If a “midnight movie” is streamed on a laptop at two o’clock in the afternoon — and no one is there to obsess about it with you — is it even a midnight movie?
Some films automatically qualify as midnight movies thanks to subject matter or conceptual guts; Divine didn’t eat dog shit for you to disrespect “Pink Flamingos” (1972). Others get their genre credentials grandfathered in by decades of fans screening them; cheesy or not, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) always counts.
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But past counter-cultural phenomena can’t guide the future of the genre and weirdo film culture forever. A tradition rooted in transgression, left to wander down a sad path of static nostalgia and “The Big Lebowski” (1998) quotes, isn’t transgressive at all. And it’s not as if there’s a shortage of in-your-face cinema being produced. We’re living in a world where Agathe Rouselle fucked a firetruck in “Titane” (2021), and a certain cartoon bear used Eeyore’s severed tail as a flogger in “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey” (2023). And yet, the 21st century’s embarrassment of ridiculous riches somehow seems to undercut the midnight movie moniker.
With countless taboo, transgressive, and low-budget indies streaming 24/7 (for all we know, “Midnight Movies” might already be the name of a niche streaming service), the real-world subculture that revolves around last century’s midnight movies feels oversaturated and muted at the same time.
On the one hand, identifying and canonizing new midnight movies should be easy; we’ve got more than enough films to watch and countless artists screaming to say something. On the other hand, the days of sneaking out to the theater in search of provocative images you can’t find anywhere else are effectively over. Anyone with wifi and ten seconds to kill can find myriad opportunities to shock themselves in unspeakable ways. Hell, “Hostel” (2005) used to be on Hulu.
But with theaters on superhero life support — and the internet as cold and vast an expanse as ever — where to begin turning titles you can theoretically stream anytime into communal experiences best enjoyed by hardcore cinephiles in the dark?
What Makes a Midnight Movie?
In the festival world, “midnight movies” have taken on a broader definition as a category encompassing shit that’s too weird to program alongside more mainstream fare. Major players like TIFF and Sundance have Midnight sections showcasing the most shocking, genre-bending works from rising indie filmmakers. For a certain breed of independent artist, making the Midnight lineup at one of these festivals is a goal in and of itself. There’s a delightful irony to the idea of bestowing institutional legitimacy on films that do everything in their power to defy common decency, but we’re not complaining because it’s cool as hell.
Still, outsourcing an entire counterculture to a handful of institutions is a fool’s errand. Festivals have a vital role to play in the midnight movie ecosystem, but their understandable focus on new releases means that they will always be an incomplete solution. A thriving midnight movie culture is a constant dialogue between the ahead-of-its-time past and the boundary-pushing present. The first century of film history is littered with hidden gems that are begging to be discovered — and in some cases, reappraised with modern cultural context that their creators would have never imagined was possible.
As of now, the internet is an embarrassment of riches for cinephiles looking to explore once-forgotten films. But harrowing dispatches from the battlefields of the Streaming Wars are a constant reminder that it could all disappear at any moment. The bleak reality is that the shocking film that you’re obsessing over could be unceremoniously pulled from every streaming library tomorrow without so much as an explanation. It’s time to appreciate what we have while we have it and build a new canon of midnight movies that’s worthy of continued preservation.
What is IndieWire After Dark?
With over a century’s worth of media at our fingertips at any given moment (*nervously knocks on wood while refreshing the Max library*), it often feels as if the modern cinephile’s predicament has gone from dying of thirst in the desert to doing so in the middle of the ocean.
But rather than rendering midnight movies an anachronistic tradition, we believe that cultural saturation only makes them more essential. We need daring and depraved cinema to cut through the noise and remind us all that yes, there is still something out there that we truly haven’t seen before.
In our new column, IndieWire After Dark, we’ll take a feature-length beat each week to highlight weird, wonderful, way-too-much cinema and honor the changing experience of communal viewing. Each edition will anoint a new midnight movie that one of us thinks is always worth remembering — and the other is experiencing for the first time.
We’ll highlight new filmmakers whose brilliantly fucked-up visions demand larger audiences while celebrating old ones whose work is just too weird to be forgotten. A wide range of genres are welcome here, but each IndieWire After Dark selection is a film that threw caution to the wind and unapologetically swung for the fences. Some achieved their lofty goals and others failed in ways that created unintentional brilliance, but they all reinforce the idea that creative independence thrives after the clock strikes midnight.
IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59pm ET every Friday. Or, you know, at least until someone gets sucked into a wormhole or something.
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