The Weird Side of Sundance: Writing Midnight Movies

By Ben Larned · February 19, 2018

As sales and Oscar buzz filled the frigid air of Park City, conversations tended to overlook the more unusual sections – namely Midnight and Next, set aside for genre cinema and debut works that are out of the ordinary. The awards talk was stagnant this year, however, so more attention has turned to these off-kilter offerings. At the time that this article was written, Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy remained the best-reviewed film of the festival, while Assassination Nation held the record for the highest deal, selling to Neon for $10 million. For fans of genre cinema, it’s a thrilling success to examine.

But weird doesn’t work when left on its own. Audiences have been generally dismissive of Jim Hosking’s An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, a film with a genuinely bizarre atmosphere and a stellar cast, but lacking in the dynamic, baffling narrative that made his debut The Greasy Strangler such a gross curio. So, what makes a weird movie a successful one as well? How can a vision be unusual and bizarre, while still communicating something that resonates?

After his film premiered, Cosmatos and his producers discussed the process of writing and developing such a bizarre work. Nicholas Cage himself chased the lead role due to his admiration of the screenplay. It broke rules by describing camera movements and design in great detail, one producer noted, though this is essential to Cosmatos’s cult-famous vision — and it also told a clear story. Cosmatos purposefully structured his world around a simple narrative, one based on recognizable emotions of love, grief and anger. It’s a revenge plot, one that has been seen time and time again; but it allows the insane design and visuals to anchor on something palpable.

Ari Aster took a similar approach to the creation of his horror breakout Hereditary, though its narrative is far from simple. The supernatural elements aren’t original by themselves—in fact, the influences are sometimes a little obvious—but Aster only uses them to evoke the painful emotion that the story requires. He draws his story from his own family, particularly a period in which they experienced a series of traumas and felt “cursed.” The family in his film expresses the same emotions, in impressively ugly, complex ways; their agony is so palpable that the film might be even more disturbing without its phantoms.

Weird cinema doesn’t have to be horrific or macabre to make an impression. Boots Riley found critical success with his crazy first feature Sorry to Bother You, which goes so far into the surreal that one doubts the reality of what they’re watching. Even so, it remains rooted in its central character — a man lost between his responsibilities and identity as the world grows grotesque around him. His vision, indeed, focuses on how the surreal details speak to the character’s societal fears, both economical and racial. Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline tells a story through a screenplay based on impressionist emotion, which allows her camera and actors to improvise as the protagonist’s mind calls for it. These films would presumably distance their audience — Riley’s world is hardly realistic or pleasant, and Decker’s story relies on sensory bewilderment to get across its information — but both have received praise from critics and casual viewers alike.

As determined by previous years when midnight movies weren’t really part of the conversation, weirdness isn’t enough to carry a film. Narrative still must drive the strangeness, and in turn, the strangeness must speak to a story. The successful entries in this year’s festival prove that the uncanny, the grotesque, can still communicate to a broader audience as long as there are characters and plot points attached. In short, the weirdness must have something to say; it must come from a human place. When writing the midnight movie, one can’t rely on heavy prosthetics and surrealism alone — although the texture that comes from those techniques can be essential to the film’s central statement.

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 Forbidden Tomes is published twice a month on Daily Dead. His short stories have been published in The Book of Blasphemous WordsDanse Macabre, and WitchWorks.

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