For, Friday, Aug. 4, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Tower Theater is in the throes of its summer midnight series (actually a “late-night” series at 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and repeated Sundays at noon), continuing through the end of August. So let’s look back at what midnight shows used to be. This was a feature-cover story for what was then known as the ‘Today’ section of the Deseret News on July 4, 1980, headlined ‘After-hours movies lure loyal crowd,’ about cult films, midnight shows, and by extension the now-defunct theaters that trafficked in them. (Due to its length I’ve trimmed it in half; ‘Part 2’ will be in this space last week.)

Cult film freaks. Underground moviegoers. Midnighters.

Whatever you call them – people who regularly attend uncelebrated films shown exclusively in small art houses at odd hours – they are possibly the most loyal of all film fans.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” of course, is nothing short of a phenomenon – but weekend midnight films in general are coming into their own, and a whole new show crowd has developed, haunting the after-hour screenings.

If you missed them the first time around, and you probably did, you may never have even heard of “Eraserhead,” “Martin,” “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” or “The Hills Have Eyes.” They were all independent, low-budget movies and all received limited initial distribution.

No doubt, however, other regular midnight programs, such as “Night of the Living Dead,” “Gimme Shelter” or “Phantom of the Paradise” are more familiar – at least by title.

All of these films have played in Salt Lake theaters for midnight shows recently.

In addition to the Blue Mouse’s weekly “Rocky Horror,” the Olympus Starship and the Flick in Trolley Square have midnight shows each weekend. And occasionally, the Utah Theater downtown, the Woodland Drive-In and several Trolley Theaters schedule midnight shows. Until recently, the downtown Elks Twin had a midnight show each weekend, and it plans to bring them back in the near future.


Kyle Conner, manager of the Starship, said his theater averages 300 to 350 people at each of his Friday and Saturday night shows – and he sometimes sells out his capacity 425 seats. Much of that success, however, must be attributed to the live laser shows that accompanies each film.

“Rock films do the best business,” Conner said. “It’s mostly high school and college kids who come, and they like to see The Who, Pink Floyd and Led Zepplin’s concert films.”

He and Flick manager Ron Pearson said audiences are generally well-behaved, and as long as that continues (with adequate policing, of course), the midnighters will have films to see indefinitely – at least at the Starship.

The Flick is showing midnight programs on an experimental basis for one year (as are other Commonwealth theaters). Pearson said his business is not as brisk as that of the Starship, though they both repeat films the other has shown, due to the Starship’s laser shows and the Flick’s smaller seating capacity.

He said his clientele is the same age group, “But occasionally you see some older folks.”

Steve Barker, manager of the Flick’s sister theater, the Elks Twin, said an older crowd unintentionally attended a midnight showing of Mae West’s 1977 film “Sextette,” with Ringo Starr, Alice Cooper and others. They apparently mistook it for one of West’s 1930s comedies, and though it was rated PG, “Sextette” was racier than they had expected.

But whether they are racy or replete with rock ‘n roll, violence and gore, animated fantasy or just plain weird – cult films are definitely out of the mainstream movie world.


Ralph Bakshi’s cartoons qualify, from the X-rated “Fritz the Cat” and the R-rated “Heavy Traffic” to the PG-rated “Wizards” and “Lord of the Rings”; irreverent humor such as that offered by the Monty Python films are big draws; blood and guts epics by George Romero (“The Crazies,” “Dawn of the Dead”) get big crowds; and, of course, such hard rockers as “The Kids Are Alright,” a documentary about The Who, and Led Zepplin’s concert film “The Song Remains the Same” are very big.

The drawing power seems to be that they are not “normal” films. “Eraserhead,” for instance, said to be the second most popular cult film now, is anything but normal. But it seems unlikely to replace “Rocky Horror” at the top of the heap, as it is a slow-moving ethereal work, mixing dreams, nightmares, fantasies and realities.

A black and white independent film by David Lynch, “Eraserhead” offers a weird, surrealistic view of a young man whose strangest experiences may or may not be real. There’s a little sex, a little gore and lots of unfathomable goings-on – just the formula (if there is one) for a successful cult film. But there’s not much room for participation of the kind that has made “Rocky Horror” what it is.

Most of the movies listed so far are not “bad” films, however. That is, they are not poor quality, not poorly acted or poorly thought out or poorly produced. In some ways, many are superior to a number of Hollywood successes.

“Dawn of the Dead” is technically dazzling and filled with light (bizarre, to be sure, but light) touches of humor – it is also far too violent and gory for most mainstream audiences. “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” is deliberately bad, full of “camp” humor as it lampoons 1950s horror films. “Phantom of the Paradise” is a very good early Brian DePalma film, combining horror, humor and rock music. “Gimme Shelter” and “The Kids Are Alright” are two excellent documentaries on The Rolling Stones and The Who, respectively.

But some gatherings are on the horizon.