News Column

Odd Films Became Late-Night Treats

May 19, 2013



Midnight movies?

The phrase brings a smile to the face of North Jersey film fan Louis Azzollini, who recalls "crowds of people laughing through late- night screenings of 'Reefer Madness' after smoking a bunch of it in the parking lot."

A co-founder of the Fort Lee Film Commission, Azzollini has a fondness for all movies but says he'll probably always have a soft spot in his heart for the ones he grew up watching shortly after 12.

Venues included the Hyway Theater in Fair Lawn, Cinema 5 in Bergenfield, the Oritani Theater in Hackensack, the Cedar Lane Cinema in Teaneck and the Waverly and Elgin in Manhattan, among many others.

Friday night ritual

"It was a ritual in the 1970s and '80s," Azzolini recalled. "You'd go out on a Friday night with a group of your friends and see movies they never showed on television."

Indeed, in the pre-cable, pre-VCR, pre-YouTube era, where else could one see the likes of "Harold and Maude," David Lynch's surreal "Eraserhead" or John Waters' hilarious (and thoroughly disgusting) "Pink Flamingos?"

There were also the cult horror flicks like "Blacula." The cult rock-and-roll flicks like "The Last Waltz." And the king (and queen) of the midnight movies, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which managed to combined music, gore and laughs. And which miraculously encouraged high school jocks to get up and sing -- along with the movie's star, Tim Curry -- "I'm a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania!"

"Rocky Horror," which also starred Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon and Meat Loaf, inspired a level of audience participation that has never been equaled, although midnight screenings of the delightfully dreadful "Mommie Dearest," briefly came close. (At one Manhattan theater, audience members smeared their faces with cold cream, tossed bathroom cleansers across the theater and screamed, of course, about those blasted wire hangers.)

Film historians -- Azzollini among them -- trace the origin of the midnight movie phenomenon way, way back. Some say it was inspired by the Grade B horror films, screened mostly for laughs, on local television stations in the '50s and '60s. These broadcasts, hosted by the likes of Vampira (portrayed by the Finnish actress Maila Nurmi) and John Zacherle (who billed himself as "The Cool Ghoul") offered teens a steady diet of campy monsters, clunky aliens and miserable dialogue.

"Then, in the '60s," Azzollini said, "you had a lot of drive-ins playing these awful old movies late on weekends, including the Route 3 Drive-In [in Rutherford]."

Midnight movie mania peaked in the '70s with a more stylish group of films that defied easy description. Each, though, seemed to start out with small but devoted filmgoers who wanted to see the movies again and again.

The big question: Where?

"El Topo," the 1970 American-Mexican "acid Western" written and directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, found its home at the Elgin theater after one of the theater's owners saw it at a private screening at the Museum of Modern Art.

Often credited as the first midnight movie, "El Topo" opened at the Elgin in December 1970. It was shown seven days a week at midnight (or later) and ran continuously until the end of June.

In short order, other theaters in Manhattan, North Jersey and all around the country realized there was gold in them thar midnight shows.

Among the earliest late-night sensations were "The Night of the Living Dead," Tod Browning's "Freaks" and, beginning in 1976 -- seven months after it was released to so-so reviews and lackluster box office receipts -- "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." That film not only lured audiences by the thousands to the Waverly, it also encouraged them to dress up, bring props and scream out a litany of comical comebacks to the onscreen action.

The cult-film queen

Theaters around the country quickly joined in the mayhem, turning "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (which was made in 1975 for a relatively measly $1 million) into the "I Love Lucy" of cult films. Even after the film was released on video and made available to cable TV outlets, the wacky screenings continued ad infinitum.

"Rocky Horror" fever continued well into the '90s and then started all over again in the new millennium, as a new generation discovered its peculiar charms -- which do seem to multiply after repeated viewings.

Teri Johnson Cole of Haskell got her "Rocky Horror" fix at the Hyway Theater. Cathy Szewc of Wallington preferred the Cedar Lane. ("I loved the raucous FDU crowd that showed up!")

Lisa N. Newman of Elmwood Park also chose the Cedar Lane, in part because she was able to get her props, "rice, newspaper, water pistols, at a 7-Eleven right down the street."

Or, as any midnight movie fan might put it: Just a jump to the left.

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