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Disclaimer

Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

[Satanophobia] Midnight (1982)

Teenager Nancy Johnson (Melanie Verlin) has been thwarting the unwanted advances of her drunken
Midnight - Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster
stepfather Bert for far too long. His groping and demands for "smooches" are disturbing enough (made even more so by the fact that she takes it playfully in stride, and continues to call him "daddy"), but when he eventually tries to rape her, she decides that enough is enough. She conks him over the head with her 1980s boom box, packs a bag full of 1980s clothes, and runs away like a 1980s teenager.

Life on the road is difficult, as Nancy learns in about five minutes. It seems that everybody who is willing to drive an underage runaway girl across state lines is actually looking for something more than the warm glow you get in the cockles of your heart after doing a good deed.  Who would’ve guessed? The old bumper sticker adage definitely rings true: Cash, Grass or Ass...Nobody Rides For Free.

She does eventually wind up in the van of a couple of decent young men, Tom and Hank (John Hall and Charles Jackson), who are en route to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break. Although Nancy was actually trying to hitch it to California to stay with her sister, Tom convinces her that after break is over, she'll be able to catch a ride anywhere she wants as the freewheeling college students return to their schools across the country. You can't argue with logic, so it's Florida, ho!

Unfortunately, you can't argue with genre, either. This would-be Girls Gone Wild sexcapade takes a dark detour when the trio stop in a backwoods town to stock up on supplies. It turns out that Tom and Hank are the pettiest of thieves, and they steal groceries to survive. Nancy gets in on the scam, and before long, they're on the lam. While setting up camp in the backwoods to hide from the law, they also earn the attention of the worst kind of wildlife there is: a dimwitted, overweight killer hillbilly (a killbilly?) named Cyrus (David Marchick).

Two deputies find the Snack Bandits before ol' Cyrus can get his hands on them, but it doesn't really matter.
Midnight - Bad Cops
Bad Cops
These are Luke and Abraham (Greg Besnak and John Amplas), Cyrus's younger brothers, who have merely killed a pair of deputies and stolen their uniforms. They aren't interested in law and order, they are only interested in the sweet, innocent blood that is pumping through Nancy's veins. No, they aren't vampires. They are Satanists of the lowest order, belonging to a sect lead by their beautiful sister Cynthia (Robin Walsh), and they intend to pour Nancy's blood down their dead and decomposing mother's gullet, so that the dark one can restore her to life.

This is down and dirty, low budget horror (it would, actually, make a hell of a double-feature with SATAN’S CHILDREN), with enough of a sleaze factor that fans of that sort of thing should be willing to seek it out. The opening sequence, which is only tangentially related to the rest of the film, has Mama Satanist leading her pack of Child Satanists, to murder a girl who is caught in a bear trap. Later on, Nancy is shoved into a small kennel and referred to as a dog—bringing the 'Women in Cages' genre to a whole new level. And the finale has one of the fake deputies being bludgeoned with a hammer, shot, and finally set aflame before he eventually succumbs to death.

Midnight - Women in Cages
Women in Cages
In its best moments, it is exactly what you think of when you hear the term "drive-in horror", and is simultaneously reminiscent of the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (backwood murderers target kids in a van) and prescient of the remake (villains assume the role of local lawmen).

In its worst moments, though, it is an aimless and wandering mess, unbelievably padded with long shots of our heroes driving down country roads or shopping for groceries. The dialogue is often inane and pointless, sometimes amounting to nothing more than the characters narrating what they're doing onscreen. And the absurd moments are so absurd, it's difficult to believe that this wasn't entirely by design.

One of my favorite examples is the police chase, which occurs after the kids shoplift their groceries. Not only is it taking place at what I can only assume is safely below the posted speed limit, but the upbeat pop song on the soundtrack, coupled with the endless monotony of the siren, makes it a completely unnatural sensory experience.

