One of George Myers' biggest pet peeves is the obscene proliferation of re-makes in today's film industry. As general manager of Amherst Cinema and Pleasant Street Theater and the impetus behind the latter's Midnights at Pleasant Street series, he much prefers to give whatever screen time he can to directors who are actually doing cool, original things.
"Ti West's House of the Devil feels like a movie that was shot in 1980; it's not just a horror film but a real period piece," Myers opines earnestly, referring to one of the earlier films of a director whose latest effort, The Inkeepers, is part of the series. "Some of these directors, I mean, they're really artists to achieve this level of historical flavor through the referencing of stuff. Tarantino is, I guess, the most obvious example, a big popular guy. I mean, he takes things unabashedly from '70s movies, and he does them with his own fingerprint. He's appropriating, without question, but there's an auteur there, you know?
"And it just makes you feel even more disheartened when you see that people can do it, and do it with integrity, and [the studios] are still just remaking all this stuff. You want to know why box office sales are down across the board? This is why. It's like taking food out of the compost heap, deep-frying it and calling it dinner. No, man, grow a carrot."
Midnight movies are apt to bring back high school memories. Like many children in the '70s and '80s, my friends and I used to go to a local theater on the weekends to see rock documentaries, including The Song Remains the Same, Journey through the Past and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. We saw a lot of cool films and it kept us out of trouble for a few hours. When I noticed Myers' series of classic midnight films in the Advocate's film listings, just browsing the titles made me want to be a teenager again.
Midnights at Pleasant Street is Myers' brainchild, and the razor-witted 30-something has a taste in subculture that reveals a sophisticated love of film that's part Roger Ebert and part Roger Corman.. The films he has assembled for weekly, munchable midnight consumption traverse the spectrums of both genre and quality, but whether a blockbuster or a B-movie, each selection bears some markers of truly original filmmaking. Having already run cult classics like Spider-man director Sam Raimi's first feature effort, Evil Dead (1981), and the subsequent year's stoner comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which propelled the careers of Sean Penn, Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason-Leigh), as well as Gremlins (1984), the series is on track to provide a delicious sampler of '80s nostalgia. Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985), Tim Burton's directorial feature-length debut, continues the tour; upcoming B-movie gems Street Trash (1987—a film I thought no one else had seen but me) and Tremors (1990) transition us into the '90s and provide the requisite appearance of Kevin Bacon, to provide six degrees of continuity.
Not everything in Myers' program is vintage. The series began in September with the 2010 Norwegian breakout film Troll Hunter, which critics have hailed as providing some real visual (and dramatic) bang for the buck in spite of its relatively bush-league $3.5 million budget. Still to come is Tommy Wiseau's The Room (2003), an indie picture touted by some as one of the worst films of all time, yet one that's somehow achieved Rocky Horror cult-like status through some twist of hipster irony. Other selections include Tina Fey's first big-screen writing credit Mean Girls (2004), the 1995 Alicia Silverstone vehicle Clueless, and even somewhat obscure but critically acclaimed foreign films like Dario Argento's Italian witchcraft pic Suspiria (1977).
Myers has seen a boatload of movies, a few (such as George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and John Carpenter's version of The Thing) in excess of 100 times. The obsession is at least partially traceable to his childhood, during which his father worked at a video store and brought home bizarre films like Ken Russell's Lair of the White Worm on VHS.
"I saw tons of weird movies when I was a kid thanks to my dad," he recalls. "He was always showing movies that a seven- or eight-year-old shouldn't have been seeing."
Our discussion turns to the possibility that many films that came out in our childhoods 30 or 40 years ago would probably be considered extremely inappropriate by today's more stringent standards. Some things just aren't seen anymore the way they were in the '70s, like scenes from The Exorcist where you observe a priest chain-smoking cigarettes or a possessed 12-year-old girl reaming herself with a cross and screaming "Fuck me, Jesus!" Myers contends that much of the weird imagery and many of the concepts that were tried out in that decade were direct results of the previous decade's general societal upheaval, bled in through cultural crossover elements like Dennis Hopper and Roman Polanski. The rise of things like the Moral Majority and the PMRC (Parents' Music Resource Center) in the music industry during the 1980s may have had a lot to do with the toning down of cinema in later years, as well.
