In our digital, home-viewing age, a vital and nostalgic tradition seems to have been lost: that of the midnight movie. Those of us born after 1990 don’t even remember the days when one-screen theaters would hunt down the weirdest films out there – The Holy Mountain, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Eraserhead – and screen them late at night, when they became almost spiritual experiences. These low-budget, out-of-nowhere movies show us images that had never been seen before their release, maybe haven’t been seen since. In a cinematic age when independent creators often get lost in the YouTube “influencer” noise and studios only invest in tentpole films, these boundary-pushing efforts can be hard to find.
Does that mean they’re gone forever? Of course not. There are still people out there who make films that dare us – and the crew, naturally – to go to our mental limits. Here are a few midnight essentials that keep the tradition alive.
A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)
When one thinks of films set in Dark Ages Europe, one never images stories about hallucinating treasure hunters. That’s the brilliance of this film from Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High Rise), who has now broken into the mainstream, but not before he gave us this little gem. It’s phenomenally written and acted, with gorgeous monochrome photography, but the real joy is its unabashed weirdness. Knaves and knights tripping on shrooms have never been so funny, scary, or entertaining.
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014)
I still haven’t seen another film that features a burka-wearing, skateboarding vampire, and if I ever do, I doubt it’ll pack the same punch of Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut. Equal parts seedy noir, supernatural horror and romance, Amirpour’s film earned her well-deserved status as a cinematic rock star. This independent offering is certainly strange, sometimes brutal, and it also tells a touching love story. Come for the weirdness, stay for the feels (and the vamp-out scenes).
Like Martyrs by way of Dario Argento, Can Evernol’s head-cleaving journey into technicolor Hell uses a surreal landscape to display human (or inhuman) depravity. A group of cops follow an enigmatic call to an abandoned mansion, but what they find is no crime scene – in fact, the doors to the Underworld itself have opened. Its visuals evoke a Creepshow-gone-wrong vibe, with magnificent makeup design; and while the story is fairly nonsensical, it’s still a gorgeous, gory blast of a film.
THE GREASY STRANGLER (2016)
Any film that opens with an argument about putting grease in coffee is bound to be interesting. Filled with the most insane characters who spout bizarre (and oft-repeated) zingers, this film is exactly what it sounds like: greasy as hell. It’s also packed with gut-busting humor and an engaging, if bonkers, whodunnit. Though it premiered at Sundance only one year ago, I’m still waiting for the quote-along screenings to start, complete with creamy cocktails and bullshit artists.
WE ARE THE FLESH (2016)
Ever see a film that makes you doubt your entire reality? If you’re a fan of midnight classics, that’s a rhetorical question. This debut – crafted by Emiliano Rocha Minter when he was only 23 – is ferociously stylish and authentically transgressive, featuring images that not only shock at a visceral level, but a psychological one. The design is fascinating, the performances committed, and the depraved philosophy surprisingly solid. As nasty and upsetting as it gets, it’s never boring.
Where else have you seen a film about a murderous fetus, directed and performed by a pregnant artist? Alice Lowe (Sightseers) controls this dementedly hilarious thriller with a strong sense of character, anchoring an off-the-wall story – a woman driven to avenge her husband’s death by their unborn child – in oddly emotional reality. That doesn’t mean Lowe skimps on the violence; the mayhem is well-earned, but never at the expense of story.
THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK (2016)
This is one of those rare films in which the supernatural could be proven or disproven with equal validity. We follow paranoid Sean as he summons a demon in his remote trailer – or so he thinks. Though shot on a shoestring budget, this Michigan-set exploration of a man’s breakdown fills its quiet shots with oozing atmosphere and dread-inducing ambiguity that lingers after the credits roll. It’s Evil Dead through the lens of Freud, with a powerful central performance that honestly depicts mental illness.
Infamous already for being called “the grossest movie ever made” (Chris Plante on The Verge), Steve Ellison – better known by his stage name Flying Lotus – sets out to obliterate minds with his feature debut. There’s a story somewhere in here, something about an earthquake in L.A. and people just trying to survive, but that’s fairly arbitrary compared to the sheer inventiveness of Ellison’s visuals. Backed by a predictably great score, this film may make you puke, but you’ll never forget it.
Ever dreamed of seeing Nicholas Cage fight demonic bikers and duel with a chainsaw in his underwear? In Panos Cosmatos’s sophomore feature, which caused a frenzy of confused praise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the above-mentioned moments aren’t even the strangest images to grace the technicolor screen. Cage has never been more bizarre, but against the backdrop of Cosmatos’s incredible filmmaking, he reminds us that weird movies can also have heart.
What recent film has blown your mind? Leave a comment below!
And don’t forget about ScreenCraft’s Horror Screenplay Contest that’s happening right now. Early deadline is May 3rd. Late deadline is June 29th.
BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting, WeScreenplay and ScreenCraft. His column Forbid