Experience film in a new way through the State Theater's cult and classic midnight screenings

By Tyler Bailey, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 27, 2013

For almost as long as the phenomenon of cult movies has existed, so too have these strange, offbeat and sometimes downright terrible films found a home at midnight screenings. It could be that the mythos of the midnight hour meshes with the appeal of the cult film movement, because this combination has been a hit nationwide and in Ann Arbor. The city has been at the forefront of the midnight movie scene with the State Theater offering frequent midnight screenings since the late ’80s.

However, it is not just the offbeat appeal of the midnight hour that has audiences coming back most Saturdays. Brian Hunter, programming manager of the State Theater, has been making sure that viewers are served a steady diet of classic cult films as well as a complete social experience unlike any other trip to the movies (that happens before midnight, that is).

“I definitely think that things can get weirder; I want the midnights to feel like a party,” Hunter said. “My dream is for it to feel like, even if you’re seeing ‘The Goonies,’ that you feel like it’s the first time you’ve ever seen it, and it’s the weirdest time you’ve ever seen it.”

While many patrons have already seen multiple films that are popular fare for midnight screenings, the experience offered by the State Theater is worlds away from the experience of popping in a favorite DVD or, more likely, queuing up a strange, foreign thriller on Netflix.

After purchasing tickets and climbing the stairs to the State’s two screens on the second floor, eager guests are in for a moviegoing encounter unlike any other. Before every midnight screening, State Theater employees introduce the film, often joking and making insider references, as well as a list of other upcoming films. Unlike a Hollywood film screening, audience participation is encouraged. Regulars and newcomers shout out their favorite lines, make jokes around the on-screen dialogue or even bring props related to specific moments in the film. While this behavior would most likely get you the boot at a theater like Rave or Quality 16, the State Theater embraces this tradition with open arms.

“It’s really fun when the audience brings it to us,” Hunter said. “A midnight audience, if they’re in touch with the film, they know what to do for it.”

Audience participation is even encouraged outside the physical boundaries of the State’s walls. Due to the rip-roaring frontier-like nature of midnight movies at the State, there is always an avenue for film enthusiasts to suggest a screening of a classic favorite or a new, strange limited release for consideration as a part of the series.

“E-mail me! I can’t say that enough,” Hunter said. “I’m more than happy to hear what people want to see. I want Ann Arbor to have a fun midnight scene.”

While nothing seems off-limits in terms of audience behavior, limits aren’t even considered in regard to the films that can, and are, shown as part of the midnight programming. Though midnight classics such as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Eraserhead” and “Donnie Darko” have become a tradition, the midnight series has given audiences the chance to see more experimental, lesser known and even avant-garde films.

“There’s nothing that I wouldn’t even consider showing,” Hunter said. “I think it’s all about experience; it should be about stretching your boundaries, what you’re comfortable or uncomfortable with. I do think the midnight audience is willing to take chances on things.”

At midnight, it can be better to go outside a comfort zone or see something that pushes boundaries instead of the dazzling Hollywood blockbuster that is guaranteed to wow audiences. At midnight, it might be a better choice to see a crude, terribly made bust than a critically acclaimed four-star thriller. However, even with these differences, one thing remains the same: At midnight, a film should give you an emotional reaction just the same as it should any time of day.

“You should leave the theater either happy that you stayed up and you went with your buddies or leave the theater and just be beside yourself because you feel something,” Hunter said. “I think movies, in general, but especially midnight movies, work on that visceral level. You should feel something from them.”