Monday, August 22, 2011

DVD Review: MIDNIGHT (1982)

Label: Arrow Video
Release Date: September 5th 2011
Region: Region 0 PAL
Rating: TBC
Duration: 94 mins
Video: 1.33:1 Fullframe
Audio: English Dolby Digital Mono
Director: John Russo
Cast: John Amplas, Melanie Verlin, Lawrence Tierney
Tagline: Midnight... Time to Die!

Synopsis: Poor, poor Nancy... Alone on the road, trying to hitch a ride to California to start a new life, away from the sleaze of her own family. Nancy hooks up with a pair of good natured petty crooks on a road trip to nowhere special. Then things take a dark turn when her friends are iced by a pair of backwoods cops. Now, Nancy is in danger of being sacrificed to Satan himself by the wayward lawmen and their twisted siblings, in an insane attempt to resurrect their mother’s mummified corpse.

Writer/Director John A. Russo is probably best known as the co-writer of George A. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and probably for good reason, everything else just sort of pales in comparison if you ask me. He's got a few directorial credits to his name; the sex comedy THE BOOBY HATCH (1976), a weird shot-on-video cheesecake workout video SCREAM QUEENS SWIMSUIT SENSATION, some novels and this here backwoods exploitation flick.

Russo's MIDNIGHT (1982) opens with a nasty little pre-credit sequence featuring a young girl in the tall grass of field with her leg caught in a bear trap, now that's how you start a film, right there, yup. She is approached by a woman (Jackie Nicoll, THE MAJORETTES) and her four evil spawn who've come armed with various instruments of blunt force trauma. The crazed mother explains to her brood that the girl in the trap is in fact not a girl at all but a demon, further explaining that demons can take the form of anyone, even someone they know, this part brought to mind Bill Paxton's FRAILTY, a very good film if you haven't seen it. The mother cues one of the boys to beat the girl upside the head with his axe handle until she lies lifeless and limp. Her body is dragged back to a house where at midnight she is to be sacrificed to Lord Satan. As the family gathers round the alter of sacrifice an adolescent girl named Cynthia clenches a dagger in both hands held high, a pentagram marks her forehead, at the stroke of midnight she plunges the dagger into the young girl's flesh, Satan's will has been served. That's the pretty awesome introduction to John A Russo's MIDNIGHT.

It's a few years later now and we're introduced to Nancy (Melanie Verlin, MONKEY SHINES) a conflicted girl with tomboyish features whom is torn between the her faith in the Lord and her libidinous teenage hormones. She lives with her mom and a drunken cop stepfather named Burt (Lawrence Tierney, THE PROWLER). Burt's a lecherous perv and one day when Mom's at work he attempts to rape Nancy but she gets the upper hand and improbably knocks the big bastard out. She makes for the road in an attempt to hitchhike to California where her sister resides. Along the way she is picked-up by Tom (John Hall, SURF NAZIS MUST DIE) and Hank (Charles Jackson), two guys travelling in a van on their way to spring break in Florida. They seem like nice guys and even though they're going in the opposite direction she tags along with 'em anyway. Along the way they offer a ride to a priest and his daughter whom when departing the van warn them of a rash of disappearances and murders in the area and advise the trio not to stop until they reach their destination. As ever in these films the trio pay no heed to this warning and after an incident of shoplifting puts them on the run from Johnny Law they turn down a dirt road which takes them further into the forest, which is always a bad idea, always. Even after spotting a maniacal looking man whom may have been carrying a corpse wrapped in a sheet they set-up camp for the night, naturally.

The next morning Nancy awakes early and goes for a stroll leaving the guys slumbering in their sleeping bags. Not long after she's left they are rudely awakened by two police officers with guns drawn and in their faces. The officers are Abrahan (John Amplas, MARTIN) and Luke (Greg Besnack, KNIGHTRIDERS) whom aren't cops at all but the now adult children from the pre-credit sequence all grown up and still crazy as loons and collecting victims for sacrifice for Old Scratch. Nancy witnesses the altercation from a distance and flees the scene but not before catching the notice of the "officers" who give chase. She comes to a nearby house in woods only to discover too late that it's home of the Satanist, natch. Inside is a now grown Cynthia and the families mentally deficient brother Cyrus (David Marchick) who is sorta the giggling Leatherface of the family, at times he brought to mind either Buddy from SLAUGHTERHOUSE and Madman Marz of MADMAN. While their wicked mother is now a rotting corpse the family still carries on her legacy of demented demon sacrifice. Why would they sacrifice demons to the Devil, anyone? Nancy is captured and imprisoned in a small dog cage alongside another unfortunate young lady named Gwen (Ellie Wyler) and comes to realize that on Easter Sunday the quartet of Satanist hope to resurrect their deceased mother by sacrificing three women in her name to Beelzebub. Meanwhile pervy Burt seems to have developed a conscience to some degree and has set off in search of Nancy, through his connections on the police force is able to track down Nancy's whereabouts but can he intervene before it's too late?

