‘Rocky Horror,’ ‘The Room’ and the magic of midnight film screenings

Tuesday, March 6, 2018 - 4:14pm

The Michigan Theater is a hub for cult movies

The Michigan Theater is a hub for cult movies Buy this photo
Dominic Polsinelli / Daily

My first (and only) experience of a midnight screening happened last fall at the Michigan Theater in anticipation of the release of “The Disaster Artist.” “The Disaster Artist” adapts the memoir by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell about their time on the set of “The Room” at the mercy of the eccentric Tommy Wiseau. As I waited in the jam-packed theater for the movie to begin, I could tell right away that the atmosphere was something extraordinary: Loud recitations of notorious scenes filled the room, several people tried to sell me plastic spoons (since the Friday-night crowd cleaned house at the nearby Walgreens), the musty scent of alcohol and marijuana came from all directions. Usually, only the bottom floor of the main auditorium has customers, consisting largely of senior citizens and film students with plenty of seats open. But that night, even the balcony level sold out.

Once the film started, the noise did not die down. Instead, people shouted along to the dialogue and chucked their precious plastic spoons towards the front, inevitably hitting a lot of heads. I started to pick up on the bizarre traditions that everyone bought into: If you see a spoon in the movie, throw a real one; if there’s an extended sex scene, count the absurd number of gyrations; or you yell, “Go! Go! Go!” as the camera pans across the Golden Gate Bridge — the list goes on. At some point, people in the back ran out of their arsenal of plastic spoons and started racing through the aisles and diving onto the stage to retrieve more. All this passion and frenzy and excitement for truly the worst movie ever made. In other words, a straight-up phenomenon.

Midnight movies, synonymous with cult films, began their rise in popularity where most would expect: New York City. The independent film scene revolved mostly around certain iconic, and now almost all closed, arthouse theaters like the Elgin, the Waverly and the St. Marks. Selections often included cheap B-movies, corny Westerns or sultry features that addressed fetishes and other counterculture topics. Most associate the Mexican western “El Topo” as the first midnight movie, played back in 1970 to crowded audiences. From “El Topo,” the phenomenon spread to embrace dark comedies, politically-charged thrillers and, oddly enough, a number of movies that John Lennon of The Beatles loved. However, like all trends, the fascination shifted to something else, except for one film which has outlasted even the theater that coaxed it to cult status: “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

“Rocky Horror Picture Show” is the longest running movie in history with a Cinderella tale to accompany its cementation in popular culture. What started as a small theater production transformed into an Hollywood flop and, miraculously, re-emerged as the symbol of fringe society. Similar to “The Room,” audience participation drives the showings with traditions that force places like the Michigan Theater to issue a ban on rice, confetti, water guns, candles, lighters, whole rolls of toilet paper, prunes and hot dogs. At locations that run the special every week, some actors make a career participating in Rocky Horror shadowcasts. In fact, the state of Mich. has three shadowcasts that roam around performing for riotous fans. As the 1975 motion picture plays on a screen, actors dressed as the characters dance below and react to improved and repeated-so-many-times-it’s-scripted lines from the audience. As film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is not so much a movie as more of a long-running social phenomenon,” since “the fans put on a better show than anything on the screen.”

Like all counterculture, midnight screenings have become a rite of passage, no longer confined to an unorthodox, marginalized community. Just as aspects of hippie and punk subcultures infiltrate our everyday lives, so do references to cult films: Someone humming “The Time Warp,” someone patting a puppy’s head to say “Hi, doggy.” Who knows what films decades later will be staples of our culture? Great movies nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes fall to obscurity, but somehow the red lips of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and the bonkers accent of Johnny from “The Room” will live on in grungy corners of the country or the most mainstream theaters. Midnight movies have a timeless power over audiences. They entrance us, they push the envelope, they don’t shy from a deeper truth, but most importantly, they welcome. They provide a feeling of camaraderie and unity, and once you get a taste, you’re already in too deep.