Myers admits an appreciation for the often experimental filmmaking of the '70s, though he realizes that some of the introspective concepts and drug-fueled imagery or dialogue can sometimes be a little too slow for the midnight crowd.
"Movies like Suspiria don't translate well to large groups of people at midnight," he notes, admitting that some of his favorites might not be fast-paced enough to hold the attention of a late-night audience. "Omega Man is like that as well. People start falling asleep in their seats."
It becomes clear during our discussion that Myers' patience with cinema in general far exceeds that of the average sleepy midnight viewer, however. Though he's never attempted to write or produce his own films, he's obviously immersed himself in the medium from a very young age. We discuss old television shows that were early portals to horror movies or Japanese monster flicks like Dr. Shock and Creature Double Feature, Elvira and Up All Night, and the depth of his sponge-like absorption quickly becomes apparent.
"I took a ton of film classes in college, even though it wasn't my major or anything," he says, "and I had a friend that I'd get together with for a movie night where we'd just watch as many Italian horror movies as we could bear, or as many documentaries about Charles Manson as we could bear, too much of that stuff."
He calls the notorious series Faces of Death "campy" and "staged," but admits to having some seen some really sickening films in which they actually do things like kill animals.
"There was one Italian movie I saw called Cannibal Holocaust," he recalls, "and even the third time I saw it, on the big screen at The Coolidge in Boston, I knew it was coming and I still almost threw up, so... despite appreciating it and seeing it, it's definitely not something I'm drawn to, that sort of more real exploitation cinema."
When I ask about whether he's considered showing any X-rated films, ones with arguably nostalgic or historical cultural value like Behind the Green Door or Deep Throat, he chuckles.
"People have joked about that. They're like, 'If you start losing money, just do what video stores did and start showing X-rated movies.' The fact is, as an organization, we don't abide by MPAA ratings, so we show art films, et cetera, and there's nothing legal to say that we couldn't. Some films, like Dawn of the Dead, didn't even go through the rating process. That said, I don't think we would go there, but we've got a few NC-17 horror movies like I Drink Your Blood, so we're flirting with it, I guess."
"Sometimes you can't get a film at all," Myers says with a sigh as we discuss the process of procuring rare independent titles. "Sometimes it was just made by guys like you and me, who were high in the '70s, who sold the licensing to another guy who went bankrupt and had to sell it to some other guy in Italy, and it just gets lost. Sometimes you have to talk to the guy that wrote it—that's what we had to do to get Street Trash, because sometimes the writer still holds the theatrical license through weird default things that happen when not everything gets contracted out properly during the film's production. First-run movies are pretty easy to get, through Magnolia or the bigger distributors, but sometimes you'll wind up emailing some guy in Europe who turns out to be a dead end anyway. It can be very frustrating, but fun," he says, if you're into problem-solving, and dealing with obscure legal arcana.
As to whether this kind of programming is a lucrative endeavor in the long run or more of a labor of love, he thinks it falls somewhere in between.
"We more than broke even on the first few months," he says, "and the curatorial interest in making things like these nights happen is very supportive. We don't need to make a ton of money. We'll run the numbers again at the end of March, and as long as we're not losing too much we'll keep it going. The series has gotten a lot of support, people coming from Connecticut, Vermont, New York State to see them."
Attendance has been very good, with some fluctuation; some shows have sold out and some have only had 20 people, but even when there aren't a lot of people, Myers says it still "feels pretty good." The audience has been mostly younger people, which he says he'd anticipated on some level, but he's still surprised at the robust turnout of high school-aged and even younger kids. The series' popularity with teenagers does fit right into the plan, though.
"Even though part of the reason for doing this has been to give a voice to this unusual stuff that doesn't really have a market," Myers says, "it's also been to give people an alternative to bars and alcohol, over-21 places. I do a lot of night life stuff too, and it gets a little tiring going out all the time to see bands and stuff, and so this is also kind of a social experience you can have without having to talk to people or having to spend a lot of money. It's one of the beautiful things about movies—it's a shared experience, but there's no pressure to come up with jokes or small talk; it's cheaper than going to a bar, and it's something very different every time."
