better when watched with a crowd—the crowd participation was a big part of that experience,” Briggs says. 

Drive-in movies up until then had been all about appealing to the masses, but with many early midnight movies, mass appeal was never intentionally part of the plan. “I'm gonna use the big word that everyone uses now,” Briggs says with a laugh. “[A midnight movie] has to be slightly, or it has to be more than slightly, transgressive, [in that] it has to go against the culture in one way or another.”

And as different as they all are, almost every midnight movie does subvert mainstream culture in some way or another. They weren’t really meant to be populist in the way that the cult films of the ‘50s-era drive-ins were, even though some—like the horror-comedy Basket Case (1982)—could technically count as both. 

Basket Case is a horror film that you could show at a drive-in. It’s more of a midnight movie, even though I hosted the world premiere of it at a drive-in,” Briggs says. “It’s probably because there’s no other horror movie like it. If it had a bigger budget, it wouldn’t have played as a midnight movie. It had to be that rough-hewn in order to succeed, and that’s the essential difference.”

Another thing that sets midnight movies apart and speaks to their pop-culture longevity is watchability. “[Midnight movies are] movies that can be watched over and over again,” Briggs explains. “It has to have all of [the things I’ve mentioned], but it has to have its own unique story. Your midnight movie might not be my midnight movie, but it’s unique for its cult.” And within the following itself, Briggs says there’s a kind of we're cooler than you factor for “getting” the film in the first place that can play into its overall appeal.

A High Bar For Poor Taste: The Most Essential Midnight Movies 

Some flicks are so bad, they seem destined to be a midnight movie someday. Case in point? "Showgirls." / Getty Images/GettyImages

Whether they were first shown at a drive-in or as part of a midnight screening, cult films, by their very nature, don’t always appeal to everyone, and that’s the point. Yet in some cases—like with Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995), a “box-office [failure] that [was] redeemed” as a midnight movie, according to Briggs—a flick’s following might come to appreciate it for reasons that go beyond what the filmmakers originally intended. 

“If a bad movie becomes a cult movie, it has to be because it was done with the utmost serious intentions. Otherwise, it won’t be entertaining,” he says. 

Over time, some films can flip the other way, too. “You know, for a while, Evil Dead II was a cult movie,” Briggs points out. “Partly because it’s better than [The Evil Dead].” But these days, he considers Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) the better outing for Bruce Campbell fans in the mood for something to watch at midnight, because “it’s indie, it’s weird,” and it never got the wide distribution that it probably should have, which means there’s a good chance you still haven’t seen it.

When it comes to other cult films that have successfully made it on the late-night circuit, Briggs considers Rocky Horror “probably the king of all midnight movies, because it’s been running for so many years in so many places.” Aside from classics like El Topo, Eraserhead, and Basket Case, he also considers Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980) and John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972) among the most essential midnight movies ever released.

Another mainstay is The Warriors (1979): “I probably would not have said that 10 years ago, but there’s just been a huge interest in [it],” Briggs says. Back when he originally showed it on MonsterVision—the variety series that he hosted from 1996 to 2000 on TNT—it was “kind of a quirky, growing-in-popularity film.” But in recent years, it’s inspired everything from cast reunions to cosplay and board games, “so I would call that a good midnight movie.”

Although Briggs claims that he didn’t quite “buy into the cult” surrounding Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 drama The Room, he considers it another midnight movie worth checking out. “The ineptness of it, and yet the total commitment to it, caused it to become a cult film,” he says. “So I understand how it happened.”

Then, there are the midnight gems that even some of the most seasoned connoisseurs might have missed, like Damien Leone’s Terrifier (2016) or the 2005 slasher-comedy Santa’s Slay, starring wrestler Bill Goldberg as a deranged Santa Claus out to spread a little blood and guts to whoever’s next on the naughty list. “It should really be one of the standard Christmas horror films,” Briggs says, “right up there with Christmas Evil and Silent Night, Deadly Night.”

Under Cover of Darkness: Where to Find More Midnight Movies

Joe Bob's Haunted Halloween Hangout with Cassandra Peterson, a.k.a. Elvira
Check out the cult flicks curated by Joe Bob Briggs with special guest Cassandra Peterson (a.k.a. Elvira) ahead of this Halloween. / Shudder

So much of the midnight movie experience involves being part of a crowd. You can spread out on the couch to watch a flick like Donnie Darko (2001) for the first time, but chances are, you’ll have more fun if you do it in a theater, where audience reactions are a big part of the magic.

“We live in this world of menus, where all the streaming services just have menus. But you can’t trust the menus, because they’re either in alphabetical order, or they’re designed to fool you into watching whatever movie that streaming service has invested the most money in. So you gotta go to curators. You have to find curators that you trust,” Briggs says. Finding “good, honest film critics” that can lead you to other works by the same artists is part of the package, too.

Most importantly, you have to be willing to seek these types of movies out for yourself, because in many cases, they’re not so easy to find. On The Last Drive-In, Briggs regularly shows both older and newer cult films, like the 2017 horror-comedy Mayhem and the 2021 occult-horror movie Hellbender

But another way that fans can discover more on their own is by heading to established repertory theaters like the Music Box Theatre in Chicago; the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon; the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts; the Sun-Ray Cinema in Jacksonville, Florida; or the Texas Theatre in Dallas. Briggs also recommends the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA), a non-profit based in Austin, Texas. “They restore and re-release a lot of old exploitation films, and they're good. They’re also good curators. You can trust them,” he says. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic first started, Briggs admits he worried it might “kill a lot of that,” but he’s actually found that the opposite is true. “The shows I have done this year have all been sold out,” he says, including his roaming roadshow Joe Bob’s Indoor Drive-In Geek-Out, a collaboration with the AGFA. For Cerebellum Night, the first program for the Indoor Drive-In Geek Out, he showed a double feature of The Brain (1988) and Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage (1988). “We sold out The Brain, you know. I’m not sure we would’ve sold out The Brain in 2019.”

But in his opinion, what COVID-19 did was build up a hunger in people to return to watching films in a more communal way. For that reason, Briggs believes that the midnight movie experience will stay with us for a long time. “There is something about watching a movie in close proximity to other people that is special and elevates the whole experience,” he says. “And I hope we keep doing that—whether you’re high or not, it still works.”

Be sure to catch Joe-Bob's Haunted Halloween Hangout when it premieres live on Shudder TV at 9 p.m. EST this Friday, October 21. And if you miss the live feed, you can check it out on demand on Shudder (or through the AMC+ bundle deal) starting Sunday, October 23. 

Looking for a new movie to watch, or at least a movie that's new to you? Mental Floss's new book, The Curious Movie Buff: A Miscellany of Fantastic Films from the Past 50 Years, offers behind-the-scenes details and amazing facts about some of the greatest movies of the past half-century. And it's available now at your favorite place to buy books, or online right here.