The film is an adaptation of John A. Russo's own novel 'Midnight' which I haven't read but I hear had a more morbid ending which was filmed but changed at the producer's advice.  The film definitely cashes-in on the deranged killer family scenario of Tobe Hoopers TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and also has a grim uneasiness about it not unlike NOTLD. Overall the film has an effectively creepy and chilling vibe that exploits our fear of rural folk, satanic cults, rape and the woods. It's fun stuff but technically the film is a disaster, there's some decent shots from low angles and what not but it's a rough warts n' all production. This could stem from the minuscule 71K budget, that's pretty cheap for a 35mm production even back in 1980 when the film was made. The film feels more early 70's than 80's, too.

There;s some effects work from gore-master Tom Savini who already had George A. Romero's MARTIN and DAWN OF THE DEAD under his belt at this point but probably owing to budget constraints has little to work with here, there's a decent decapitation but don't expect any hardcore gore here folks, just some blood.

It's not all bad however, there's some promise to the film. Russo's definitely going for a gritty grindhouse vibe, aiming capitalizing on the Satanic panic of the 70'sand he succeeds to some degree with a disturbing pre-credit sequence and some low-budget scares and exploitation elements but overall the film is poorly executed; the acting is pretty limp. While Verlin makes for a decent protaginist and Tierney is pretty scary as the rhinocerous sized alcoholic stepdad John Amplas, so good in Romero's MARTIN seems adrift for most the film though he does get a few unhinged scenes, particularly during his initial appearance. 

DVD: This marks the first time that MIDNIGHT has been made available completely uncut in the UK. The film is presented in it's original fullframe  (1.33:1) aspect ratio with English Dolby Digital mono. It's been a while since I've seen the R1 Lionsgate DVD of the film from a few years back but this appears slightly better than what I recall but even that's not much of a compliment, this is still near VHS quality. The NTSC-PAL conversion leaves the film looking soft, there's print damage, dirt and it's just an overall murky image lacking detail. Something I found annoying is that the timecode is slightly visible along the top edge of the frame, I don't understand why this wasn't cropped to conceal that. Audio isn't great either, there's an assortment of hiss, crackle and pop evident throughout and the dialogue is not always clear. I would assume there are no pristine vault elements of this film available, the brand new transfer would seem to back me up there but also it points to a rather amateur production overall, technically this is a mess all around. Russo is definitely a writer first and a director maybe third or fourth.

Reversible Artwork

The DVD starts off with a brief Introduction by star John Amplas (0:33), we then get two video interviews produced by High Rising Productions. The first is Vampires, Rednecks and Zombies: The Fear Career of John Amplas (31:17) and features Amplas talking about catching the eye of Romero in a theatre production who then cast him as the title character in MARTIN, he also gives his interpretation of whether Martin is truly a vampire or just a severely disturbed kid, Savini's effects in the film and his late introduction to the world of horror conventions in 2006. He also speaks to his recollections of the filming of MIDNIGHT, they're pretty much limited to the fact that he wore a policeman's uniform. This may be partially explained by his remembering being drunk on set and more than a bit drugged at times, much to Russo's dismay. Midnight at Your Door: The Shocking Sacrifices of John Russo (20:14) features the writer/director remembering the myriad of issues he encountered during the filming the 70K low-budget film on 35mm including losing footage due to light exposures and cheap film stock and how distributor Independent International Pictures sat on the film for two years hoping to avoid the glut of slasher films at the time, no luck there. There's also mention of the MPAA requesting cuts to get an R rating and the banning of the film in South Africa and meeting Quentin Tarantino. Lastly there is a theatrical trailer for the film, plus an easter egg wherein Russo reveals the artwork for 'Undead', a collection of the out-of-print NOTLD and ROTLD novelizations.

The screener of the film I was sent did not Arrow Video's packaging of the film which includes reversible artwork, a double-sided foldout poster and a collectible booklet with writings on the film by Stephen Thrower, author of 'Nightmare USA', so I cannot elaborate only lament my loss.

Special Features:
- Reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork
- Double-sided fold-out artwork poster
- Collector’s booklet ft. writing by Stephen Thrower, author of ‘Nightmare USA'
- Brand new transfer in the original Full Frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio
- Original Mono Audio
- Introduction by star John Amplas
- Midnight at Your Door: The Shocking Sacrifices of John Russo
- Easter Egg

Verdict: Not a genre classic by anyone's standards but an interesting footnote at the very least that riffs on familiar, even for it's time, horror and backwoods exploitation tropes. Despite Russo's lack of technical finesse the film still manages to be a devious slice of exploitation. If you have the R1 Lionsgate DVD I can't say this is worth an upgrade for picture quality alone but if you're fond of the film and crave features that expand on the production and enhance it's viewing Arrow Video have given the film it's due and then some. This is a definite recommend for those who wanna see it, you know who you are.