By far the most absurd element, though, is that when it becomes evident that the small and ineffectual local police force isn't going to be much help in rescuing Nancy from the Satanists’ clutches, it is the drunk and rapey Bert that comes to the rescue. It really is a pretty startling transformation—a semi-incestuous drunken villain turns into the hero (though still a quite drunk one). One would assume that there would be a story behind his complete turnaround, and maybe there is one...but if there is, it happens entirely off-camera. If, after watching the movie, you want to fill in the gaps of Bert's story yourself, that's up to you. Personally, I prefer the completely anarchic changeover, as it fits with the rest of the rather bonkers storyline. It's as if a grizzled private eye has temporarily stepped into Bert's body for the final act of the film—David Lynch as filtered through Ed Wood. Which seems even more fitting as the unwieldy Lawrence Tierney, who plays Bert, is typically seen stomping through the scenery like the second coming of Tor Johnson.

Tierney isn't the only ‘name’ attached to this feature that would, in theory, lend it a bit of credibility. Special effects were supplied by Tom Savini, the guru of grue, who was enjoying his heyday when this movie was made. Unfortunately, there's really not a lot of blood and gore effects here to allow Savini to shine, and those that do exist are typically cut away from too quickly.  It really makes one wonder how Savini got suckered into it in the first place.

Furthermore, MIDNIGHT was written and directed by John Russo, who made a name for himself by co-writing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) with George Romero. Unfortunately, Russo was never able to recapture the lightning in a bottle of that film, and earned the ire of many fans by producing a steady stream of less-than-stellar products and returning to the NOTLD well a few times too many. This is understandable in light of the fact that a copyright error caused the movie to land squarely in the public domain, and it makes sense that he would want to recoup some of his losses—but the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 30TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (1999), which replaced portions of old footage with new footage, was viewed as a slap in the face by many. If nothing else, he at least had a hand in the story for the cult favorite RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)—though even then his original script was thoroughly rewritten by Dan O'Bannnon.

Russo also works as an author, having written non-fiction books on movie making, as well as fictional books, some of which were adapted into movies themselves. While his entire catalogue would certainly be worthy of evaluation, it is only the source material for this particular film that we are concerned with here.

The novel, first published in 1980 by Pocket Books, hits many of the same key (and not so key) scenes as the film: The bear trap murder; the attempted rape; Nancy being picked up by Hank and Tom; Hank and Tom's murder and the subsequent imprisonment of Nancy. But what the film is missing which the book has is the connective tissue that makes a story whole. The major differences are few: there is a secondary character in the novel that is not present in the film—an anthropologist that acts, believe it or not, as a potential love interest to Cynthia, high priestess of the satanic sect; and there are a great deal more cult members in the book, as Satanists from around the country congregate for the proceedings; but the biggest difference is that here, Bert plays no part whatsoever in the "happy ending". In fact there is no happy ending. Evil triumphs fully, and there isn't the slightest hint of redemption or retribution.

There is a good deal of backstory on all the characters that help to flesh them out, but much of the dialogue is the same onscreen as it is on the page. It's almost as if Russo had just cut-and-pasted his favorite scenes into the script, and forgot to write in what came between them.

Midnight by John Russo - Cover Image
Midnight by John Russo
Not being overly familiar with the whole of Russo's oeuvre (and being unsure on the amount of contribution he truly made to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), I'll base my evaluation solely on his two Midnights, and will go on record to say that he is a much better author than he is a filmmaker. Though his book was no great shakes, and there was little to no suspense, it was trashily entertaining enough to keep me reading and served to demonstrate what the movie could have (and rightly should have) been.

Although there were certainly no throngs of people clamoring for a sequel, Russo did return to the studio to film MIDNIGHT 2 in 1992, which, by all accounts, is even worse than the first and only minutely connected to the original.

Feeling as if a third pass was needed, Russo launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to fund a remake of MIDNIGHT, which is currently listed as "in development". Although there doesn't seem to have been a lot of movement since, I would be willing to give him one final shot to tell his story.

If for no other reason than to see what the ending will be this time.


—J/Metro

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