April 27, 2007

The Midnight Mainstream

What happens when cult selections are among fests' most popular?

By John Lichman

Killer of men: Woolly mayhem in Jonathan King's Black Sheep
(Photo: IFC First Take/The Weinstein Company)

Traditionally, a festival's Midnight sections are where you go to find the obscure, gross-out creature feature; Tribeca’s no different this year, featuring 11 choices starring killer sheep (Black Sheep), mutant rats (Mulberry Street) and Lucy Liu (Rise: Blood Hunter, which will probably be on Netflix by the end of this sentence.) Killer animal motifs aside, Midnight series also appear to be the quintessential guide to the weird and quirky from breakout talent. The Toronto International Film Festival’s 1997 Midnight Madness series introduced fest-going cinephiles to Takashi Miike and Trey Parker and would later become such a staple of cultural cool that Sacha Baron Cohen would premiere Borat as a Midnight film rather than in the regular lineup.

It sounds like a strange choice; after all, Midnight series only show J-Horror or what will become art house releases, right? If so, then why does Stephen Kijak’s Scott Walker: 30 Century Man get sandwiched between Lucy Liu’s vampire slaying and the world premiere of a creature film? Nine of the 11 films screening are genre, dealing with gross-out gore, ghosts or a group of crazy Brits who make the Jackass guys look sane. So, all these really all “Midnight movies?”

“The thing is I would make a distinction between ‘midnight’ and ‘cult,’” said Jim Hoberman, film critic for the Village Voice and co-author (with Jonathan Rosenbaum) of the book Midnight Movies. The current wave of films that a festival screens as Midnight titles can be categorized, as Hoberman puts it, as “too violent, too graphic, too offensive [for the main festival] and that’s generally it.” In other words --- none have the cult appeal that one can find in a film like Lynch’s Eraserhead (“the greatest movie to have a life as a midnight cult film,” Hoberman told me). But he also said he sees a shift from the obscure into a midnight blockbuster, with films being tailor-made to appease the growing army of cult nostalgia that want something more along the lines of a ghettoized Midnight film. It’s the idea that quite possibly powers Grindhouse: If we fill it up with enough taboo, doesn’t that make it acceptable and cool?

But that isn’t to say some films and filmmakers don’t ride the Midnight circuit and gain credibility. Take Jonathan King, director of Black Sheep, whose film has steadily been gaining steam around the world at festivals’ Midnight selections, opening a month ago in his native New Zealand at the number two slot. Word of mouth (and especially e-mail) helped create such buzz for King’s first feature that it almost felt like you couldn’t have a festival without his killer sheep story. To King, the Midnight programs offer something that can be impossible to find for any filmmaker: a launching pad, not to mention an built-in fan base ready for something off-kilter.

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“One of my main thoughts is that the great thing about the [Midnight] audiences come pumped and primed and have a good time,” King said. "Even though he sees it as a sweet film -- “apart from the blood and guts and killer sheep,” he adds -- “But it’s interesting what you might have called ‘Midnight films’ are the kinds of things general audiences are watching these days. Ten years ago -- three years ago -- Saw would’ve been a Midnight movie. Now it’s a mainstream hit.”

King added that he thinks the Midnight moniker is a great way for people to learn about a film, and clearly it’s done wonders for his film. More now, it seems like the Midnight selections are a litmus test for what will potentially be accepted by more and more mainstream audiences. King is confident that Sheep can appeal to a larger audience (and it probably will when it gets a U.S. release in June), but that potential, he said, was on the back of festival screenings at some Midnight program.

As Midnight programs evolve further into the mainstream, the gross-out gore fests could reign supreme over the documentaries that are almost haphazardly thrown into Tribeca’s section in 2007. Maybe if Scott Walker is secretly a 20th century man who turns into a werewolf, or if Jamie Kennedy deals with hecklers in violent, bloody spectacles -- aside from the bombs he normally produces, that is.

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