One of the best things about including so much retrospective in a series like this is witnessing what I call "The Star Wars effect"—that 20-years-out perspective that one gets when viewing past blockbusters with older eyes. The experience can be traumatizing when one realizes that treasured childhood lines or special effects that seemed so cool in 1980 have for some reason lost their luster. More often, though, one tends to just chuckle at details like the fact that you can see boom-mics hanging down into the frame in some scenes in Saturday Night Fever, or that Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia permanently loses her affected English accent halfway through the first Star Wars movie.
It may be inevitable that we lose a little of our ability to suspend disbelief after years of being hammered by that cruel mistress, reality, but in viewing dated films like these it's equally likely that we'll re-conjure at least a few feelings of giddy excitement when Phoebe Cates climbs out of a pool and unfastens her bikini top in a Judge Reinhold fantasy sequence, or John Goodman utters the phrase "No, Donny, these men are nihilists, there's nothing to be afraid of" (in The Big Lebowski, screening Friday, March 2 at Pleasant Street).
In the end, the reliving of these moments has to be filtered through a sieve of healthy, updated irony, celebrating things precisely for their silliness or low-budget laughability, as when everyone leans over and grabs the arm of the couch and shakes, along with the bridge crew, whenever the starship Enterprise is hit by enemy fire during an all-night Star Trek TV marathon. Even if you've become hopelessly jaded by life and the media, you can still find some of that old magic to extract from the minutiae.
In the spirit of such nostalgia, I ask Myers if he's done anything in the vein of concocting specifically themed snacks or drinks at the concession stand, and we briefly discuss possible "virgin" White Russian recipes he might employ at the upcoming Lebowski screening.
"No," he admits, "we haven't done that, but that's a good idea. Put your hand in the brains, or whatever. For Street Trash, I was thinking about making fake bottles of Viper [the rotgut booze that literally dissolves bums in the film when they drink it]—I forget what the label looks like, I just remember it's black, so just replicating that in Photoshop and then printing it out to paste onto bottles of soda."
There are a few promotional efforts involved with the series, however.
"Usually at the beginning of every film we raffle off the poster for the night, some free tickets to other things and stuff," he tells me. "We are actually giving away some bowling alley gift certificates at Lebowski."
Myers hopes that series programming like Midnights at Pleasant Street will continue, and encourages anyone who's interested in something other than mass-market cinema to come check out the shows. For a summer lineup, he is busy making mental lists of potential beach movies and summer camp slashers, which may include Meatballs, Wet Hot American Summer, Sleepaway Camp, Porky's and of course Friday the 13th. He'd also like to do some other favorite cult films that have historically accumulated niche followings, such as Showgirls, Repo Man, Return of the Living Dead and Raising Arizona. Whatever the mix ends up being as a result of taste and/or availability, Myers concedes that even this selective, ambitious cross-section of American cinema still subscribes to a bit of the lowest common denominator:
"The more blood, the more heads that roll, the better. And if it's funny."
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Midnight Movies: Entire Schedule
Sept 16th: Troll Hunter
Sept 23rd: Hobo with a Shotgun
Sept 30th: Tucker and Dale vs Evil
Oct 7th: Perfect Host
Oct 14th: Clueless
Oct 28th: House (Hausu)
Nov 4th: (No screening)
Nov 11th: Video Velveeda Found VHS
Nov 18th: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Nov 25th: Suspiria
Dec 2nd: The Room
Dec 9th: They Live
Dec 16: Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Dec 23rd: Gremlins
Dec 30th: Waynes World
Jan 6th: Evil Dead
Jan 13th: Pee Wee's Big Adventure
Jan 20th: I Drink Your Blood
Jan 27th: Street Trash
Still to Come
Feb 3rd: Tremors
Feb 10th: The Innkeepers
Feb 17th: Mean Girls
Feb 24th: The Room
Mar 2nd: Big Lebowski
Mar 9th: Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie
Mar 16th: Robocop
Mar 23rd: Jurassic Park
Mar 30th: The Beyond